Observations on ‘Grad School’

May 31, 2008

I have some free time on my hands (okay, a lot of free time, something I should definitely take advantage of while the picking is ripe!), so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on grad school. Considering that my regular readership consists of about 1 college aged student (plus or minus 3), I don’t see this being very useful to anyone. But at least it will allow me to consolidate my thoughts and leave something for me to look back at in a few years when I’m actually in grad school (hi, future self!).

The very first idea that struck me Tuesday (that was the first real day of this REU program, when I actually met formally with my research advisor and grad student mentor) was that if this is what being an adult is, I don’t want to grow up! Not like I have any other options, but still. In a talk that day, one of the professors (a physical chemist, no less!) warned us that we should expect to work 80+ hour weeks. This after we all thought this was going to be some sort of 9 to 5 type gig. At the time, that scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, I don’t like staying in one place for ONE hour at a time, now you’re telling me I have to stay somewhere for 12+ consecutive hours. That just blows.

But it turns out that his estimate of time is probably a little extreme. At least, it seems to be for my group. My professor basically told me that this summer is meant to teach me something about the field I’m working in (polymer chemistry), get me some experience doing the actual lab work, and possibly get a paper out of it (ha, that would be nice). No pressure, which is much better than ’80+ hour a week!’ man.

So, with all the nasty stuff out of the way, what are some things that I’ve noticed about research so far? The first and foremost is how interesting it is that an idea that sounds so interesting in theory could turn out to be so dull to prove in the lab. But for me to go on, I suppose I should give you some sort of idea of what I’m working on. So here it goes.

I’m working (for now) with the polymer Poly(N-isopropylacrylamide), or PNIPAM for short [even shorter if you pronounce is ‘n-aye-pam’]. It turns out that, because of the unique structure of this polymer (it has both hydrophilic amide and carboxy groups as well as the hydrophobic isopropyl group), PNIPAM goes into solution below 30 ºC [around room temperature] but crashes up when the temperature is raised above that point (that temperature is called the lower critical solution temperature [LCST], for obvious reasons). This means that PNIPAM is a ‘temperature sensitive’ polymer and might have some interesting applications in solutions chemistry. I don’t know what those interesting applications ARE yet, but hopefully I’ll figure that out soon enough!

Anyway, that’s the exciting part (which you may or may not agree with!). The dull part is what I actually do in lab ever day. I’m looking at the effects of salts on the LCST. Basically, some salts cause PNIPAM to crash out at higher temperatures or lower temperatures. Right now, I’m looking at sodium thiocyanate and sodium sulfate, which are basically at opposite ends of the crashing out spectrum (which, if you’re interested, is itself called the Hoffmeister series). To do this, I’m making up tons and tons of 400 μL solutions containing PNIPAM and one of the salt. Then I take 10 μL of that solution, put it into a capillary tube, and melt the top of the tube in to remove the hole (don’t want the solution leaving!). Finally, I put the tubes in a melting point apparatus (an automatic one, thank god!) and have it measure the ‘clouding curve’ of the solution for 20 minutes or so (think of the clouding curve as an S-shaped curve with intensity along the Y-axis and temperature along the X-axis that tells you when the PNIPAM has crashed out).

On the plus side, I get to use a Bunsen burner. On the minus side, I’m basically making up 20 or so solutions a day, and then taking a day+ to measure their LCSTs. Right now, I’m starting to work on mixtures of salts, to see if their effects are additive or synergistic.

Enough about the specific research, now back to basic principles. One of the weird things about research is that you go from being a passive learner of science to an active pursuer of information. From learning to making. What a giant distinction. I feel like it’ll probably be easy to get lost in the minutia of the field. I don’t know if that fits my tastes. I like to learn about broad swaths of things at a time. That’s why school has worked so well for me.

And now to another random observation: while here, all the REU students talks about chemistry. All the time. It’s kind of weird. I’ve never really been somewhere where the number one topic of conversation was chemistry. I guess it’s the one thing that we all have in common. I surmise that as time passes, we’ll start to talk more about normal things…

Another random observation: when you get to grad school, the question ‘where are you from?’ no longer means ‘where were you born and grow up?’ but rather ‘what college are you from?’ Which makes it unfortunate that I have to answer Ursinus, because people in PENNSYLVANIA haven’t even heard of us. Forget about Texas!

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. I sure did ramble on. But hopefully you’ve found this mildly interesting, if nothing else than as a case study of one individuals entrance into the world of (pseudo)grad school.

Now I’ve got to find a way to entertain myself for the rest of the night and tomorrow. No small feat when it’s 90 ºF most of the day and into the night. Eliminates a lot of possibilities…



2 Responses to “Observations on ‘Grad School’”

  1. dave in the west said

    Haha… not feeling the lab work? Well at least you won’t be spending 80+ hours a week in there. That would have sucked major balls.

    At least if you weren’t being paid hourly.

  2. Mrs. O said

    ” I feel like it’ll probably be easy to get lost in the minutia of the field.”

    Very true, day-to-day research is all about the minutia of the field, and it’s easy to miss the big picture. But, if you have the personality/mentality to always remember the big picture, that’s where you get ahead of your peers. I find that is one of my weaknesses- I focus on an individual experiment for so long without stepping back and seeing how it relates to the field in general. But if you enjoy that aspect, fitting your little pieces of information you glean from experiments into a bigger picture, you’ll go far.

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