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Four undergraduate students spill the beans on life and chemistry at university.

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So, after a summer of waiting for the inevitable saturday morning text telling me that cricket was indeed off after a monsoon, a week in Belgium drinking beer and generally annoying my (sadly then) girlfriend, probably not really doing enough reading for my part II project and sleeping in a lot more than I really should have, I'm nearly all ready to head back to Oxford for my final year.

The way my course works means that my fourth year is an entire project year which is examined by a 60 page thesis and a short viva. No written exams (YAY!)

This should be fun and somewhat unsurprisingly for those who know me, I've applied for (and been luck enough to get) a project that is organic-y with a biological side to it. This is the stuff I find most interesting and the sort of thing I'll be looking at when I apply for doctorate prositons in the next few months. I've been looking at a few things online recently. It's scary...

It's also really annoying when institutions have really old information on their website (pages for 2011 application, really!?!), it makes my life a whole lot more dificult...
Posted by Gareth Langley on Sep 6, 2012 1:22 PM GMT
I should have posted this a fortnight ago, but nevermind (packing and cricket have conspired to occupy as much of my time as possible since I finished)...

Finals are over and now I'm sat waiting for the results, although the process of organising my stuff into boxes so it can be stored in the loft over the summer is currently occupying my mind...

Nessa is in the states doing a project, which is all very exciting, while I'm home all summer, so will hopefully get myself all sorted and do a little bit of reading ahead for my part II year (provided I pass of course...)

That's about all for now. I have a massive stack of unread chemistry world magazines that need sorting out and won't magic themselves away...

As I haven't done this for a while; a mythbusters video with rockets, awe-inspiring speed and a big smash. Not chemistry, but still pretty cool!
Posted by Gareth Langley on Jun 19, 2012 12:32 PM GMT


See you on the other side?

Posted by Gareth Langley on May 3, 2012 9:30 PM GMT
So, Friday saw my last ever tutorial take place. Nothing special really, just the realisaiton that the big f-word is most certainly on the horizon. I also should be all done with labs by the end of the week (I'm in Monday/Tuesday but have to write it up). I guess the aim of the game is now revision and a big dollop of exam technique seems like a rather sensible thing to do too.

Other than that, I have applied for my Part II (4th year project), which, by pure coincidence, was to the same first choice as Nessa; you'll find out who to and if I was successful in good time I am sure. We are also going to 'options' lectures; the course here has been restructured so that we have 2 exams in I, O & P and then a single paper of the material from this term. We need to anser 3 questions from 16 (one question on each lecture series), so most people are going to 4 or 5 lecture series across the term. This term is the only chance of specialisation we have before next year so it's nice in a way.

So, I guess I'm at the end of the road, but at the start of a new one. Once finals are over I'll start looking for postgrad things; I'm quite keen on a DPhil/phd so I'll start trawling websites...

Cool link of the post:

Posted by Gareth Langley on Feb 12, 2012 10:44 PM GMT
On Friday we got told which 3rd year project we'd been assigned too. I was fortunate to get my first choice, and so I will be playing around with a bit of photochemistry, which I've wanted to do since attending the RSC/SCI Flow Chemistry conference at GSK Stevenage in 2010. Professor Kevin Booker-Milburn of the University of Bristol presented on photochemistry using flow reactors and it seemed like such an elegant way to do chemistry. Obviously it doesn't always work, and there can be a lot of crazy side reactions, but just using just using reagents and UV light, with maybe a little bit of solvent - it's a lot easier than the evil acids, vicious bases and large amounts of heat so often required.

So anyway, here's to photochemistry - looking forward to finding out what it's really like to work with!
Posted by Paul Brack on Jan 30, 2012 7:56 PM GMT
It's amazing how the need to revise affects the brain. All of a sudden I have mad desires to read wikipedia articles about some random actor dude who was in that not very good programme I watched yesterday. Footballers career histories equally become far more fascintating - I've never wanted to know how many goals Dirk Kuyt scored in 2007-2008 as much as I did earlier when cAMP and G-protein receptors were getting me down. Ah well, only er...22 days (I wish I'd never worked that out, it hasn't comforted me as I thought it would) until the exams are over.

We've just chosen our Part C projects and are now waiting to see which one we will be assigned. It'll be nice to get back into a lab again. I'm hoping to get something a bit different to organic chemistry as I feel like I've done a lot of that and that a bit of variety would probably be a good idea. It would be great if the whole chemistry degree was just projects in labs but obviously that will never happen - the workload on academics would be horrendous! For me though it is the best part of chemistry - there's nothing like the excitement and frustration of trying to do something that no one else has ever done before.

It's funny to think how much there is that no one's done before and how easy it can be to make something new. I think I've made at least 6 or 7 'new' (or at least not in the literature) compounds in my brief time working in labs, and probably some more when experiments went horribly wrong. The only problem with them was that they weren't very useful, so no one much cared, which is fair enough really. Novelty isn't necessarily a reason for excitement; functional novelty is.

Anyway, hopefully in my project I can make something functional and novel - who knows? Sometimes chemistry is kind, and it works. Sometimes it's a bit of a beast, laughs in your face, steals your time and eats the lab's money. But when it works, it's a jolly happy moment!!! It's a fun old game to play...
Posted by Paul Brack on Jan 12, 2012 10:23 AM GMT
When I first resumed being an undergraduate, it seemed really weird. Now, seven weeks into the semester, placement has became a distant, happy memory and it feels as if I've never been away. it also amazes me how fast my brain can move the past far into the past and make it seem as if I've been in the present for a really, really long time. However there are a couple of things I've noticed since coming back:
  • I am far more relaxed in lab sessions. I actually feel as if I know what I am doing, and I seem to be hurtling around in a panic because there's only 5 minutes left and I have 20 minutes worth of stuff to do a lot less.
  • My days feel very empty (not emotionally - don't worry, I'm not having a breakdown). It's weird having like one or two lectures on some days and nothing else planned. It's sometimes hard to refind the discipline I had developed in 2nd year to get my work done when I'm at home and avoid the distractions, though I'm getting there. I guess most students don't have a 15 month old son who likes to come up the stairs and play with their NMR spectra whilst shouting 'Duck!!!', but I think we can all relate to the battle against distractions. They're easier to ignore in the workplace, mainly because workplaces tend to get a little irritated if you don't do work...

On the whole, the readaptation hasn't been as difficult as I feared it might be.

Placement application time has come round again, and I'm slightly jealous of some the opportunities out there! Anyone who's considering applying, make the most of them.


Posted by Paul Brack on Nov 18, 2011 12:20 PM GMT
For 7 weeks and 3 days of my 8 week placement, I thought I had kind of failed, or at least not got to where I wanted to. I had made a couple of intermediate compounds, it was true, but my glorious target molecules were still rather non-gloriously unattainable. TLC spots would turn out to be nothing, or just impossible to isolate, lost forever in the silica of the chromatography column. Or nothing would happen at all, which was at least quicker to work-up (as their work up=lob it...into the correct waste bottle, obviously).

Then in week 8, I ran NMRs of some of the very, very small quantities of what I had thought might at best be some sort of desirable product or at worst some starting material that I had obtained from two of the reactions when I left the fractions I got from column chromatography to stand for a few days to evaporate off the solvent. This is a trick my industrial supervisor taught me - as the solvent evaporates, little blobs of whatever is in the particular fraction often appear on the side of the vial, so you can find your products visually even if you can't see them by other methods.

The NMR data showed that the reactions had actually worked!!! YES! The product spots just didn't seem to show up by TLC, or at least not with the stains I was using, or were perhaps just too faint to be visible due to their low concentration. But two reactions had worked - two of the glorious targets were attained!

So even if your products seem elusive, fiddly to isolate, or just don't seem to actually be there - keep at it. Maybe you'll find them tomorrow...

Posted by Paul Brack on Oct 7, 2011 10:08 PM GMT
Well, 8 weeks have gone in a hurry. I'm now stuck with trying to write a sensible introduction to my report that isn't a plain rehash of anyone else's work. And failing. D'oh.

I now have a number of pretty simulations to interpret and leave to the postdocs/phds to run repeats of. There is some cool stuff and I would actually have some results if the big supercomputer hadn't got all hot under the collar on Monday (the water coolers packed up) and subsequently been shut down...

Nevermind, at least I've now been paid; which means a shiny new laptop to get me through the next few years. Hopefully it will last me through my phd (if I do one...).

Third year is now scarily close, which means finals are 9 months away. eek... I better get on with some work towards my degree rather than this silly computational rubbish... Back in Oxford for the open day on the 16th. Until then (or later), it's me out for now.

This edition's youtube offering... What happens when you put a bull in a china shop?
Posted by Gareth Langley on Sep 1, 2011 2:14 PM GMT
We've all had those moments when you wish you could just go back in time and change something. I had one of those on Friday.

I'd been following a couple of literature preps to make some precursor material for the reactions my project is centred on, but the NMR (of the column fractions that TLC said contained product) was giving me a real headache. It clearly contained two different compounds = not pure. AFTER COLUMN CHROMATOGRAPHY. Which isn't really meant to happen...

One seemed to be the product I wanted, but as for the other - not sure. I tried to work out what was wrong. First I checked my lab book against the prep - yes, I seemed to have followed it. Was all the glassware clean? Again, fairly sure it was (these are my usual sanity checks when things go wrong). I could see what part of the impurity compound was, but it didn't make much sense. It had a very different polarity - how could they co-elute?!? I was a little bit stuck until I saw my supervisor on Friday.

He had a look at the NMR - he had an idea of which functional group the mystery compound might contain in addition to the part I'd identified. Then he said 'Do you have the paper that the prep is from?' I got it from my desk. He opened it up and there on the third page was a potential isomerisation product, which matched fairly reasonably with the NMR spectrum I had obtained. Eureka! We knew what I'd made!

Unfortunately, it wasn't that much cause for joy. Turns out that the isomerisation product is generated by acid, and thus this was occurring as my product travelled down the column (silica columns are slightly acidic). To avoid the isomerisation all I needed to do was basify the column first with a bit of triethylamine before I ran the purification. And there we have the 'wish I could go back in time and change something' moment. If only I'd added the base!!! 20 seconds extra labour before I ran the column and I could have been banging on with the next set of reactions 3 days earlier! AARGH!!! (Admittedly 3 days isn't that long, but in an 8 week project, it feels it).

I have now run the reaction again, basified the column and got beautiful, clean and pure product (yes!).

I learnt a fairly important (and with hindsight, pretty obvious) lesson from this - don't get so caught up in following the prep from the supporting info pages that you forget to actually look in the paper itself for answers when problems arise! Always read ALL of the paper - every last word!
Posted by Paul Brack on Aug 10, 2011 1:42 PM GMT
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