General Chemistry (called “Chem 10” more often on campus), was my first lab science at Swarthmore. This class is the intro level general chemistry class that many freshman take during their first semester.
This introductory lab brought together people from a lot of different backgrounds. To my left on my lab bench, a senior linguistics major, and, to my right, an economics major taking her first lab science. Because many students choose to take the class with the lab during their freshman year, we are fortunate to have the chance to take the course with a diverse group of Swatties who intend on studying in subjects similar to, or seemingly unrelated to, the natural sciences.
Most labs at Swat meet once per week in addition to the lecture component of the class. With this in mind, and without further ado, join me on a Thursday afternoon that begins with heading to the Science Center for the upcoming lab!
I leave from my dorm for my 1 PM pre-lab lecture. The ten minute walk to “Sci” (the Science Center) flew by after talking with Daniel, another freshman in Gen Chem, about a tough problem from lecture earlier that morning.
Arrive to lab and hand in my notebook to be graded. Each week we complete several questions and prepare for the experiment in a pre-lab section of the notebook. I gave my Alchemist, Devin, the notebook for grading, and he confirmed an upcoming review session in our dorm for later that night. (Fun fact, peer academic mentors go by different names at Swat based on what department they are in. In my case for Gen Chem, they are called “Alchemists” and in the Computer Science department they are called “Ninjas”.)
I get in my seat while I await my grade for the pre-lab. I come to find out that this lab is our last of the semester! Several of us from the class discuss plans for the next semester- in hopes of being able to be placed in the same lab sections for the highly anticipated Organic Chemistry course in the Spring.
As the pre-lab lecture begins, Maddie, one of my lab partners, shares a new pneumonic to help remember the thermodynamic equations from lecture. Who knew Gibbs Free Energy and Boltzmann’s constant could be so….fun?
Our lab professor, Dr. Gallagher, begins the lab with a brief outline of expectations for this week’s experiment. Over the next two weeks, we will be synthesizing aspirin and then comparing the purity to that of commercial grade aspirin. She is sure to caution us to not attempt to “taste test” our product once completed- no matter how close our purity is to the true product.
We begin to transition from the classroom to the lab setting as the initial steps of the lab are carried out. Once in the lab, we began our initial steps.
The waiting period begins; during this time we should observe a change in our reactants color. After we start the clock, I head to the restroom in hopes of not missing the reaction.
As I enter the lab again, I hear the fading sounds of amazement from the class. Well, maybe someone recorded it.
The final portion of the experiment is wrapping up, and my lab partner and I finalize the last few data points before cleaning up our lab station. We thought it would be best to spent just a few minutes completing the observations and conclusion for the report sheet (though this does not have to be finalized until next week).
Twenty minutes into discussing our results, it was soon clear that we may have, in fact, yielded promising purity rates. We mentioned to one another throughout this time that “We are almost done with the calculations- let’s just see where this goes! Imagine 100% purity!” – In the end, did our high hopes get met?
An hour and a half after the lab finishes we finally arrive at the results: 92% purity. In my eyes, this is solid considering our resources in comparison to a commercial production plant. Perhaps, does this present a potential business opportunity? How did our costs compare to that of a commercial sellers. As we began to consider this tangential question, two things became clear:
- The marginal analysis skills from Economics class proved to be very useful.
- Unless we are offered a ten fold increase in price in comparison to the brand name aspirin companies, our short lived venture into aspirin synthesis seems to not quite yet have a place to produce these products on a larger scale!
Overall, despite the fact that these afternoons in lab have been marked by triumphs, let downs, and laughs, I am glad I had the chance to have this experience and form friendships that continue to this day from this lab section.