Mad scientists: lamentations and insights from a research chemist

Elisabeth Tondl is completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in chemistry at the University of Sydney. Her project is on drug development for prostate cancer. She completed BSc (Hons I) at University of Sydney in 2014. Elisabeth is also a Teaching Fellow at The Women's College.

Elisabeth Tondl is completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Chemistry at the University of Sydney. Her project is on drug development for prostate cancer. She completed BSc (Hons I) at the University of Sydney in 2014. Elisabeth is also a Teaching Fellow at The Women’s College.

“How’s your PhD going?” multitudes of well-intentioned people ask me. “It’s cool you’re fighting cancer!” That’s true: I get to work with dedicated chemists and coordinate with scientists from other disciplines to tackle an issue that has vast implications for current and future generations.

But describing the progress of my research to a non-bio-organic/inorganic chemist is long-winded at best and befuddling at worst. In my attempt to avoid boring my audience into a stupor or causing them to question their own existence, I have lately resorted to answering by way of describing the life style characteristics of a PhD student in science, as follows:

  1. Dealing with the research-induced emotional rollercoaster. “It won’t work, I wasted three weeks!” is a depressingly common lament in our office. Frequently we conclude that to appease our rationally planned, meticulously calculated, and carefully monitored chemical reactions we must sing to them at midnight and knit flask-cozies under a full moon. Alternatively, when we obtain beautiful spectra or a reaction works for the first time on the 10th attempt, we euphorically partake in each other’s hard-earned satisfaction and decide that the apparatus is magical (‘this time I used the lucky flask’). Mad scientists, indeed.
  2. Blood, sweat and tears: a phrase I didn’t fully appreciate prior to my advent as a researcher. I have accidentally stabbed myself with needles while preparing syringes for delicate work, laboured in sweltering labs where my solvent evaporated too quickly for me to use (!), and wilted with tears of desperate frustration over my lab notes. The research scientist must rapidly turn philosopher if she is to persist: the enormity of the unexplored mountain can be lessened by the turning over of a few small pebbles.
  3. The intellectual delight of a challenging problem. The collaborative nature of scientific research continually brings fresh perspectives and enthusiastic discussion to familiar problems. There’s a thrill to engaging meaningfully with colleagues’ work, and triumph in devising and refining synthetic methods for reactions.

I love research and occasionally hate research and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s fun and difficult and exhilarating, and I can’t wait to turn over a few of my own pebbles.

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One thought on “Mad scientists: lamentations and insights from a research chemist

  1. What an engaging blog post Libby! Working in the lab can definitely be a love-hate relationship at times…but the research you are doing has such amazing possible implications. I’m amazed by your brain, keep up the good work and knitting flask cozies under the full moon.

    Like

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