A Proverbial Fork in the Road


I hate knocking on my boss’s door. I hate it even more when I have to beg for money so I can buy a reagent/reactant. Fortunately for him, I’ve been good though in my years as a graduate student (relative to other colleagues). Why buy the acid chloride when we have 3 L of SOCl2 and a kilo of the carboxylic acid? Similarly, why pay $200/night for a hotel room on the Strip in Vegas when we can pay $75.95 on a side street? I call my actions “pennywise”; my wife calls them “cheap.”


The reality of research, especially for a fledgling group, is the almighty dollar. All of the countless columns, long hours and the associated b.s. yields more breakthroughs and, with them, more papers. With more papers comes more exposure; with more exposure comes more money (i.e. for the University, unless you know a damn good IP attorney…à la Robert Holton). So, we work long ours, run numerous columns, attempt to cure cancer, etc., and at the end of the road, what’s left? Typically, a meeting with your boss where he says the following gem: “The American Cancer Society ranked our proposal 6th out of 47. So, I’m glad about that. But they’re only funding the top 5 projects.”

As chemists, we perpetually attempt to improve our standing by spending more hours in the lab, running more columns, washing more disposable test tubes, using other groups NMR time, etc. I’ll drag myself back to point by reiterating the old cliché, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” With respect to our research group, as the money tree becomes less fruitful, I’ve been forced to think outside the box and rely on other methods besides picking up a Sigma-Aldrich catalog. “I’m a synthetic chemist,” I tell myself, “I can make crystal meth in my bathtub if I feel so inclined.” The overall message is pretty clear: why buy it if you can make it?

Most synthesis geeks, are probably familiar with Rochester’s Not Voodoo website—a resource promising to demystify the magic that is organic synthesis. Out of all of the pages, I’m a huge fan of, “Buy it or Make it Yourself.” On this page, scientists are encouraged to vote over whether you’d make LDA or buy it, for example. While most of these reagents are no-brainers to a synthetic chemist with a few years under his or her belt, what about the borderline reagents? Sure, you can buy 9-BBN, or you can make it from borane and 1,5-cyclooctadiene (if your technique is good enough). Are you confident enough to handle as expensive as a task of making Wilkinson’s catalyst, or is it more advantageous to buy it? Would you really derivatize Hoveyda/Grubbs-II or contract Strem to make the water-soluble version?

Though chemists can argue over whether you should buy or make a reagent, I’m surprised at how many of my colleagues favor the catalog to the benchtop. It’s refreshing to open up a brand new bottle of 6-methoxytetralone. But, at what point do you suck it up, make the damn synthon, and save your group $200? My philosophy is simple. While I’m in grad school, learning new techniques anyhow, why not make a reactant if I can?


P.S. My previous readers love to play the game “which one doesn’t belong.” Good luck with this one:

Yamaguchi, Lester, Corey, Keck, Nicolaou, Buchholz


P.P.S. There’s actually 2 that don’t belong.


  1. Money is always a controlling factor. Just today in lab I used ~$1,200 (US) worth of reagents and non reusable materials, no lie.

    To save money (and be less wasteful in general) we do low reaction volumes. We setup everything at low volume and high throughput. A typical reaction will be at most 75 microliters.

    And I am painfully aware of the budget and watch it. While my PI has the funding (and has for a while), because of a state agency issue, they are not releasing the money for another month. I will be working ~6 weeks with no pay, and he will back pay me.

    We make as much as we reasonably can. And because we can not afford to just buy everything, sometimes we make stuff we do not need, and trade it with other labs that have what we need but can not make what we can.

    All that said. This is science. Science comes first.

    So what if you can make everything. Can you make it consistently? Will different people be rotating in and out of the lab? Will they make it exactly the same as you? How is this going to effect your data you compare from different weeks? If you make it and there is 1% impurity, will it matter? Is that 1% impurity going to cost your entire experiment and waste your other reagents? Is it worth ruining your entire experiment over months to years of work to save a little money (and thus waste all the money that went into the other parts)?

    Reproducible and consistent data must take priority over cost and amount of research done. However that is best achieved is what you should do.

    Not all bought stuff is perfect; I have had bad bought reagents before. But, they are typically very reliable, and have a nice guarantee. One experiment was not working, and I traced it back to a bad newly bought reagent (always record LOT numbers!). They paid for the cost of all the other reagents wasted because of there bad reagent.

    And just because it is cheaper to make reagents then buy them, is the time it cost to make them also cheaper in the end?

  2. Our labs are not too dissimilar, with respect to allocation of funds; we won’t be able to access any additional money until August. I wonder if that’s a common trait among all research groups.

    We (my labmates and I) debate this issue at length on a monthly basis. Historically, the time factor rears its ugly head until it’s too late and we can’t buy any more chemicals/test tubes/septa for 2 months.

    I had hoped to come across a paper/reference (preferably unbiased) about “make it or buy it.” A metric would be most beneficial.

  3. Over here the situation’s quite similar. Boss’s piggy bank will dry up in September. 2nd installment of the promised $$ has not arrive. My labmate will be working w/o pay … poor guy. On the buying/making reagent, boss is very generous. Lucky us. But, though we have the financial freedom (sometime), it is hard for us to get the reagent into the country. Acetic anhydride takes ~2months to arrive. Why? Lot’s of red tapes, forms, permits, regulation…. Generally, our stuff will be able to arrive within 1 month or so. Hence, boss like to stock up. Unfortunate for us, there is only 2 synthesis group in my place. Kinda hard to swap chemicals and reagents. So, as you mentioned, work is slow, $$ tree not bearing fruit, KPI not achieve, boss will have to defend our $$ in the commitee meeting. Yeah… it’s the same senario.
    So, bottomline, if we can buy it, we will buy it to save time. If we can’t, we improvise.

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  5. Science isn’t cheap and I’m usually able to convince my superiors the benefits of spending more money to acquire the needed results. But yes, if you’re trying to save money, it’s best to use mini-scule amounts of chemicals.

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