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What’s That Smell?

March 24, 2010


Hope everyone enjoyed yesterday’s Texas Tuesday. Remember to keep sending questions! We’d love to hear from y’all. In fact, I’m surprised we haven’t had a question along the lines of, “What is your least favorite college class?” Maybe it’s too easy of a question. One class definitely reduced me to tears more than any other – chemistry lab.

It was scheduled for a general lecture every Monday (50 minutes) plus the lab every Tuesday and Thursday (nearly 3 hours each). Count up those hours. Almost seven. That’s not even including outside work. And how many hours of credit did I receive? TWO. Maybe I was already a little prejudiced against it. However, they also made us work on our own for every experiment! That was a little out of my comfort zone. I’m not really a fan of heating up explosive chemicals without a friend to talk to. Plus, the work was beyond precise. If the correct answer was 0.00078 mol/L and you put 0.00081 mol/L (those are VERY small numbers in case you didn’t notice), you could already expect your grade to drop to a B.

So I thanked my lucky stars when I finished that class with an A. However, being pre-med means the bus doesn’t stop there. This semester I have organic chemistry lab. People reassured me that I would like it much better. It’s less about being precise and more about understanding the concepts. Better yet, you get a “hood mate” (the person you work with throughout the semester). And they were right. I have enjoyed this lab a lot more than the other lab (minus the first day of lab…. those never go well in my experiences).

Everything was going perfectly until this past Monday during lecture. My lab partner texted me the following:

“At the end of class, don’t run off. I need to give you the lab key. I have to make up a test and the only time they will let me is at 9 am :(”

Oh she wasn’t the only one feeling “:(” at that moment. This was the one thing I was hoping to avoid all semester…. working by myself. Didn’t I escape chemistry lab for that reason? Hadn’t I been rejoicing having a partner all semester long? And she was leaving me??? Cue hyperventilation.

Even better, here is my teacher telling us about how to be extremely careful tomorrow because the substances we will be dealing with are highly TOXIC. They’re hoping to use a safer method next semester. Oh swell. I’ve always wanted to work with toxic chemicals that could kill me. For those of you who are science majors, we were converting benzaldehyde to benzoin. The problem is that some benzoic acid may have built up, and if you don’t remove it from your solution, you could produce hydrogen cyanide. If that doesn’t ring a bell, look it up on Wikipedia. You’ll see the words “extremely poisonous” and how it smells like bitter/burnt almonds.

Yep. I was nervous. I did as much pre-research as I could before the lab but that didn’t prevent the knots in my stomach. I came to lab the next morning having said a couple prayers. The first step was to wash away that benzoic acid (aka “the enemy”). So I put the benzaldehyde in my vial and added the KOH and water. What’s that smell? Something smells sweet…. like cherries… or it could be almonds…. OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO DIE! Oh did I forgot to mention the characteristics of benzaldehyde? You can Wikipedia that one too, and you’ll see the words “pleasant almond-like odor.” Okay so somehow I missed that in my research. I convinced myself that if I wasn’t going to die I should at least move forward in the lab.

I “refluxed” (the fancy word for boiled) my benzaldehyde/ethanol/cyanide solution. After 40 minutes, I took it off the hot plate and let it cool to room temperature. At this point, the lab T.A. is probably worrying about if I’ll blow up the lab or not. So she comes to check on me.

Now there is this funny contraption on top of my vial called a jacketed condenser. It has the vial (with my solution) at the bottom and two arms coming off its side. You connect a tube to the top arm and the water valve. You connect a tube to the bottom arm and let it drain in to the sink. The idea is that you have water running through this contraption keeping it cold. So when the solution is boiling, the fumes come up and “condense” back down. Well I left this thing on while I let my vial cool. The TA decides my vial is cool enough and suggests that I proceed to the next step. The neat thing about this contraption is that it is sealed at the bottom in such a way that the water doesn’t come gushing out even if you remove the vial.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said if one of those hoses comes undone. My TA tries to take my vial off the condenser….. and one of the tubes is knocked off. Suddenly water is spraying all over the table, floor, my flasks, etc. A girl at the next hood quickly grabs a beaker to catch the water as my TA furiously turns off the water valve. I look horrified at my product. The precious container I just spent the last hour preparing. The top isn’t on. All that hard work wasted??? God clearly had a moment of mercy because my TA reassured me that the product hadn’t been ruined. Whew! After I cleaned up the lake surrounding my hood, I proceeded through the rest of the lab.

Oh I could tell you about my other horror stories. Such as how badly my hand was shaking trying to retrieve my product from the oven (I have this absurdly intense fear of that thing burning me). I nearly knocked my product all over the floor. Or how the TA’s were trying not to laugh at how much glassware I had to wash at the end of lab (I accidentally used way more than I needed. Probably double the amount everyone else used…. and everyone else had someone to help them wash). But the point of my story is that I survived. I wasn’t even the last one to finish. I was able to synthesize the necessary product for Thursday’s lab (it builds on yesterday’s lab), and I did it without a lab partner.

I won’t lie. I’m looking forward to having a lab partner again on Thursday. But sometimes life offers us the chance to prove to ourselves that we are more capable than we thought. And sometimes we have to learn to embrace those moments as scary and nerve wracking as they are. Next time, I just hope it doesn’t involve toxic chemicals!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Judi permalink
    March 24, 2010 8:19 am

    It’s like pre-med Lucy!

  2. March 24, 2010 3:44 pm

    That’s totally opposite for us. We had lab partners in general chemistry lab, but not for o chem or q chem. How are you just now taking o chem?

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