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Difficulties in Organic Chem. Lab

  1. Apr 2, 2012 #1
    Hi, this is my first post. I'm generally more of a blog/message board reader than a contributor, but there's really been something that has been eating away at me, making it difficult for me sleep at night. (Note: long post coming up)

    Last semester in Organic Chemistry I, I made a huge error, which caused an explosion that had the potential to really hurt someone (no one was hurt, thankfully, because I placed the shield down, as I always do, when I operate that machine). It was on a "TONS-OF-RAM" pressure-exerting device that compresses finely powdered solids into a disk than can be fed into an IR machine. Like some of the lab-related posts I dug up on this website, I am a bit nervous during labs and I do normally appear frustrated and lost. So, all in all, I looked like the lab lackey that everyone felt sorry for last semester. It takes me a tad bit longer to follow instructions, but while I tend to be one of the last ones to finish the lab, I am by not by any means unusually slow.

    This semester, I took steps towards being prepared for labs ahead of time and I am generally comfortable with the labs I am doing. However, my lab instructor and lab assistant seemed to already have me pegged as a disaster case. I am constantly told to "read the directions" in an annoyed tone by my instructor even though the questions I raise are not questions that even my fellow labmates can answer (and asking my lab mates first before approaching the lab instructor is how I know my questions aren't unreasonable). I suspect I look lost and confused because my countenance during concentration is that of a grimace. Consider the following cases:

    1. I was given an unknown compound, different from the ones my classmates received, and the goal was for me to use certain tests to figure out the identity of the compound. I ran a 2,4-DNP test and got a negative for ketones and aldehydes. I continued on to other tests and later asked my professor of my progress. He asked if I heated the 2,4-DNP test tubes and I said no, to which he responded with an annoyed tone of voice that I should "read the directions." So I reconducted the test and discovered the tests revealed a positive. I told him that I really should have followed the directions all the way through and I didn't know why I didn't carry them through: "I was just impatient, I guess" is what I told him.

    A few days later, I realized that I didn't follow through because the lab assistant told me that heating was "generally unnecessary, although you could do it if you wanted," and that (!) was the real reason why I didn't follow through. She didn't contradict the instrutions, per se, but her message suggested that doing so was not the most efficient use of time.

    2. Later on in the experiment I was running the appropriate derivative test to confirm the compound from two possible remaining compounds I had narrowed down. I was doing a recrystallization and I encountered a novel situation of the solution "popping," and a drop of the solution had already bounced out of the Erlenmeyer onto the hot plate (not safe). So I lowered the temperature and considered out loud that perhaps I should drop a boiling chip into the solution. A lab mate sitting near me who I considered to have a better sense of the laboratory techniques (and who had already finished the lab) suggested against it and came up to me and showed me how to control the popping by using a glass pipette and lightly scratching the bottom the Erlenmeyer during heating... only to have the professor come up to me as remark that "this is not how a recrystallization is done." The professor basically sat down and did the recrystallization for me. I stood there next to him looking helpless.

    I am aware that the a recrystallization requires a rolling boil, but I have never recrystallized from a solution that pops out the Erlenmeyer, and in the context of this situation, I lowered the temperature dial for a bit to get everything under control first. The professor didn't even give me a chance to explain. The lab mate who initially tried to help and saw the whole thing basically apologized, but I realized at that moment that while the professor generally assists other classmates with a softer tone, I don't get benefit of a helpful attitude.

    3. Properly reading the labels of a reagent bottle is an important skill in lab. Mistaking one label for another with a slightly different name can have disasterous effects. I misread a label once, and got the same annoyed reaction from my lab professor, only to have someone, who is considered to have superior lab skills by the professor, whisper in consolation that he, in fact, had made the same error (but was not caught).

    The only thing running through my mind right now is that he will continue to find more mistakes if he continues to watch over me EXPECTING to find something wrong. The lab assistant will actually come up and look at the bottle of solution I've taken out to make sure I didn't misread the label. I feel that he scrutinizes me much closer than the others, so of course, he's bound to find something if he looks hard enough and will see less mishaps and errors in others he thinks are doing just fine.

    All in all, I had made it a point to be extra safe this semester by reading the instructions more than once and by asking the lab assistant or professor when I had even the slightest bit of doubt. I just want to note that in lecture, he is one of the best professors I've ever had: kind, understanding, entertaining, and able to teach very well. In lab, however, he is less sympathetic and much more judgemental. (He basically said at the end of the first semester that laboratory isn't my area.) And when I explained that I just needed a bit more practice, and that I let a bit of anxiety get in the way, he responds that there aren't such opportunities for extra practice (read: sink or swim).

    Unlike some of those who admit to being intimidated by lab, my goal is not merely to "survive." This is something I want to do. Lab itself isn't a nightmare for me like a few others have posted. It is the opinions/attitude of the instructor that makes it a living hell. Most people gravitate towards things they are good at, but my interests are not dictated by my general aptitude. And to have a generally easygoing instructor tell me in a serious tone of voice that I just don't have what it takes to work in a lab is quite traumatic. I've heard some say that in terms of lab, you either can or can't succeed, but I refuse to believe that a lab class is different from any other class. If you fail, you'll just have to retake it. I don't think any instructor goes up to his/her failing students, whether it's psychology or english, and tell them that they just don't have what it takes to study that respective field (and I doubt that struggling/failing one class is hardly grounds for the university administration to drop a student from a major).

    Anyone here with advice? I look up to my professors/instructors as life mentors, as well, and when the relationship gets slightly less than amicable, it becomes quite the traumatic situation. And if my social anxiety and lack of affability is the culprit, what should I do? A good friend has told me that my tone of voice comes out as condescending sometimes, even though she knows I am not trying to communicate such a sentiment. So perhaps the instructor feels I am trying to challenge him. But like the speech impediment I also have of lisping, it is not something I can correct if I can't even hear it myself.

    What do you think? Are lab dunces forever dunces? Is one relatively big accident from someone with an anxious demeanor a red flag for danger? How do I convince an instructor whom perhaps have developed a negative opinion of me that I am interested, determined, and serious about improving, especially if he believes that lab aptitude is relatively static?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 2, 2012 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    You are not going to spend your life in this lab, so don't worry too much. Sooner or later you will move to another lab and you will have a chance to start anew.
  4. Apr 2, 2012 #3
    My free advice as someone who did undergraduate research in inorganic chem and has paid experience in a government (not federal) lab.

    1. Why do you want to "do" chemistry? Have an honest conversation with yourself or an objective professor about what your talents are and what your long term prospects are in chemistry. There are lots of things that might be good hobbies but not necessarily good careers.

    2. Don't give so much power to a professor who may or may not care about you. Forget about him. I had a professor once who wouldn't let me reschedule an exam after a friend of mine was killed a couple of days before my O Chem exam. Some people are meant to be forgotten and most of us will meet one or two of these while getting a degree.

    3. Practice fundamentals. Preparation, good technique and a meticulous approach to your work will get your far. Doing the little things well can make all the difference.

    4. Don't compare yourself to other people. Find a good lab partner, work hard and enjoy the subject. The rest will take care of itself.
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