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.

All the glassware Steph works with must be carefully cleaned with nitric acid to avoid contaminating the experiments. After it air dries, it must still go in a small oven in order to eliminate all lingering water before it is used.

If my drying rack looked like this, I'd be more excited to do the dishes.

The first few steps of the sequence are not air sensitive, so they can be done in a regular fume hood. But most of Steph’s work takes place in a glovebox filled with nitrogen gas.

Steph's glovebox. Before putting anything new into the glovebox, Steph must pull a vacuum on it three times.

Because of the number of gloveboxes in the lab, nearly every aisle is full of rows of long black gloves. I instinctively tried to avoid brushing against their disembodied arms, but Steph is so used to them that she barreled through them like underbrush when she walked by.

Steph wears small cloth gloves under the shoulder-length black rubbery ones when she works in her glovebox to make it more comfortable on her hands. Doing fine motor work while wearing not one, but two pairs of gloves seemed nearly impossible to me, but when she let me try it out I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that because the glovebox is kept at a higher pressure than the outside air, the gloves kind of press against your hands and, for the most part, stay out of your way.

Steph has so much glovebox experience that she can write on tiny glass tubes while wearing two pairs of gloves.

Steph uses giant tweezers to reach things that are stored at the back of her glovebox.

In addition to being a chemist, Steph is also a talented crafter. Before I met her I had already heard raves about her embroidered holiday cards, and during my lab visit she told me that one of her favorite parts of doing organometallic chemistry is working with colorful compounds, as opposed to the monotonous whites and yellows of organic chemistry. Many of the aspects of her work in the lab—the delicate manipulation of small objects, the attention to detail, the ability to stay focused during repetitive tasks—are skills I recognized from years of cross stitching and knitting. Even the shelves in her glovebox reminded me of a spice rack or a sewing kit.

While Steph keeps many of the compounds she makes in little glass jars in her glovebox (she is grabbing one of the jars with her tweezers in the picture above), the solvents she works with are stored in bulk and kept under vacuum.

The solvent system

Steph uses this "solvent bomb" to avoid contaminating a solvent while transferring it to her glovebox or fume hood.

One of my favorite things about Steph’s lab was that nearly every available surface was covered in doodles. Several of the vacuum pumps responsible for keeping the gloveboxes free of regular air had even been named.

There's the noble Cassius...

...and his ne'er-do-well cousin Booger.

Having spent so much time with huge particle acclerators, I loved the smaller scale of Steph’s lab. All the sinks, gloves, and ovens made it feel almost like a kitchen where Steph was perfecting precise recipes. But just when it started to feel familiar, I spotted this sign.

Pardon my flash

Don't try this at home!

Many thanks to Steph and the rest of the Diaconescu Group for letting me visit their lab. You can read more about all their projects here. Steph’s project is the third one down.

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