Like me, you may have just finished a summer placement. If you have, congrats and I hope you enjoyed the experience.
I’ve just finished 9 weeks of hard labour at the Queen’s Medical Research Institute, University of Edinburgh, working in the Vendrell group, aiding in the organic synthesis of a fluorophore.
Testing the Waters
The experience was very rewarding, and I feel I accomplished the goals set when I first applied to work there. I wanted to learn as much of the basics as possible and the general protocol of how a project is carried out from start to finish. I’ll be conducting my MChem research project at QMRI, so it was a great way to familiarise myself with the group and hopefully hit the ground running.
There are a few things that have been ingrained in my head while working there over the summer. So, here are my take-home messages from this invaluable experience.
1. There Are No Stupid Questions
An important point! Yes, you will be expected to apply the knowledge that you’ve already acquired in the past few years and put it towards a project of your interest. But you’re also going to learn new techniques and theory that you won’t have covered in lectures or labs yet. So, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor questions that may seem a little simple. After all, this will be new to you, and no amount of background reading can prepare you for the practical side of research which is a whole different ball game! So, if you feel out of your depth, and you probably will, it’s important to remember that all chemists had to start somewhere, even Joseph Black and Marie Curie.
2. The Importance of Lab Safety
If you’re unsure about a reaction, technique or piece of equipment it may compromise your safety and those around you, so play it totally safe! Just make sure you ask any questions you need to before you begin anything potentially hazardous.
The experience of working on a real research project is an opportunity to consolidate your learning, so if your maths isn’t up to scratch (much like mine) then practice it! Health and safety forms for the lab officially require you to record quantities of the reagents you are using, so this can be an excellent way to get the hang of mass-to-mole calculations and refresh your memory on the basics.
3. Experience Comes From Practice
We all walk into the lab with a basic understanding of what to do with certain techniques and procedures, like flash column chromatography, performing a simple TLC plate to analyse a reaction, or filling in a COSHH risk analysis form. All of these things we have done at some point in our undergraduate chemical careers. However, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have said I was totally confident in any of these techniques before this placement. I used to dread purifying a compound by column but now, after listening to tips from my supervisor and carrying out the procedures under his keen eye, I feel like I could do it on autopilot.
KirsopLabs has some great video tutorials for TLC, flash column chromatography and more! So if your placement is organic based and you’re feeling a little rusty, have a quiet afternoon with a cuppa and watch these videos.
…So Don’t Be Afraid To Ask
The placement is yours, so tailor it to your needs as much as you can while still contributing positively to the project at hand. Speak to your supervisor and ask if there’s a reaction going elsewhere in the lab where you can watch or participate. You may find it useful to keep a journal if it helps, with a step by step guide that you can follow in the future, or even write it in your lab book.
4. Everyone Makes Mistakes
As careful as we all aim to be in the lab, mistakes happen. Spillages, breakages, incorrect calculations (courtesy of yours truly) and wrong experimental setup. Learn from your errors and make sure you take advice from those experienced scientists you have the good fortune to be working with – and follow all the basics like keeping your fume hood clean and tidy, labeling all your vials and being extra careful when carrying things in the lab.
When mistakes happen, try to stay calm and be responsible for the situation at hand. You won’t be working unsupervised in your undergraduate years, and there will be someone to help and advise you.
5. Benefit From The Experience
What you get out of your placement is very much dependent on how much effort you put into it. Science is interesting stuff, and it’s good to immerse yourself in getting the best experience, so get stuck in!
The first big bonus is you can slap this placement straight onto your CV, LinkedIn page or your personal blog. Wherever you feel it will benefit you most when applying for a new job, another internship or that Ph.D. that you want!
You can also take the skills and experience you have learnt from the placement and put this into practice in the lab, be it 3rd-year organic labs or your Honours year project. You may find that you know how to carry out a technique that others still have to learn, so thanks to some past initiative and self-motivation, you’re already way ahead of the game. You can finish that column in record time, have a purified product and head home in time for lunch instead of attending that late afternoon lab session to finish off your work.
For me, my placement allowed me to get a head start on the research I will be carrying out next year. A healthy dose of organic synthesis and analysis of reactions using HPLC and TLC, and to finish, a bit of spectroscopic analysis on possible fluorescent molecules. It was a good balance to have, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It makes me feel more confident about starting my Master’s project.
Finally, be confident in your chemistry, practice anything that you don’t feel comfortable with, take the initiative and enjoy yourself!
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