Today we were whisked off to ABCR Labs for a field trip, courtesy of my supervisor who seemed to know everyone who works there (I think they were all Santiago graduates). We were given a tour of the labs by the guy who wrote the PhD thesis most of my project work here is based on, and although it was in Spanish – so I didn’t entirely understand what was going on with the reactions, other than it being mostly silicone-based chemistry – it was a quite an eye-opening experience.
I realised that chemistry is more often done on the kilogram scale, rather than the milligram-or-less type we do here in the university labs. Everything in the building was recognisable as vastly inflated versions of all the things we have, like a giant’s chemistry set: enormous round-bottom flasks big enough to comfortably fit a person in; reaction ventilation tubes thicker than both my arms. The analytical lab even had marble surfaces, a far cry from the 60’s formica-and-wood combo we have going on at Santiago.
About halfway through the tour, my friend American Girl leaned in to whisper, “this is great! Just put me in a lab all day with no people, I’d love that …”, as just the opposite was running through my mind. Of course, there are plenty of people working there, and they all smiled a lot despite the disruption by a large group of (mostly disinterested) university students. Yes, the labs were very shiny, and you could practically smell the newness of the analysis machines. But I looked at the glassware, and the sinks, and thought, if you put me in front of this every day for the rest of my life, I’d cry.
I have great admiration for people who really enjoy an abstract puzzle simply for the intellectual challenge; at the end of the day, that’s a large part of what chemistry, and all science and engineering subjects, are about. I enjoy them myself, and I wouldn’t have stuck with my subject if I didn’t. The human element, however, is always the main factor for me. I have to feel like I’m helping and engaging with someone directly. All science is done for human benefit, but it’s removed enough on a daily basis that seeing the effect of it is less clear for me.
So today I have learned three things:
- I don’t want to work in a lab forever, because I need human interactions, and lots of them.
- I do want a career that uses my science knowledge though; I’ve really enjoyed my degree and it would seem a waste not to build on everything I’ve learned.
- Visiting a real-life commercially-oriented lab is a really good idea for people thinking about post-science degree careers – ask about with anyone you know, or approach your lecturers. Anything is useful, and you’d be surprised what you learn.