Chemistry picture of the week: Organising information

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This is a picture of my real experimental books and the folder I file my spectra in. I have blurred out the text for privacy’s sake — all of my work is unpublished so far, and plastering it all over the internet seems to be a terribly bad idea.

The experimental notebook is a researcher’s most important tool. This is the book we use to record all the facts about our research. In chemistry, that usually involves identities and quantities of chemicals used, time the reaction was heated or stirred and similar sort of details that are crucial to reproducing a result. Reproducibility is, after all, one of the main requirements of science.

Arguably, the experimental book is also the most difficult resource to keep organised, as I’ve talked about before. One method to keep on top of one’s results is to transcribe important features of experiments  into an Excel spreadsheet. For my project, which is currently centered around one material only, a useful organisation method is a “conditions attempted” spreadsheet where I outline the variables changed for each reaction.  Although very thorough, this method has the disadvantage of being time-consuming. Writing the same thing down twice can feel like a colossal waste of time. I can only hope that when it comes to writing my first year confirmation report (yikes!) or even my thesis, having a neat document that displays the “bigger picture” of my work will be useful.

For systems that I have found to work time and time again, I build a separate spreadsheet that keeps track of all the analyses I have performed on that particular system. For publication and one’s thesis, a number of different analyses are important, as I’ve mentioned before. A spreadsheet like this is a straight-forward way to show what data I have and what is missing. Linking the spreadsheet entry to the corresponding data is also a neat way of keeping your files organised.

These spreadsheets are wonderful for having an eagle’s eye view of your research — taking a step back from the messy world of your experimental book. Still, making these spreadsheets requires an easy way to find information in your lab book itself. A universally accepted method of keeping your experimental book organised is to have a consistent reaction numbering system.  In my Honours year, I used a method wherein each reaction was numbered. Toward the end of that year, however, I found that the reaction numbers might occasionally become jumbled in my book and finding the information for a particular one could be annoying, if not difficult. This year, I have elected instead to use the page number method: each reaction is labeled by my initials, followed by the book number, then page number, then a letter if there are multiple reactions on one page. This makes particular reactions extremely easy to find — simply find the correct book and turn to the page indicated.

For further information about particular reactions, I use highlighters. I write fairly comprehensive notes, and often have to go back to old reaction notes to write new observations (crystal growth or lack thereof, new analyses — that sort of thing). The result of these two things is that my pages can get very cramped. Small, but perhaps important notes can then be missed at a glance. Hence, the highlighters. I use yellow as an indicator for a type of analysis (or postsynthetic modification — further reactions on a material) conducted on the product of a reaction. Green is for reactions which were suitable for crystallography. Orange is for overarching observations — often something I have seen systematically through several reactions and have come to conclude about that system in general. This colour coding is very helpful when it comes to looking at past reactions and thoughts I may have had about them that I might otherwise have forgotten or missed.

There you have it: two ways to keep your data organised, and two ways of keeping your experimental book organised. If you would like to share how you organise your data, you can find me in the comments, on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker or by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com

Chemistry picture of the week: Buggy research

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When I talk about bugs in my research, I wish I was talking about software or something. No, the problem we are currently experiencing in my lab is more literal than that.

A couple of weeks ago, I and coworkers in the same section of the lab noticed these black particulates accumulating on our lab bench. We shrugged it off for a week or so, but it soon became a real annoyance. Having to brush little black things off of your precious clean vials, or, worse, having to pick them out from a product you filtered the day before can be, if not detrimental, then irritating at the very least. We observed that the black things were confined to below the large air conditioning vent above our lab benches. We notified the building manager about it. He expressed concern over the situation, saying that it could mean that there is something wrong with the air conditioning. He would have someone look at it.

I turn up to work on the next day, having missed the air conditioning technician who came by earlier that morning. A coworker accosts me: “Hey, have you looked at those black things? Like… really looked at them?” His tone is mischievous and ominous and I’m really not a fan of it. The air conditioning technician had identified the black stuff as thrips — tiny insects that are killed in the air conditioning system but are too small for the filters. As a consequence, our work benches were being rained on by tiny dead insects. I don’t think I really need to qualify that declaration with a record of my reaction. I think that statement — “rain of dead insects” — is graphic enough on its own.

I have to give it to my university: they were very prompt at identifying the issue. The building manager even followed up with the information that Campus Services has agreed to upgrade the filters to stop it.

We are still dealing with the rain of dead bugs, but hopefully not for long — especially since we have recently spotted a few live ones crawling around. And I swear… They’re getting bigger.

You can reach me in the comments, by e-mail on chemistryintersection@gmail.com or on Twitter, where I tweet about daily science happenings as @Lady_Beaker.