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Are there signs that one won't be a good experimentalist?

  1. Apr 21, 2006 #1


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    Is there a possible sign that someone isn't cut out to be an experimental physicist? Throughout my chemistry labs, i've noticed that I absolutely suck at these experiments compared to everyone else. I even had an experiment this week that i absolutely sucked at and wasn't able to get any results down. I tend to be HIGHLY precise in my experiments yet just about as inaccurate in them. I follow these instructions as close as humanly possible and they still get screwed up a lot! I remember doing pretty good in my physics labs in the intro series... but this chemistry series is getting to be a little worrysome. Is it possible that some people are just not meant to be experimental physicists based on God's power to screw up my experiments for me?

    I"m also pretty f'n slow at the chem experiments as well. What's going on here? Is it possible everyone else just sucks but doesn't act like it? I'm going to go break a beaker out of frusteration.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 21, 2006 #2
    Two very bad signs are: 1) unmechanically inclined and 2) a klutz.
  4. Apr 21, 2006 #3


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    You may want to see if you can take an introductory lab course and really closely pay attention to technique. Whether its pipetting, doing titrations, weighing materials, making solutions in standard concentrations, there are right ways to do things and almost-right ways that will guarantee inaccurate or inconsistent results.

    I was always really meticulous in the lab (and did better than in the regular course-work), but I was sweating bullets during my inorganic chem lab final (qualitative analysis). Every student had a numbered vial that had various amounts of some listed chemicals in them and we had to go through all the tests we knew to determine what was in our vial. I had gone through all the tests twice with no positive reaction and had about exhausted my sample, so just before I ran out of time, I wrote H2O on the answer sheet. I got an A, but I was sweating until the grades were announced.
  5. Apr 21, 2006 #4
    Ha, I was an absolute wreck in my chemistry labs. (uchem 1 lab, uchem 2 lab, and organics lab). Most of the time I understood every step in the lab (the purpose and the point) and carefully studied the lab manual before lab and knew how to do all of the calculations, but as soon as I set foot in the lab I froze and got quite nervous. After organic lab I dropped my chemistry major and went back to study electrical engineering and applied physics. I do much better in EE and physics labs. :p
  6. Apr 21, 2006 #5
    I don't know anyone who isn't traumatized after an organic chemistry lab....those things are just evil. If you know exactly what your doing before you go, and are extremely careful they still might not work. I was lucky and made it through with a good grade, and got good results in the labs fairly consistently but omg they were hard.
  7. Apr 21, 2006 #6
    I also was good at understanding the steps and expected outcomes. However if you've never practiced ddoing something like that how can you be good the first time you do it. Of course everyone starts of with different skills and learning curves when they engage in learning something for the first time. But usually people that learn faster or seem to be "naturals" have practiced the same technique in a different form. For example cooking with respect to chem lab, and fixing your car with respect to mechanical intuition. Practice always helps, but usually people practice because they enjoy the activity, its a positive feedback loop. If you don't enjoy the activity you will still benefit from practice, but find it dreadful.
  8. Apr 21, 2006 #7
    Lol, my thesis promotor still can't figure out how to use the overhead projector. He takes this as a sign he made the right choice with theoretical physics :wink:
  9. Apr 22, 2006 #8
    I am so glad that my labs are over for Chem 1 and Physics II. They are so long. I get nervous too. I am planning on majoring in Physics, although I actually am better at the Chemistry labs. I guess maybe part of the reason is because you don't need to work with other partners. I had microbiology and don't think those labs were nearly as stressful. They just smelled horrible!

    Now, I find myself wondering if I shoud major in Chemistry instead of Physics. I get the idea that Chemistry is easier, and I like to read a lot, especially philosophy as of late... I've gotten behind in my reading for school because of it, and am not giving the proper study time to Physics and Calc...
  10. Apr 22, 2006 #9
    Holy cow! I thought it was just the low level chem teachers that were evil, evil creatures.
  11. Apr 23, 2006 #10


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    I don't think he had it in for me personally. He told me later that the samples were made up and identified by one assistant, then renumbered by a different assistant who made a key to correlate the old numbers with the new, then the samples were distributed randomly. The point is, though, that somebody had to get the "sample" with nothing but water in it, and some of the students were doing poorly enough in qualitative analysis that they would have had a melt-down during the final. That was a pretty mean trick. To put things in perspective, you got graded on homework, lecture exams, recitations with assistants, lab work and lab tests. That course was 5 credit hours, and if you flunked it, your GPA would be dismal.
  12. Apr 23, 2006 #11


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    :surprised That must have been scary! I'm glad that the teachers in my school didn't plan a test like that.
  13. Apr 23, 2006 #12
    Haha I once had the pleasure of receive a sample where the TA's had screwed up and put the wrong IR and wrong NMR spectra with the wrong compound.....a compound that was from a different lab entirely and had none of the functionalities that were showing up on the spectra and that we were supposed to be testing for. It was a qualitative analysis lab where we were supposed to be testing for functional groups and then by the results of the tests and the spectra positively identify the compound. That made for a stressful 3 hours.....until at the end when the TA finally realized what he had done...haha.
  14. Apr 24, 2006 #13


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    If either the first or second assistant who coded my lab final sample had screwed up it would have been tough to prove my innocence, and I would have flunked the final. I was getting pretty worried, because students who typically struggled in the lab were finishing up and turning in their results with an hour to spare, and I had still found nothing in my water. :cry: The University of Maine had a pretty tough Chemical Engineering program (at least in the late '60's-early 70's), and the course-work for 1st and 2nd-year students was like boot camp. Party-monsters had either better be really smart or prepare to go home. I turned down a 5-year Pulp and Paper scholarship with guaranteed paid summer internships because I was so sick of the grind. Then, after a couple of years in construction after college, I was hired as (ta-da) a process chemist in a new big pulp mill. When I was being interviewed by the director of the technical department, a junior engineer came in with an emergency regarding capacity limits in the waste treatment lagoons and an upcoming shutdown of the pulp mill that would generate a lot of waste that had to be treated. I pointed out that he had valving and pumping options to store excess effluent in the sludge ponds and then later bleed it back into the aeration basins (along with a nice biological enrichment that would be handy after a severe pH swing killed the good "bugs" in the aeration basins). The director snapped around and said "how do you know that?" and I explained that I had inspected the materials and the application of the materials during the construction of the clay-core dikes in the waste treatment area, including the installation of the concrete, valves, and pipes. When I got home, my wife said "the mill called - your physical is tomorrow and you start Monday." My double-major in Philosophy and English Literature fell by the wayside, as I succumbed to the "dark side". The guy that I beat out for the job had a degree in Chemical Engineering and is smart as hell - he was hired for the next vacancy and we became good friends.
    Last edited: Apr 24, 2006
  15. Apr 24, 2006 #14


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    Actually, that is entirely possible. I used to NEVER get the right result in my quant chem lab. There were just a couple of us who were very careful at every step, and yet seemed to always be really far off in our results. I even went so far as to ask my TA to watch me do every step to find out if I was doing something just a little wrong. For example, when we did titrations, we were told to stop as soon as we saw a little pink (the indicator we were using), yet, when I did that, I got results really far off, while the person across from me was turning his solution nearly purple it was so dark pink, and was getting good results. I thought maybe I'm interpreting "light pink" wrong, or something. The TA watched and assured me I did everything just right and couldn't find anything wrong with my technique.

    I eventually discovered there were TWO sources to my problem. The first was that I was one of the very few people who were actually honest in the class. I caught one of those students who was titrating to purple taking a peek at the TA's notebook that had the amount of each of our samples recorded, and he just fudged numbers until he got close enough to that number. Fudging your lab results is not a sign of a good experimentalist. The second problem was discovered when we ran out of one of the reagents one day and a lab tech was called in to make fresh reagents. There we were, oven cleaning our dishes, drying our samples to get accurate weights, and carefully weighing out milligram and microgram amounts of things to be absolutely precise at every step, and here marched in a lab tech to make our reagents, got out one of those gram balances that is relatively inaccurate, dumped on some of the reagent, "close enough," spilled a bunch adding it to the solution he was making, and the whole class stood there, mouths agape, and one student did have the nerve to speak up, "No wonder we can never get good results! How long have you been the one making our reagents?"

    Lesson learned: ALWAYS make your own reagents. It was the most valuable lesson I got out of any laboratory course. :biggrin:

    A good experimentalist doesn't always get things right the first time, but learns to troubleshoot and discover the source of their error. Discuss this problem with your instructor and ask them if they can find anything wrong with your technique that is giving you bad results.
  16. Apr 25, 2006 #15
    Moonbear is right, honesty is a big problem in labs. In my gen chem lab this semester there were at least 4 people who would bring their friends results who had done the lab earlier in the week to the lab and then just sit there for a reasonable amount of time before they left. Or they would still do the lab but tailor their results to that of thier friend. I always hated it when people did that.
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