Monday, January 4, 2016

Science and Serendipity: My best day in the lab

My best day in the lab was a day of creation. Actually, it began in a bar.

Science can be a process of discovery, in which observations are made and hypotheses formulated, tested, rened, and repeated ad innitum, or until the scientist gets bored and moves on to the next subject. A scientist working on a problem - What are the molecular steps that initiate cancer when cells are exposed to carcinogens? - will focus on a small part of the universe, like a cell, or double-stranded DNA. But science is also creative: can we design and build molecules that will selectively deliver anti-cancer drugs only to cancer cells in the brain? This science creationism employs the tools of science to make devices, polymers, microscopic machines and a whole host of novel materials.

Sports enthusiasts like to regale each other with stories of a great game, often over beer. Chemists do too, except the game is synthesis, the players molecules, and the field, the laboratory. My labmate had made a new and interesting molecule - it was interesting because, if the common bonding models we had were correct, it had the wrong shape, and it didn't rust in air (like it should). Following this discovery, as was a common practice in my lab, we retired to the campus pub to celebrate our victory and plot our next move. I had solved the structure - figured out, using X-ray crystallography, the 3-dimensional organization of atoms in the molecule - and proposed a theory for why the molecule was stable and I thought at the time, "If we can make that molecule with osmium, can we make a copy using tungsten instead?" The periodic table is full of such what ifs, and we - fun science, in my experience, is collaborative - spent 20 minutes pouring over our beer and writing on my bar napkin (an old professor's words - I learned more chemistry talking in bars than I ever learned in the lab - were prophetic).

Later the next day - it's not good to drink and synthesize - I looked through the stock room to see if the compounds I envisioned were available. In synthesis, as in a good episode of MacGyver, you sometimes have to go with what you have on hand. I was able to locate adequate chemical substitutes for my synthetic plan.

... It worked.

No comments:

Post a Comment