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Category → Life as a (grad) student

Shipping Assay Samples: The FedEx Paradox

There is nothing that takes the wind out of your sails quite like when you think you’re being clever, and later find out how totally lame your attempts were. Synthesizing some precursor by a route you think is super streamlined, only to later find a simple, one-pot prep. Driving and taking a ‘short cut,’ only to wind up hopelessly lost. Making eyes at the cute girl in the neighboring lab, only to realize your fly was down. Stuff like that…

Recently, my PI asked me to prepare a few aliquots of a compound to be shipped out for biological testing. Of course, I put the samples on the back burner, because hey, I already had the compounds made… how hard could it be to stick a few mgs in a few vials and ship them? (That’s not rhetorical. The answer for this circumstance is “harder than one would expect.”)

When I finally got around to checking everything out, and preparing to pack and ship everything, I noticed the HPLC of one of the compounds was a bit iffy looking. After a quick purification, rotovapping down, weighing out, administering aliquots to HPLC vials, and rotovapping them

down, all samples were on dry ice and finally ready to ship. The biochemist I’m working with and I grabbed a box, crossed over the labels (it had obviously been shipped a few times before), and loaded the styrofoam cooler into it. However, by this time, we’d missed the 4 PM FedEx pickup at our shipping and receiving.

No problem, I thought. “I can just walk it over to the local FedEx store. Their last pickup is at least 6 PM.” So, down the street I walked, with box under one arm, and shipping label in hand. Upon arriving, I felt like a boss. “Here’s this, shipping to here, overnight, and here’s the account number.” As the clerk picked up the box and went to weigh it, the dry ice started to rattle.

“Whats in here?” she asked.

With minimal thinking I replied, “Oh, a few vials of solid material, over dry ice.” In my head, it made perfect sense – FedEx ships dry ice, it should be no problem. The samples are solid powder, not volatile liquids or anything. No problem, right?

The clerk – “Nope. I can’t take this.”

Myself – “Uh. What?”

“Yeah, we cannot accept anything on dry ice here, we have nowhere to put it.”

“It’s… just dry ice? In a styrofoam cooler? In a box? Isn’t that the point that you don’t necessarily need a place to put it?”

“We can’t accept it here. The closest place you could take it is our main distribution center on Summer St, they can accept dry ice, and they’ll have to authorize it. It’s at 775 Summer. Do you know where 775 Summer is? It’s in South Boston. If you head into downtown and go… Hey,” she turned to her co-worker, “How do you get to the distribution center on Summer?”

“Oh, it’s in South Boston. If you head into downtown and…” The co-worker started.

“I know where 775 Summer is. Thanks though,” I interrupted.

I took my box, and headed to an early dinner. While sitting at the window of the pizza place, my box tagging along next to me, I called FedEx’s 800 number to see if there were any other options. They weren’t the most helpful here, either, but let me know that on-call pickup was still available in my area until 7:30 PM, and that they could pick up the package from me, at my business or residence. Herein lies the FedEx Paradox: They may take it from you, but you may not give it to them. Ah… Zen-like, is it not?

Of course, being after 5 at this point, shipping & receiving in my building was closed… see where this is going?

I ran home, and handed the package off to my roommate, explained the situation to him, and went back to lab. I explained the admittedly half-baked and hair-brained circumstances to my biochemist co-worker, and she was like “That’s weird, but whatever works…” In a bit, the roommate confirmed FedEx had picked up the package. Ah ha! I had won!

Of course, the next morning, the box had been Return-To-Sender’ed, as we had crossed over one of the two “Dry Ice” labels, which FedEx did not seem to appreciate. We re-boxed the shipment, labeled it extra carefully, and let shipping and receiving work their magic. It was received the next day, safe and sound.

Moral of the story? In chemistry, there are times when clever, simple innovation can triumph over minor, but obnoxious inconveniences (I’m working on a series of posts entitled “Stupid Solutions to Stupid Problems” to celebrate just this kind of innovation!). In shipping, this does not apply. There are people in your department whose sole responsibility is to ship and or receive. Your job is chemistry. Go talk to the Art Vandelay (the importer-exporter, not the architect) of your department, and let them handle it.

Next time, I’m just going to adsorb the compounds on filter paper, and send them in a standard envelope via the USPS, the good, old fashioned way…

Everybody Needs A: Brain


Even if you have one of these, you may forget to label a vial. Be careful to remember! (Flckr user Liz Henry)

In a post several weeks ago, I examined the debate of synthesis or purchasing of commercially-made compounds.  If you recall, it appeared that I could not synthesize the correct compound, and the compound I had bought did not appear to have been synthesized correctly.  I took the advice of one of a reader and decided to call the company from which I had bought my compound.  Luckily, I had a great conversation with customer support, and they said that they’d run some tests on the batch that they had sent me.

Shortly after this call, I realized that I had taken the wrong compound from the wrong vial, and had labeled my aliquot wrong. I ended up finding the vial I needed and the positive control worked as expected. The lesson is pretty clear here.    Make sure that you label everything!

Feel free to share embarrassing stories like mine in the comments below.  Might just make me feel better about making such a rookie mistake.

To Synthesize or to Buy? That is the question.

And you should too!

Einstein probably synthesized his own compounds. (Flickr user hernandezmariacristina)

Happy summer, everyone!  Sorry for the cheesy title.  Because I’m still an undergrad, I get the chance to take some pretty cool classes that have a little to nothing to do with chemistry.  This can either be a nice break (i.e: Shakespeare, see title) or an unwelcome distraction (…Spanish).  I’m soaking in as much diverse education as I can before I start specializing in my PhD.  This is all besides the point.

Anyway, I wanted to pose a question.  When you’re running a synthesis, an assay, or whatever else it is you do in your lab, and you require a reagent that is expensive and difficult to synthesize, do you spend days synthesizing it yourself, or buy it at ridiculous price from a manufacturer?  From what I can gather, there are two camps.  Tell me if I’m wrong.  PIs/Professors are more likely to encourage grad students to synthesize everything from scratch, and the graduate students vice versa.  Whether their opinion is born from distrust of the manufacturers, a desire to teach you (the student) some more synthesis, or plain sadism is up to debate.  The advantage is that you get to gain some more experience in what is probably a very classic synthesis, helping you gain some ‘lab chops.’  The disadvantage, of course, that that you have to stop watching Futurama to synthesize this molecule that you could just buy.

I’ve recently had an interesting experience.  I had bought a reagent from a manufacturer, expecting to use it as a positive control.  For whatever reason, it wasn’t working.  After around two weeks of frustrated testing, I found that the molar mass of my positive control didn’t match to mass it was supposed to be (by MALDI).  So therefore, we got sent a faulty reagent.  Kind of a bummer, right?

After this debacle, I resolved myself to synthesize it myself, spurning the multimillion dollar industry for my own two hands.  After a week of synthesis and purification, I am a proud owner of a compound which has a molar mass that is too large for the compound I would’ve wanted to synthesize.  I still haven’t run enough tests to see how far I’ve gone wrong, but as of now it seems possible that I’ve somehow messed up, which puts me at a unique crosscroads.

Do I synthesize my positive control again?  It only took me a week, and is much less expensive than buying it from a manufacturer.  Also, I can make gobs at a time (technical term), and I can only buy a small quantity.   On the other hand, I could just buy it again and hope for this best.  Sure, it’s much more expensive, but it’d be so easy!  Plus, I could finish this episode of futurama.

So, my chemist friends, if you were in my place, what would you do?  Synthesize or buy?

Everybody Needs A: PhD

Way back in 1996, Norman Cook (you might know him better by the alias Fatboy Slim) released the album Better Living Through Chemistry, containing the song “Everybody Needs a 303.” Although I was only 7 when it was released, I still greatly enjoy the song, and most of the album. Furthermore, the album/track serve as an excellent jump-off point for me to make terrible puns, and share some wisdom. And that’s really the most important part…*

Although I haven’t been doing this whole chemistry thing for that

long, I’ve picked up some good ideas along the way that can make time in/out of lab much more enjoyable. In the effort to better everyone’s living while doing chemistry, I’d like to present a series of posts about certain things that everybody ‘needs’¹ to help them get by as a researcher in chemistry.

1: ‘Needs’ is obviously a relative term. Some are serious, some are not, and some are more opinionated than others.

*For the music geek, compulsive wikipedia-er: If you’re curious, the “303″ is the Roland TB-303 synthesizer. It’s that bubbly sounding synth, featured most prominently in “Everybody Needs a 303” after the 2:25 mark. Cousin to the TR-808, and -909 drum machines, it’s pretty classic/oldschool. So, if you’re still curious, go check out it’s wander around its wikipedia page or something – it’s nifty.