Sunday, July 17, 2016

Undergrad Tech: Remember When?

Recently, I sat with a friend sipping coffee, watching passers-by hurriedly moving from one tall building to another. Remarks drifted back towards research - as they're wont to do when chatting with chemists - and she said: "Remember how hard it was just to order things?"

I knew exactly what she meant. Lab tech changes quickly, and you may not even notice until you take a step away from the bench. I'm not part of the generation who spent hours sketching molecules by hand from a rubber template pre-ChemDraw, but nor am I a grad student in the era of tablet computers that can access PDB or Aldrich from a free wireless connection in any lecture hall.

Maybe I'll take a quick stroll down memory lane to see how different things really were when I first started undergraduate research...

Planning: Then, as now, most projects kicked off using pen-and-paper or chalkboard sessions; whiteboards were in about 30% of classrooms and gaining ground, but my first experiences with drawing molecules for my coworkers covered my fingers in tacky powder. I can still smell lab chalk: musty, earthy, sometimes tinged with a faint amine odor if stored too near the reagents cabinet.

Courtesy of Dr. Freddy, at Synthetic Remarks, who seems to recall
chalkboards much more fondly than I.

Once you'd had the discussion, you transcribed it into a lab notebook - usually bound with black vinyl, perhaps featuring brown or maroon faux-leather accents and a bookmark string - and signed the page. Then it was time to dive into the literature. First, you staked out some territory at one of the few hulking beige monitors attached to your shared lab computers. Plan for coffee, since reboots and blue-screen crashes could usually be expected to last 10 minutes, with accompanying Windows jingles or goofy Mac cursor wheels.

(Why were operating systems always a generation behind on shared computers?)

Your 10-minute excuse to go grab a coffee.

Beilstein and SciFinder both offered installed systems with single-user seats. This meant you walked down your lab hallway, shouting "Does anyone need anything on SciFinder?" before logging in. The user interfaces were very Internet 1.0 - muted grey windows, inscrutable black text, fuzzy structures. Mostly, you would up transcribing the reference into your notebook alongside the idea. To get the paper, you usually brought a stack of dimes down to the reference library, and spent the next 20 minutes finding and then copying (don't forget to rotate every other page!) the journal article. The still-warm, toner-scented stapled copies were lugged back to your wooden desk to be pored over until evening. My fingers would often be tinged with more than one color of highlighter or colored pen after a night of intense study.

SciFinder Scholar, 1999. Source:

Synthesis: OK, you know what you want to make, so you need some reagents. Maybe first you glanced through the 2,000-row Excel file your lab has as its de facto "inventory" system. I remember some groups also had a dog-eared, yellowing notebook dangling from a rope of masking tape that listed all the chemicals no one needed any longer - hope you enjoy distillation! Failing these approaches, the trusty catalogs are all lined up against the single lab window, effectively blocking out 20% of the available visual real estate. Names of vendors I remember included Fisher, VWR, Aldrich, Sigma, TCI, and Columbia. Each one had different account reps, pricing, and delivery specs; you'd better believe your boss would ask if you looked up pricey, boutique reagents in more than one source. Someone had the lab job of calling these vendors every few days, providing the lab P.O. number or group credit card, and then taking delivery later that week. Collections of cardboard boxes large and small would be piled near the front door, and every week was Christmas (even if it was just your reagent-grade TEA).

The first and last physical Aldrich catalogs I remember ordering from.
Source: Alfred Bader, Sigma-Aldrich
At some point, you'd have everything needed to run your experiment. Hours passed, TLCs ran, and you scribbled long-hand in that same lined lab notebook. I'm fairly certain I spent thousands of hours hunched over, detailing exactly how the workup went, or scrawling single-line corrections (with initials!) for changes and errors.

Analysis: Instruments fell largely into two camps - things you ran and printed out to later affix into 3-ring binders, or numbers on an LED screen you hastily scribbled onto a Post-it note. UV-Vis and optical rotation fell into this latter camp; I still smile whenever I see a forgotten, tucked-away bookmark reading "+8.75 deg."

I worked in lab right at the death knell of chart-recorders - little red pens in threaded holders that traced a curve based on numeric readouts from an IR or GC. NMR, graciously, always emerged on an ink-jet printer in the corner of a sub-level lab. I was a Bruker shim-jockey for quite a while, bragging that I could shim, acquire, FT, pick, and integrate an 8-scan 1H in under 2 minutes. Of course, many academic labs now have robotic cherry-pickers and automatic data transfer, which must save tons of time (unless you're a biophysicist or monitor kinetics; we might as well chain you to the 600MHz).

Source: Cal State LA / Bruker Instruments

Presentation: My first lab group still owned an overhead transparency viewer, and we were encouraged to print or sketch acetate slides each week for discussion. As these smudged easily when warm or done hastily, there were many grumblings and thrown elbows at the photocopier from fellow labmates on group meeting day. PowerPoint was reserved for "big" talks - oral exams, defense seminars, or preparing a poster for ACS meetings. Once saved and laid out the way you wanted, these were burned onto a CD-R or stored on a 100MB USB flash drive your boss might loan you. The walk to FedEx felt tense, because you didn't want to lose this uncomfortable piece of plastic, which contained the only copy of your slides.
Just don't write on the glass itself, or the PI will get really angry. Trust me.
Source: Amazon

I'm sure that I'm missing more fun events from lab life and technology from the late 20th century. Readers, if you have a special memory from back in the day, please feel free to share it in the comments. I'll update the post if I've missed something vital.


  1. Last I checked, MIT instrument facility is still partyin' like it's 1999...

  2. And printing 35mm slides, yellow text on blue background to discover a mistake the first time you loaded them into the carousel and making sure you had the correct order of the slides in the carousel...

  3. Well at least that was before Helvetica (or Gill sans, watch out everyone, we have a rebel), "soft colors," (pastels that are indistinguishable on many projectors) and "activation modes" (or whatever other buzzword you want to invent) came into vogue...I pine for the times when people cared about giving good talks instead of all this cookie-cutter branded garbage

  4. Scifinder you young whippersnapper! We used to spend whole afternoons browsing volumes of Chem Abstracts, writing done references (inevitably wrongly requiring a research) just to track down one synthesis.