Off to the circus - Advanced Analytical Chemistry

There is a time in my course, which, while hard to identify, I would approximate somewhere in the middle of second year, where the lab work starts to change. To start with, it is very subtle- the lab scripts start having slightly less detail, the guidance becomes less specific, and the practicals go from ‘here’s a thing to do…’ to ‘investigate this’

This becomes obvious in the second term, where there is currently the Wembury Project. This is the only time in the course (not counting placement, of course) where the students go from sample collection to writing up results. And that’s the point I stepped back and realised- I’m not being taught any more. I’m learning by actually doing stuff that is done every day by chemists in the workplace. 

I think this transition is best summed up by one of my lecturers who describes it as the point at which we start to be trained, rather than taught. This brings me nicely onto the analytical circus.

The analytical circus is the (mostly) serious name of the practical side of the Advanced Analytical Chemistry unit. It’s a rota system, thus for my team of 4, (at time of writing) last week we had flame AAS (atomic absorption spectroscopy) to investigate magnesium in (fake!) human urine. This involved making a set of calibration standards, diluting the “urine” into range, setting up the instrument, optimising it for the right wavelengths and to get a clear and noise-free reading, then running the calibration, followed by the samples. 

In all honesty, this is a relatively simple process. The particular instrument used by us has a completely manual adjustment, meaning instead of telling a computer to do stuff, it’s more a case of change something, see the result change and understand why. The demystifying of the “black box” principal, as it is occasionally called- the instrument isn’t a mysterious “black box” where something goes in, and it gives you a reading- I know exactly what each setting does, why it does it and it’s likely effect. And it’s incredibly satisfying to run this, and then get a quantifiable number at the end.

Then when I take a step back, I can see- I wasn’t being taught how to use the instrument. I was being trained, for the instrument and the role of an analytical chemist at a hospital analysing urine and in all honesty, it was a piece of pie!

Next Tuesday and Wednesday I am doing the #ChatWithPlym social media event which is a chance for prospective students to ask questions about University life and their course. Ask me questions at the event and if anyone should ask me my favourite part of the course, don’t be surprised when I get excited about spending 3 hours in a lab looking at fake urine!