I spend eight hours of my week in the undergraduate chemistry labs on the fourth floor of Building 4. If you are not Course 5, 10 with a minor in 5, or premed, I will now share with you a little secret: the labs are disgusting.
The sinks are covered with a thick layer of rust and grime, and signs pasted over the basins warn students not to drink from the faucets. I don’t know why the staff members think I need a sign — even if you offered me all of Bill Gates’s assets, you still couldn’t get me to drink from one of those sinks.
Chemicals are stored in hoods that either don’t work, or have gas knobs that get stuck in the on position when you try to turn them, forcing you to go get Chuck, the stockroom manager, so he can turn off the nitrogen.
The hot plates have two settings: off, and hot, which makes for an interesting overnight heated reaction. We still titrate by hand, and the UV/VIS specs often measure negative protein concentration (in relation to the blank). My lab partners and I have had to repeat experiments several times because the specs gave us such varying measurements that we couldn’t even speculate as to our experimental error.
Last semester, during one of the required lab classes, it took me about seven minutes to rotary evaporate two milliliters of dichloromethane out of a 10 mL round bottom flask. For those of you who aren’t chemistry majors, that’s an inordinate amount of time. And it’s not that I didn’t know how to rotvap; I spent the entire previous summer learning the ins and outs of these simple machines. Keep in mind that twenty people had to do this and there were only three rotary evaporators. As you can imagine, we were bottlenecked.
My guess is that the labs haven’t been updated since the 1970s; we still use an IR Spectrophotometer that requires a little marker pen to trace out the spectrum. That’s right: it doesn’t have a printer. Frequently, the felt tip becomes dry and I have to channel my ancestors to figure out how to insert the new pen, because I (a child of the new millennium) am not trained to fiddle with such archaic machinery.
Perhaps my favorite part of the labs is the scale room. I tared a weigh boat a couple of weeks ago and then transferred some powder using a scoopula. 0.67g, the scale said. Great, except I definitely transferred about 5 g of material. I collected some more in the scoopula and placed it in the weigh boat with the other powder just to see what happened. This time, the scale read negative 0.2 g. Good to know we’re getting accurate measurements, when some professors grade us on yield.
I complain about these things not because I think you want to know them, but because I think you ought to know where MIT’s money is not going. “Where is it going?” you ask. Well, community picnics and holiday hot chocolate gatherings, to cite two examples.
I am saddened and disheartened by the lack of attention to undergraduate needs on this campus. We are an institute of higher learning, and how am I supposed to learn if I’m always getting negative product yields? As one chemistry major said, “If we can’t get A’s because of our negative yields, at least we could get a Nobel for creating antimatter in that scale room.”
I hope so. But, then again, I wouldn’t trust any results that come out of that dump.
MIT, I have but one request: please show the chemistry undergraduate students, TAs, and professors a little love. And if that’s too much to ask, cancel the next community picnic and buy us some new scales.