The Diaconescu Group, UCLA

Doing your own experiment can be intoxicating, especially when it involves explosions. Just ask Stephanie Quan, who found herself on the path to becoming a scientist once her high school chemistry teacher killed some time after the AP test by turning her class loose with a book of experiments. Steph already liked chemistry a lot, but once she found herself working on an experiment that resulted in underwater explosions, she was hooked.

Steph is now a first-year graduate student at UCLA working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry. She is a member of the Diaconescu Group and does organometallic chemistry, which, she explains, “is sort of the bridge” between organic and inorganic chemistry. Organic chemistry involves the chemicals found in biological systems—namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen— while inorganic chemistry focuses on metals and materials. Steph’s organometallic work involves creating compounds made up of an atom of metal surrounded by partially organic molecules called ligands. The hope is that one day these compounds will be used as catalysts in reactions that will synthesize biodegradable polymers, or, as Steph explains in non-scientist speak, be used to “create plastics that are environmentally friendly.” But right now, Steph is just working on making the catalyst compounds themselves. You can see an analog to the structure she is aiming for in this picture from her group’s website:

In this diagram you can see how the ligand molecule (left) will eventually surround an atom of metal (the red Ce, or cerium, on the right). Steph starts with pure ferrocene (represented by the Fe/pentagon configuration) and works to build these compounds up from there. She'll be using indium instead of cerium as the metal center in her final product. Diagram courtesy of the Diaconescu Group.

To help her keep track of where she is in the process, she draws diagrams of the compounds on her fume hood in the lab. (Pro tip: you can erase permanent marker with acetone.)

Hand drawn diagram on Steph's fume hood. If you look closely, you can see that it's a rough sketch of the ligand molecule from the diagram above.

Steph has been painstakingly moving through each step in the sequence of creating the catalyst compound since September, and when I was in the lab she thought she was two steps away from the final product. Eventually, she estimates that she’ll be able to complete the whole process in a week and a half. Read the rest of this entry »



It is a common lament among science writers that science doesn’t follow the news cycle. Discoveries can be few and far between, and they are nearly always interspersed with unexpected tangents, false starts and dead ends—all of which can be lost on the way to the final report. When experiments are reduced to their results, they lose their texture—and we, the public, lose any sense of what it is like to actually do science.

Visiting labs is one of the best ways to see experimental science in action. I should know—I’ve been to a lot of them. On this blog, I hope to extend my sights beyond the country’s biggest physics labs and focus on laboratories of all kinds, including ones that stretch the very definition of the word. What do labs look like? Feel like? Smell like? Where are they, exactly? Who works in them? And why?

Once I get up and running, you can expect me to post about one lab visit every week or so. Supplemental material about the science I saw, the people I met, the history of the place, or anything else that strikes my fancy will be posted in between. I will mostly be visiting labs in and around southern California, though you will see dispatches from places that may surprise you as well. Comments and (constructive) criticism are encouraged. Please stay tuned!