Up and Running

Research comes in cycles. Grant winding down? You’re gonna be hitting the bench pretty hard and pretty consistently to get any results you might to impress your funding source with. Logistic milestone coming up (qualifying exams, thesis defense)? Pull up that coffee pot and park yourself for a few weeks.

I just got back from giving a talk for an award symposium at this season’s ACS in Philly. It was a really good sessions full of some big names in the polymer field. I knew that well beforehand, so I had been chalking up some serious lab time to get as much exciting things to show off as I could (and, let’s be honest, to also hit some of the targets I promised in the abstract I submitted months ago). Punch line: I didn’t win the award, but still gave a good talk and had some nice chats. 

Getting back from the conference this week, I’m definitely in a pull-up-a-coffee-pot wave. The pre-conference lab crunch meant that I had been neglecting some of my other projects as well as some of the more mundane maintenance-type work that always needs doing. Plus there’s the all the crazy idea brainstorming and reference hunting involved with the post-conference science digestion. It’s the sort of stuff that is very amenable to the office-side of the research cycle.

I’ve been spending a bit of time reassessing where I parked my other projects before the conference push, accompanied by all the related stuff that goes with restarting them. It’s bit like parking the car with the lights on and realizing you’ve got to track down the jumper cables to get it going again: ordering fresh reagents, redistilling solvents, re-purifying the glove box. Not the glamorous research that gets you into Science, for sure, but rather all the odds and ends that need shuffling behind the curtains.

Since I do a decent amount of air-free processing, the first step back from a week away is to make sure the inert atmosphere glove-box is, well, actually inert (by which I mean no oxygen – that stuff is surprisingly reactive). I’m always amazed at how oxygen finds its way into a seemingly leak-free box sealed with double steel doors, but there ya go.

Hooking up the purge gas to sweep out the oxygen and regenerate the catalyst that captures oxygen.

12 hours later: success! Less than 1 part per million oxygen. For those keeping track at home, that’s about 1,000 times LESS oxygen than you would find on the surface of Mars!

Inert atmosphere regeneration always means replacing the oil in the pumps, so I’ve been at that too. Change the oil on one pump? Might as well do all of ’em while I’m at it. I consider myself pretty adept at pump repair and oil changes. Back a few years ago, our group was running really lean when we were between grants. That meant no service calls or replacements on busted pumps or other equipment. Got a mechanical problem? Read the manual, roll up your sleeves, pull out the wrench, and start breaking stuff. Little known secret: you’ve got to break stuff before you learn to fix it. In the meantime, I learned my way around a pump. It’s been a long running joke among a few of us that if our PhDs ever fall through, we could make a pretty penny starting a mechanic shop. “Master Mechanics”? “The Pump Doctors”? The name is a work in progress.

So after dirtying up my hands pretty good the past few days, here’s hoping to hit the next cycle of lab-bench productivity soon.

I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.

I was placed on diplomatic duty today. We were having a repairman come to fix one of our big pieces of equipment, and the advisor designated me as the coordinator and contact guy for the repair. It was pretty exciting, actually. We’ve had this machine for longer than my advisor’s been here, and it’s since fallen out of service. No one currently in the group knows how to run it, so this was to be my first “training” with it since I’ll be the one in charge of it now. The best part, though, was that it was like the repairman was meeting a long lost friend. Anyone doing research will tell you how each and every machine has its own personality. Some go out of their way to thwart you, some have surprising features tucked in every nook and cranny, and some just need a good kick.

The machine we had was a combined glovebox and evaporator, which more or less heats up a metal until some of gets in the air. Then you stick a future piece of electronics in there and the metal in the air condenses on the chunk and tada! You’ve got a new electrical contact! Part of the setup needs a complicated set of vacuum tubes and valves, which are notoriously individualistic. No two vacuum systems are built the same; usually you build them custom. The stage was set for a full-blown nostalgie session

So the guy, who turned out to be the one who was hired to build it in the first place 15 years ago, came in and was enthralled. He remembered every nut and bolt, how he fit this piece into that piece, how the original test results came out. He was dismayed at how dirty we let it get, but hopeful that he could shine it up. It was a bit touching, really, and he was clearly excited to be coming back next week to finish it.