Dirty jobs in the lab
Published: Apr 19, 2017
It’s not fun to wash glassware, but it has to get done. Instead of letting it pile up, you should take your glassware over to the sink, lather up a basin with some Alconox, scrape out the gunk, and squirt down tarry flasks with some acetone—if there is any.
Of course, there is never, ever any acetone. Why is the acetone bottle empty? Well, inevitably, it’s because it takes a huge amount of time to fetch the acetone jug, get your PPE (personal protective equipment) on, walk out to the warehouse, get the pump, ground the drum, and pump a few liters of acetone into your bottle. None of us wants to spend 15 minutes of our day doing this, and because of that, it doesn’t get done.
I don’t mind fetching the acetone; I actually enjoy it. But there are jobs around the lab that even I avoid doing. You won’t find me fixing our balky HPLC or sweeping out from underneath the laboratory refrigerator.
Why does it seem that, in too many labs, the same people do the same crummy jobs? How can we spread this pain around so that it is a little fairer?
The key work of a laboratory is, of course, the scientific experiments and the data they produce. But so many aspects of keeping a laboratory clean are hidden, and those jobs aren’t very glamorous.
A classic dirty job is cleaning out the laboratory refrigerator. It’s not much different from cleaning out the break-room refrigerator: It’s an awful, grimy job that is both vital and smelly. Hopefully, no ancient items need special safety precautions. After pulling out all the old reagents and the unlabeled vials and flasks, there’s still work to be done dissolving out the various crusted-up compounds and scrubbing out the bottles.
On the other hand, some of these tasks are systemically important. More biologically oriented laboratories often run on liters and liters of buffers that all experiments are run in. Get that buffer wrong and weeks worth of work can be destroyed, often without a strong sense of what the culprit actually is. Didn’t order enough deuterated solvents for an organic synthesis laboratory? The lab will grind to a halt before long, and the workers will begin to either steal from other laboratories or (worse yet) hoard their own supplies. These crucial tasks should be handed out to the most reliable members of the group, those who can be counted on to do their jobs without fail.
Crummy jobs are actually a great way to get to know your coworkers. No one loves the job of inventorying supplies for your lab, but if you make it a job that people do together, it can become one of those moments where you and your fellow scientists can choose to be around each other and collaborate as you count through the stacks of test tubes and bottles of HPLC solvents. I’ve learned a lot about the operations of other departments and just exactly why those analytical results aren’t going to be coming today, changing my impatience for results into sympathy for my coworkers.
When things are tough in the lab, I have a favorite difficult job that I still perform from time to time: changing the pump oil. Vacuum pumps and their manifolds need care and attention. I have always loved this task, and there is a rhythm to it. You pull out the waste oil jug, drain the old oil into the jug, close the drain, and add fresh oil. What is so wonderful about this task other than its simplicity is how revived it can make a pump sound. When experiments are going poorly, it’s nice to be able to make a simple improvement to the laboratory that benefits everyone—just make sure to clean off the pump oil with the right solvent!
And that’s another reason I often find myself at the sink scrubbing beakers and three-neck flasks again with some dilute Alconox solution and acetone. I’ll be scrubbing away with my hands, but my brain is pondering that mystery peak in the HPLC or a new chemical thought that my boss had.
I’d rather not get acetone for the whole lab yet again, but doing the dirty work of cleaning glassware is a great way of getting some deep thinking in.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.