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Dangerous Experiments

Dangerous Experiments is the LabSpaces spot for guest bloggers. The purpose of the blog is to give new and old bloggers a space to experiment with blogging. If you'd like to contribute to this experiment, send us an e-mail or contact us on twitter at either @LSBlogs or @LabSpaces.

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Monday, February 7, 2011



Alchemystress is a graduate student working on her PhD in Chemistry. She works on instrumentation, biotech, microfab and nanotech. She is in her first year of a PhD program but second year of graduate school.  Alchemystress started out as a biochemistry student and did a BS in biology and has worked in the proteomics field of cancer research for about 2.5 years before starting her work in chemistry.

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I am super feminine, but not girly, I dress classic like Audrey Hepburn but have tattoos, and skulls on my keychain, working on a quarter sleeve in fact. I am a chemist that does engineering and biology. I drive a truck and wear high heels almost everyday. I model, I do runways, I build mass specs and nanodevices. I spin fire, and am an honorary part of a fire circus and I teach organic chemistry. I did Burning Man, I did research on a boat in Hawaii. I have a horrid curiosity to the point where I want to know everything even, when I am not interested. I hike and love the outdoors, camping and getting dirty but enjoy a good dance club as well. I drink whiskey and smoke cigars sometimes, and I also like to run long distances.

I think people forget that to be successful doesn’t mean you need one focus, or are one note; we are multi-faceted, all of us, and that one note really is a melody. I used to struggle with this dichotomy that is me. I have learned to embrace it and balance myself between all these things.  It’s OK to be many things and yet still one. It took a long time for me to learn that and move forward in life. Science is about creativity and innovation; and I think people have this notion that it is this “stuffy subject” that old men in tweed suits sit around and discuss in monotone. Maybe sometimes it is, but hey variety is the spice of life. It’s this exciting whirlwind.  Every day technology grows in leaps and bounds we are light years ahead of where we were last week. How can this not be exciting? We are learning the secrets of the universe. Yes, it’s frustrating and maddening but really what other way could it be? It takes people with adventure and ideas that do not exist yet to make science work. You cannot stay in the box, we know that already. Step out, prove Schrödinger wrong. Anything can happen today and that means you can discover anything any day. I get it, science is a long rigorous education and very hard on those of us brave enough to delve into the unknowns. But it has to be. The world is complex and we can only hope to begin to understand it. To make a dent in that comprehension, we need to understand what has been done before and there is oh so much.

I swear, I just get dumber each day but, oh my god, the person of yesterday already doesn’t exist today in the knowledge I gain.  I didn’t take an easy path to be here, I struggled a lot and have hit rock bottom a few times. Cliché as it sounds, I am stronger for it; better for it. Focus, drive, desire, and passion are all mine. I know what I am missing. I know what I have given up to be here and it’s worth it. As scientists, we sit in awe of the world; curious to it all -- looking in places that no one has dared or no one even knew existed. But to do all this, I think we need more than our science. We need the rest of ourselves and those things that make us and are intrinsic to our personalities because it’s our personalities that make us persevere, succeed, fail, fall and stand back up. Thank god we all like different things; there are so many avenues to explore. Someone once told me that all we need is already with in us; we just have to find it. Go dance under the moon, run a PCR, play on a mass spec, dive a 100 feet underwater, climb a mountain, make a hypothesis. It is ok to be many things because as mathematics teaches us, it all adds up just the variables change.

So saying all of that, what does it mean? What is it that I do as a chemist? How has this strange serendipitous life affected me? Well I did cancer research for a bit before doing grad school and I started my grad career as a MS Student in biochem. In March, I switched to doing a PhD in chemistry. This makes it kind of my second year/first year. I hold a BS in biology so trust me when I say I am a fish completely out of water. I do a lot of proteomics type work.  I am involved in projects of looking at biomarkers and protein conformations. I have a biology background, which helps me direct the chemistry and technology where it should go. I specifically work on an FT-ICR MS (Fourier Transform Ionization Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spec) but I also get to play with all sorts of instruments. Our lab builds instruments, improves them and also hooks them together and we have a lot of tandem-type instrumentation leading to the FT-ICR MS.  On the other side of things, I also am involved in the electrical engineering department. I am learning to build really small stuff like biosensors and am learning how to microfabricate biosystems. There is a nanotechnology aspect to the things I do. I am trying to build nanodevices for the FT-ICR to better introduce samples in a more viable and physiologically relevant way. Who knows where that aspect of things will take me.  So I have to take a lot of engineering courses, getting my first one down this semester. I do a lot of calculations, you wouldn’t believe all the things ions want to do in an electromagnetic field, and then you have to manipulate them to make them do what you want. I had no idea before that ions could be this complicated. So there are a lot of quantum mechanical-type things to keep in mind. Besides Mass spec, I do some spectroscopy, including IR, learning NMR currently and UV of course. I also do some computer molecular modeling. I am trying to look at protein conformations on the mass spec, but also I computer model the proteins to get a better idea of what is going on, if reality confirms theory.

Chemistry has a lot of cool things to offer and I am just unable to choose one field it seems.  Part of it is because I have much, much more to learn. I am inundated with information day in and day out. I mentioned that I also teach organic chemistry, which is such a turnaround from everything else I do. I consider the lab time the only real wet chemistry I ever do in a week. It’s fun but draining. The labs involve a lecture from me and then the lab itself. I learn a lot there since I definitely am not an organic chemist, but the mechanisms are just beautiful.

I am basically open to all science. It’s all new and strange and difficult, so I have no bias in a way. My background was not in any way preparative for what I am doing now, so there is a lot of catch up I have to play. The qualification exams are kicking my ass all over the place but I study and read like an insane woman. I purposely take classes I know I will struggle in, because I know if I can figure it out, I deserve to be here. If I can do this then it makes me a better scientist. I signed up for the classes that scared the living hell out of me. They truly do. It’s my way of dealing with the fear, the complexities of what I do, and pushing myself because honestly, failure scares me more than anything. But this, for now, makes me a scientist without a home. I feel like I have multiple scientific personalities. I like all science; it’s all fun and interesting. I know a little of everything but have no specialty. I want to be good at something not just kind of knowing a little bit of everything. I suppose it’s a bit of an identity crisis.  Finding my niche and learning enough to be useful are my goals. Not useful yet, but getting there. Chemists do so many amazing things, in regards to medicine, ecology, warfare, space travel, fuel, agriculture, distilling etc. You name it, chemists are there and being one, I hope, opens the door for me to play in all sorts of different fields which can help with my scientific schizophrenia. This also means all the hard work thus far is just the beginning and the road ahead is long and arduous. I have cried and laughed a lot this past year and have had days that I loved and days I wanted to quit but I keep going and hope the days I laugh outnumber the days I want to walk away. But isn’t this the life of the graduate student? C’est la vie

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Suzy
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Thanks for sharing this. I love your approach to life and to science. I hope we can hear more about your experiences, why you decided to settle down into a life of science, and also about some of your engineering experiments.  Oh- also burning man. You should talk about that!


yannisguerra
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Very good overview to remind people that HUMAN beings make science, with our imperfections and biases, with our ticks and our bad hair days.

Thanks for sharing.

PS:

One suggestion to make your posts more understandable...separate your sentences into more paragraphs. I felt that you were speaking to me with this post, but you were speaking really fast!


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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You're quite the interesting character.  I agree with Jade, I'd love to know how you stumbled into Chemistry given all of the other exciting things you do in your free time.  And you can't talk about Tats without posting pictures of them.  That's just not fair!


Alchemystress
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Thank you Jade, yannis and Brian so very very much! I am glad that it was enjoyed. It was very nice for me to get that out I have to say. I have lived the life strange and would like to share it if there is interest and want. There are many stories that lead me here and sometimes I am not really sure how I got here and its rather scary! So I can definitly come up with more posts and stories

It really is our experiences and our personalities that sort of dictate how we approach science and the world and that is what is the final drive in our scientific quest.

Yannis thank you for the advice I promise more paragraph breaks. I wrote it as I would speak which is dangerous my friend said she read it could hear me talk and see me .. I am a hand gesturer. I am very open to critiques to make me a better blog writer and communicator. Its been so long since I got to write for fun and vent in such a way.

 

Brian I can totally get some pics up of my tattoos! Not a problem. I have more work on my sleeve done Feb 19 so I would like to wait till after that to post pics of it after that but there are a few others that i am sure can be posted.

 

Thanks

~A


Psycasm
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Brian beat me to it... What's the theme of the sleeve? I've noticed tattoo's are not something academics share with the rest of the population, how do students/superiors react?


Alchemystress
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The theme is nature science and technology.... there maybe a DNA strand involved.... So academia is a funny place. Its a 3/4 length sleeve and easily covered when need be. I have outfits that cover them all for any occasion I may need, formal to buisness. Honestly most people don't even know I have them and are surprised when they see them. I am careful when I expose them and what situation. If I know I have a talk or visitors in the lab I tend to cover up. I like to feel people out before I let them know or show them, they are for me afterall. And some people will really surprise you when it come sto things like tattoos, some very conservative people in my life have really liked them. I have a story behind each one, each is custom drawn and each has great significance.


JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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Thanks for sharing. I want to hear more about the fire circus.

I really dig the rhythm you imbued into your writing. Was that conscious? It's like rhythmic literary interpolation. Charlie Parker meets Bret Easton Ellis or Jay-Z does William Faullkner.


Alchemystress
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You are very welcome. I will have to write some more up about my fire dancing days. I have pics too, that can be very anonymous.  It was a lot of fun and I still do some fire stuff here and there. I have 2 pairs of fire fans, a fire staff,  fire dart (basically long rope and big wick that makes a fire ball think ball and chain), some fire fingers but I haven’t used them yet,  and have a bull whip I am practicing on to eventually be good enough for the fire whip. Also I eat fire and have a few more practice lessons before I can breathe fire

 

The writing is not really conscious in its rhythm just the way I talk and think. It’s the way I suppose I write when things are not scientific. Thank you so much for what you wrote about it I am flattered, truly. Got a kick out of Jay-Z does Faulkner.

 


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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That'd be a really awesome series. "My science tattoos and what they mean."  It'd be cool if science was more like the culinary world.  It seems like they're much more accepting of tattoos ;)

Southern Fried Scientist

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JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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@Brian : I dunno, a lot of the techs and researchers here have ink. The medical staff doesn't. Patients still don't like (in general) when their doc is rocking a half sleeve.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Duke University
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Oh, I just meant that it seems like every cook out there has a tattoo.  At least all of the ones on TV do :P


JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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No. Almost all of them do. I tried, but I broke out in hives. No tats for me. I've had hot oil and acid burns, once lopped off the tip of my ring finger breaking down a goat, stabbed in the hand with a clean needle, and the one that hurt the most was trying to get a tat. Scars...no tats.


Alchemystress
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I have seen the science emporium tattoo page. Ink is more common but not always very usual. Then again they could be hiding it like me. I find its interesting why people get them. I wouldn't mind sharing some I really thought about it.

 

Jay thats rather crazy, scars are pretty cool too ;) Some people really react to tats and some people are only allergic to certain colours.


David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
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Sorry that I'm late to the party, but great post!! Really enjoy the way you write, it is very conversational (which I immensley enjoy).

I look forward to hearing a lot more about your descent into chemistry, your tats, and the various jobs/skills that make you, you.


Alchemystress
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Thanks! Can't wait to write more. Writing right now on things. I have reposted this blog post onto my personl blog to mak ethings somewhat easier :)

Alena

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Awesome post! I will keep an on eye on your blog.

KidsOrganicShop

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