Wednesday, October 10, 2007

the OC

Today I will take more time than usual because this post is pretty important to me. So far I may have presented a somewhat skewed picture of reality in this blog and I’m going to fix that right now. I would like simply to talk about work. Yep, you would't know it from the pictures I've taken but I do work. In fact, Kate and I get to have this extended holiday in the sun mainly because of 'organic chemistry'. I think most of you know that I just started a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship doing synthesis. More specifically I take part in a very time consuming, technically exhausting, accident prone, rage-inducing, wonderful battle against nature’s tricky-little-bastard molecules in an endeavour know as the total synthesis natural products.

I will not try to justify or explain my reserach in this post, some of you would fall asleep, but I would like to make a few simple points about my little world because very few people know much about the profession of chemistry, or any science for that matter, and some of it is pretty cool. Fist of all here's a helpful analogy: if we equate the entire world of chemists to the 'American armed forces' then we total synthesis types would be like the ‘naval aviators’. (huh? – you see there are many types of chemistry, and ours is the coolest.) Furthermore, this gentleman would be 'Iceman'. 'Viper' would be this fellow or this one or him or him or one of a number of others, and I guess RB Woodward would then be the Red Baron. (and of course, this guy is Maverick!) Most of the rest of us, myself included, are just nerds. And we’re simply trying not to end up like Goose.

By the way, a chemist can tell that things are starting to look positive for him when he looks down and finds his own name embroidered on his labcoat.

It’s a good thing I have already found a wife.

And if you have any interest in how and why I ended up in this field, here it is (hey, it's my blog :) A lady I once knew named Mrs. McLean is responsible for the fact that CHEM100 at Queen’s went well for me. For that reason I decided to take more similar courses and then, by chance, stumbled into this lab for an honours project. Years earlier, Dr. Lemieux was recruited from a high school in Montreal to some Div 1 school in New York on a football scholarship. He enrolled in general arts (basket weaving and stuff). I may not have the story quite right but I think that a single lab chemistry elective in third year led him to quit football to become a chemist. He is now department head in Kingston and he was a good supervisor. I met some talented students in his lab like Ken Maly that got me thinking about grad school. Dr. Lemieux suggested this guy, and after a bad MCAT essay and bad volleyball tryout, I decided to go get a PhD at Western. My boss, Dr. Kerr is Canadian but chose to do his PhD here and his post-doc here so he has some good 'worldly' stories to tell. He was another good supervisor, the good ones know each other. The Kerr lab was a great place to see and do a lot of different reactions. I worked for four years beside an exceptionally good chemist (Ian, who is now doing his post-doc with 'Iceman' in San Diego). He managed to keep me alive long enough to allow me to become not half-bad at this stuff myself. After a few long years, I found that the compounds eventually started to listen when I asked them to behave. And once the compounds start to behave, well... then you can’t help but like what you’re doing.

That's pretty much it... now I’m here. For many organic chemists a post-doc is a good opportunity to go somewhere new and distant for a few years and grow up (at 29) before either becoming a professor or a pharmaceutical pro (assuming you know what you're doing AND you still like this stuff when you're done). I was lucky to find yet another supervisor that both cares about his students and does quality research. Dr. Coster also travelled far to do his PhD here, then came back to Australia for his post-doc here and now holds an impressive position at a hot new reserach facility at Griffith at only 32… and he has me working on some interesting compounds. I can't really take pictures at work or speak specifically about any compounds because of a confidentiality agreement I signed but I can say that I am very impressed with the lab and working environment. I'm fairly sure that I'm safe talking very generally about equipment and I know that at least a couple of my old lab mates read this and they will apprecaite the following: This lab is RIDICULOUS! We have multiple fully automated Mass Specs and HPLCs and the fastest coolest NMR/robot combo I’ve ever seen and it's all a few feet from my bench… people here often monitor their columns by MS in 96 well plates. Yesterday I dropped in a TLC plate, submitted a proton to the robot, developed the plate, and then processed and printed spectrum in about four mintues total. There are four rotovaps (good, working vaps) within eight feet of my bench, four more another ten feet away. Double manifold, unlimited glassware, walk in fridge and freezer (-20C, feels like Canada), and a LOT of chemicals in the stores. Pre-packed columns that fit into automated solvent pumping thing-a-ma-jigers and fraction collectors… but I can’t do it, it feels like cheating. Needless to say it's pretty easy to be efficient with your time here. (actually, there is no ultra high pressure reactor so K-dog has us beat there, and strangely there are no gas lines)

There... I'm done. I'm sorry about that. That's all that I wanted to say about work. I will try hard to keep this blog interesting for everyone by not talking too much shop in the future... maybe just a little.

And how's this for interesting:... we have been having some storms in the past three evenings that are hard to describe with words. I was told that storms here would be 'electric' and there would be hail but what we saw a two nights ago was on another level entirely. The hail missed us by about 20 km (but apparently my boss' father's car looks 'like a golfball') but the lightning was practically next door. Kate made a solid effort to take some video without getting the camera wet or herself killed… but the best way to describe what we saw is to show you these pictures (taken two nights ago and submitted to the local newspaper by loyal readers and damn fine photographers; I borrowed them from here).


Anonymous said...

You actually have a very interesting field of work. And you are right, you would not have found a wife wearing a chem lab coat with your name on it. I site the conversation we had with Rob re his volleyball pants. Or the one where Alistair informed me at the bar that he had blue blood. Aussie girls just are not impressed by this kind of thing ;)

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