Monday, January 16, 2012

I Am a Scientist! - part 2

I am a scientist. Here is me pretending that life in lab is just as I had imagined it as a child...lab coat, frizzy hair, flasks of colored solutions, smoke, and all:

Erlenmeyer flasks are my favorite piece of laboratory glassware.

Here is what lab is actually like most of the time...hunched over a desk, reading papers, trying to understand what the results of my experiments mean and what I should do next:

Sitting like this at your desk will destroy your back.  Trust me!

Realizing that a scientific life only occasionally involves crazy explosions and bright lights was initially disheartening. However, I have enjoyed making discoveries and doing things nobody else has done before. For example, I was the first person on the planet to make this molecule.  Wild, right?!

This didn't exist before I made it!!

The best thing about being trained as a scientist is that it has allowed me to more fully understand and appreciate the world around me. I started this blog in part to share that sense of wonder, and it has allowed me to learn-about/write/share all sorts of stories about peefireheliumnuclear radiation, etc.

Another amazement-sharing outlet is giving science demonstrations in elementary school classrooms. The kids get most excited (as do I) about the demonstration at the end involving orange, green, and pink flames.

A solution of lithium chloride in methanol sprayed into a flame. Try this at home only after growing a big beard that your girlfriend hates.  Just kidding, don't try this at home.

As time has gone by I have become less interested in pushing the boundaries of knowledge through research and more interested (perhaps selfishly?) in pushing the boundaries of my own knowledge by reading about other people's research.

Knowledge feels good.

My problem is that research, not learning/communication, currently pays the bills. How do I switch this around? Perhaps I could be blogging differently, or using another medium...the possibilities are endless!

With the goal of starting to figure this out, I am attending a conference in North Carolina for like-minded science enthusiasts/communicators this week called ScienceOnline2012. I am SUPER psyched! I hope I will learn how to improve what I do on this blog, discover new media/venues, meet buttloads of people/collaborators, and maybe even figure out how to get paid someday! We'll see what happens!!

Stay tuned for ScienceMinusDetails2012 upon my return. Topics covered will include fart/poop scienceexperiments you can do at home, and nano brains. Get psyched!

Any topics you want to learn more about or suggestions for what to do with my life?? Please leave them as comments!  :-)

Related/Rehashed Post:
I Am a Scientist! - part 1


  1. LIFE! You should be an even cooler version of Bill Nye. I mean, you basically already are, but you should get paid for it. I have no suggestions on how to get paid for it....


    That's all. Have a great time!

  3. St Luke! I've been searching around for the job application & can't find it!!!

    Rachel! Science online conf is blowing my mind. Most fun/interesting conference ever!

  4. "... poop science, experiments you can do at home ..." missed the comma the first time around.

    1. haha, excellent point. love the ambiguity. I am inspired to create some of the non-comma content you were envisioning

  5. Hello there. I found this blog through my librarian who is helping find blogs for my senior project. I'm really interested in the sciences but more specifically chemistry. (My blog is I wanted to know, how do you know what your chemical looks like? I've always been interested in how scientists can be so certain of what a molecule looks like even though it's so tiny.

    1. Hello! I like your blog, keep up the good work! I'm super-psyched your librarian referred you to my blog.

      Excellent question! There are various ways chemists can try to figure out what their chemicals looks like. I'll try to work a full explanation into a future post, but in the meantime I'll give you an overview here.

      Here are some things you can do:
      1) "weigh" the chemical. You can inject your new chemical into something called a mass spectrometer, and that will tell you how much mass your molecule has. Generally, the more atoms a chemical has, the higher its mass will be. This measurement can also break the chemical up into smaller chunks. By looking at the weight of those chunks you can try to piece your chemical back together to figure out what it looks like

      2) put it in a super-strong magnet and shoot radio waves at it. This technique is called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy, or NMR for short. It's like MRI but for chemicals instead of your body. The details are quite complicated, but it basically gives you graphs. On those graphs are signals from each of the atoms in your molecule (hydrogen and carbon atoms being the most common). From the position of those signals on the graphs and the way those signals look, you can tell A LOT (usually everything) about what your molecule looks like.

      3) Shoot infrared radiation at your molecule (called infrared, or IR, spectroscopy). This basically causes your molecule to vibrate when your molecule absorbs the infrared radiation. Different energies of infrared radiation cause different groups of atoms to vibrate in different ways. So, in the graph this produces, by looking at which energies of infrared radiation your molecule has absorbed, you can tell what kinds of groups of atoms your molecules have. These groups of atoms are called "functional groups" and are things like ketones, esters, amides, azides, alcohols, aromatic rings, etc.

      4) grow perfect crystals of your molecule and shoot x-rays at one of those crystals (this is known as x-ray crystallography). This is how I determined the structure of the molecule in this post, because the structure was so complex that I was still confused even after trying all of the above things. The molecule crystals cause the x-rays to scatter in certain patterns. You can put those patterns into a computer and do some super-duper complex math and if everything goes perfectly you can get a 3-D picture of how your molecule looks. This is by far the most awesome way to see what a molecule looks like, but you can usually get most of the same information using the above three methods as you can using this method. x-ray crystallography is used to determine the structures of super-huge and super-complex molecules like proteins, and it was used by Rosalind Franklin to help discover the structure of DNA.

      Sorry for the delayed reply, but I wanted to take the time to put everything in here. If you have any more questions, please feel free to leave them as comments. Thanks for reading!

    2. That's so cool. And makes sense. I've seen images of diamond using NMR. That's really cool. I wanna test those things some time in the future.

    3. Awesome! NMR images of diamond would be crazy, I've never seen those.

      As for testing these things, I'm sure you could get hands-on experience soon. My current research group often has highly motivated high school students as summer research helpers. This is fairly unusual, but there might be a researcher at a university near you that would be open to this. If this interests you I would suggest e-mailing professors whose work seems cool to you and proposing this. You never know!

      If that doesn't work, I'm sure as soon as you start college you can begin to work in a research lab.

      Good luck!