Working in a synthetic organometallic chemistry lab is a bit like the part in the Great British Bake-off where the contestants are told what to make and given all the ingredients but no recipe. Sometimes the cake is a success but sometimes it is half baked or a flop. When you are baking however, the worst that can happen is a burnt cookie or melted ice cream. In a chemistry lab, the stakes are higher and the ingredients much, much smaller.
I spent this summer working in a lab at Brown University and had my fair share of failed reactions, spilt vials and yes, one explosion (sodium borohydride and methanol definitely don’t mix). But just like the contestants on the Great British Bake-Off, my lab mates were supportive rather than competitive and showed me that things rarely go exactly as planned. This summer I learned that research is not a matter of doing something once and it working, but a long series of trial and error.
My research this summer focused on developing biodegradable polymers. In other words, I worked on making plastics that are not environmentally persistent and instead break down naturally over time into harmless components. I spend 90% of my time in the lab working with chemicals, synthesizing a catalyst that causes the polymerization reaction to proceed. Each day involved a different step in the synthesis and when a reaction needs extra attention I was required to adapt. Knowing what needs to be done to correct impurities in a compound or understanding what caused the reaction to go the way it did is a skill at the heart of chemistry research and one that can only be learned through experience. The sheer amount of time spent working and learning in lab is what made this experience so valuable to me.
At the end of each day I could not tell if my head hurt from the chemical fumes I was accidentally inhaling or from the amount I had learned that day. I remember at the beginning of the summer hesitating before each pull of the pipette and asking a graduate student to watch me. I had to give myself a 15 minute pep talk the first time I used a pyrophoric compound (google the definition and you will understand) but by the end of the summer a two minute pep talk was enough. I consider that progress! Not only did I learn how to handle air sensitive compounds, I also gained experience presenting my work in front of the group at bi-weekly group meetings alongside the graduate students. This taught me to review my experiments with a critical eye and articulate what the results meant.
In January, when I was researching possible summer opportunities I gravitated toward positions where I could get research experience, but not any specific area of chemistry. In the end, this broadened my options. I live near Providence, RI where Brown is located, so I looked at the research going on there, and sent out an email with my resume. I was quickly put in contact with Jerome Robinson, whose research is at the intersection of inorganic, organic, and materials chemistry with an overarching focus on Green Chemistry applications. There is increasing public awareness for the need to develop renewable energy sources and environmentally friendly compounds, and the scientific community is responding. It is so exciting to be part of research that is relevant and in high demand!
I worked alongside five graduate students and four undergraduate researchers. It was the perfect learning environment for me because I had a great degree of independence while also having others around to ask questions, offer advice when faced with a daunting reaction, and cringe at a particularly foul smelling compound. While discussing our experiments, we also compared future plans and I heard from the current graduate students about their experiences. By talking to my peers as well as my professor, I have learned about the graduate school application process and how to prepare myself. I also had the opportunity to present a poster of my research at the Brown Summer Research Symposium.
I went into this summer hoping to gain research experience, and I left with so much more! Not only have I strengthened my technical lab skills, I have also furthered my passion for chemistry. Without the summer experience fund I would have not been able to devote myself fully to my work in lab. I am so grateful for the funding I received as it allowed me to work full time in the lab without having to get another job!