Articles by: Lotta

Summer in the laboratory

Dear Chemistry-Blog,
As a new contributor to this lovely forum, I feel a small introduction is in order. I am Lotta, a Swedish recent PhD in Inorganic Chemistry who is now trying to get accustomed to post-thesis existence. As we have just entered July, I thought that for my first post, I’d give you an idea of what university life in the summer is like in my native country.

Swedish citizens are blessed with very long summer vacations. Most people take around six weeks of holiday per year, usually during July and August. In theory, university employees are no exception. In real life however, this is usually what happens: Around June 21st, we celebrate the summer solstice and after this date, things quickly grind to a halt. In the beginning of July, professors usually disappear from the university halls, not to be seen again until mid-August. This does not necessarily mean that they are not working, but this is conference season, or an excellent time to retire to a secluded spot to write that book chapter you never get around to during term time. Similarly, administrative and technical staff disappears off the map, leaving behind e-mail auto replies informing you that they will be back on August 24th and wishing you a pleasant summer. This leaves only grad students and post-doc, who roam free in labs and hallways [1]. The first couple of years of your PhD, you initially get the same giddy feeling as when you’re left home alone by your parents in your early teens. You’re free to order expensive starting materials your advisor would not approve of, play computer games and take extended coffee breaks. You triumphantly plan all the work you will get done with no teaching, courses or meetings distracting you and imagine how you will wow your advisor with amazing results on his/her return. However, you quickly realize that summer in the lab is not all it’s made out to be. As soon as you run in to a problem (a bill that needs to be paid, an instrument that needs repairing, a conference poster that needs printing etc.), you can guarantee that the person who normally takes care of it is on holiday. All you are left with is that frustrating e-mail auto reply, a phone that’s not answered and a growing sense of despair. On top of this, summer is the time when the weather start wreaking havoc with your research. Rising humidity and temperature make sensitive syntheses and measurements go awry, heavy rains cause ceiling leaks right over the chemicals storage (= a world of bad news), thunder storms cause power outages which in turn make instruments break down. And, you’ve guessed it, technicians are on holiday. In summer of 2010, my lab had to resort to using melting point as our main method of compound characterization after all the NMR machines in the building broke down. I could go on, but I think you get the my point. In the end, your advisor returns, and you since you’ve spent most of the summer banging your head against the wall instead of producing that amazing piece of research, you are tempted to lie and just say that you went on holiday too.

[1] It is worth mentioning that PhD students are entitled to five weeks of holiday too, but a lot of people choose not to use them since they a) feel they are expected to work, b) are trying to show their passion for science to their (absent) advisors, c) have to finish their thesis. People in the middle of their PhD are generally smart enough to actually take advantage of their holiday.

Summer in the lab postcards:

Post-it reading “Ants in the machine” on coffee machine.

Ice machine serving as beer cooler. A relatively common sight on summer Fridays.

By July 9, 2012 1 comment Uncategorized