Chemistry Blog

Jan 11

Sodium Chloride

(for other entries in the Chemistry in Space series, click here)

The below picture is of sodium chloride crystals.  I’ve made them dozens of times in left over aqueous layers that have been in my hood so long that all the water evaporated.

Crystalline sodium chloride is one of my favorite crystals to grow.  Very easy (although it takes a while), the crystals can get quite large and beautiful.  And they have the characteristic X running through them.  Especially awesome to me, because I did my undergrad at Xavier University.  It’s nice to know that even my chemistry loves XU :)

What makes this picture so cool, though, is the crystals were grown in space.  The picture is from NASA’s Image of the Day.  The crew aboard the International Space Station‘s Destiny lab grew the crystals in a water bubble as part of the program to do chemistry in space.  From NASA:

Looking for all the world like a snowflake, this is actually a close up view of sodium chloride crystals. The crystals are in a water bubble within a 50-millimeter metal loop that was part of an experiment in the Destiny laboratory aboard the International Space Station and was photographed by the Expedition 6 crew.

Space has long fascinated me, and I’ve been trying to get the info and motivation to start a miniseries on chemistry in space.  So I guess today’s IotD is a good way to begin.  Stay tuned over the next several weeks to hear more about awesome chemistry in space!

Jan 10

The Hidden World of the PostDoc Interview

I thought I knew the process involved in a postdoc interview, but it is a unique experience that people don’t share enough.

Lesson #1
The one thing that was never made clear to me is that you should have an hour long talk ready to go. I was asked the night before my interview if I would be willing to give an institute wide 1-hour seminar while I was there. Unfortunately for my own professional development I politely chickened-out; I have some ACS talks of 20-25 min length but nothing prepared that would tell a cohesive story for a whole hour. Other postdocs that I have seen interview at Berkeley usually give a talk to the group they want to join, but not the big seminar talk.

Lesson #2
The interview is all day long. My day started at 9:00 am with a meeting with the professor I contacted followed by a presentation to his research group of my thesis work. Afterwards it was 1-on-1 talks with his postdocs and a lunch with the group. Which is what I expected. After lunch came meetings with the other professors in the department, an aspect of the process that I was not expecting and was more under prepared then I would have liked to be. The final meeting of the day was with the professor I initially contacted followed by more specifics on what aspects of his work was most interesting to me. The whole process ended after 5:00 pm with an early dinner.

Lesson #3
You need to wear a suit. Fortunately my friends got that into my head before the interview.

Lesson #4
The last step in the process is getting the funds. I need to apply for a fellowship to get started, but as the institute manages the fellowship program I am applying to, I was told not to worry too much about getting it.

The whole day went well, and I look forward to that next step in academia. If anyone else has gone through this process please share your experience in the comments.


Dec 22

Funny Flasks

During a recent group clean up, I came across these gems drying in an oven.  No one knew where they’d come from or how we obtained them:



Looks like the glass blower just capped some broken-off joints to make tiny flasks.  Although, I gotta say, if you’re going to do chemistry on that small of scale, why not just grab a 1 dram vial?

Merry Christmas, all!  Safe travels and well wishes in the new year :)

Dec 15

Silly Find from the Internets

Not much today. I saw this earlier and remembered having one of these moments back in G-chem that made me want to break the stupid buret. Actually, that happened on the last day of the semester, during checkout, after I washed it and was walking to the stockroom to return it. I forgot how long the damn thing was, and as I was walked out of the lab the door closed on it, cleaving it in two.

Why was this necessary for us learn in lab? Would have been much more useful to teach us how to make an electronic one instead.

Dec 13

Dissolution is the solution to pollution?

The machine that eats human bodies

The machine that eats human bodies

Want a solution to cremation pollution? In the 9th annual “Year in Ideas” issue, the New York Times Sunday Magazine covers a new Scottish company that wants people to “resomate” human remains as opposed to traditional cremation.

The company’s web site mentions that resomation “uses less energy than cremation and produces significantly less CO2 and avoids putting mercury and other harmful contaminants into the atmosphere.”

How does this work? According to the NYT: “The corpse is placed in a pressurized chamber. The vessel is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide, creating a highly alkaline solution, and heated to 330 degrees. After about three hours, all that’s left are a soft, white calcium phosphate from bone and teeth and a light brown primordial soup of amino acids and peptides.”

Huh. Even though it’s kinda grody, I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. Will alkaline hydrolysis be your body’s ultimate fate?

Dec 07

One semester down, 11(+/-3) to go…

On the day the first snow arrived this winter, I wiggled into a glove box for the first time since my sophomore year. I was 19 then and 22 now. I am 2300 miles from home in a very, very cold place where I pay my own rent and car insurance.

I will finally finish my first semester of grad school in a week. It’s weird to think that I had just driven cross country to this cluster of red brick buildings in the middle of a corn field not too long ago. Today I did my first synthesis in grad school, which earned today a blog post of its own.

Here are some of my random thoughts and lesson learned from my first couple of months of grad school:

  1. The midwest: I was and probably always will be a Cali girl. But so far, the lack of a coastline, mountains,  or any civilization beyond the city limit really haven’t bothered me yet. I love the humidity in the summer and watching the leaves turn color.
  2. Classes: This semester, I took advanced group theory and a matsci class. I find these interesting but not very difficult (probably true: MS = More of the Same). Taking graduate-level courses in my senior year definitely helped. I probably didn’t spend nearly as much time on these as…
  3. Teaching! I teach an honors genchem course. I love my students (all 80 of them!… ok, most of them)  and it’s a ton of fun to teach. I like that I can be a teacher and a mentor, since most of them aspire to do something relating to chemistry. I also learned that I should never have children of my own. Why bother when I can have college-aged ones that I can return to their respective parents when I get sick of them?
  4. Research: We spent a lot of our first semester getting tours and meetings to decide whose research group we will be married to for the foreseeable future. I haven’t gotten to do a lot of work in lab yet, but so far I think what I saw in undergrad and a little bit of the post-bac life about grad school is rather accurate.
  5. Stipend: If I haven’t griped to you about this already, here it is– many of you know that I took a pretty significant pay cut (I get paid about 2/3 less now than my previous job) to go to grad school. The thing about not living in California though… I live very comfortably on my paycheck. If anyone is thinking about grad school, that should be a major consideration to make (cost of living vs stipend).

Take home lesson to those of you who are thinking about graduate school: observe grad students and ask questions. Do the math on your budget. There is more to it than the ranking. After all, you are putting 6 years of your early 20s on the table, wouldn’t you expect a little more from yourself in return?

Happy first synthesis day to myself. A glass of Livermore Valley merlot for the many more reactions to come and fires to put out.


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