Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Seizing the Blog, pt. 2

It has been brought to my attention that my sense of humor doesn't carry well over the internet. I should have expected this was the case, but I went for it anyway. After all, it's only natural.

With that said, I owe the blag some much needed love regarding my experiences in the People's Republic of China (China/中国). It's a duty I've mostly neglected due to a variety of circumstances, but I won't go into them. If it has been unclear, I spent my summer working under the guidance of Professor Zhang-Jie Shi.

When I initially showed up to the laboratory I was only given three instructions from Professor Shi: 1) Read his papers 2) Clean glassware 3) Talk to people. Immediately afterward he spent the week tending to business matters and rarely showed up to the laboratory. In a sense, I was on my own right from the get go.

So I did what I thought was most appropriate and scanned through the articles enough to gain an understanding of what went on, and moved on to befriending any of the group members and deciphering what exactly was going on in their C-H, C=O bond activation divisions. It worked, and soon enough I found myself consistently talking to Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song (undergrad), Bi-Jie Li (grad), and Da-Gang Yu (grad). For what it's worth, I ended up not cleaning much glassware. Only Miss Gui-Xin Cai (grad) was eager to have to me clean for her.

As it turned out, within a few days I was already in one specific laboratory room at the very end of the 5th floor of the old, run-down chemistry building reserved for pesky organic chemists. Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song, and Miss Cai primarily worked there on C-H bond activation. It was then that Chun-Xiao Song took me under his wing. He had been preparing for his undergraduate thesis defense, and he had shown me his presentation since it was written in English. His work for the past year consisted of C-H bond activation at the benzylic position catalyzed by Fe (iron). In turn, my work was to expand on these reactions, but before I could get anywhere I needed to learn the ropes. My task was to perform the general reaction he had developed, so that I could compare my results with the expected yield. Since my results were within the experimental error range, I was able to rapidly advance to the chemistry.

For what it's worth, I'm fairly certain that Professor Shi didn't know that Chun-Xiao was already having me do the chemistry. By the time I saw Professor Shi again, he said I should learn how to use the GC machine, and Spencer could help me out with that if necessary. However, by that time the GC machine to me was just another tool at my disposal, and I had already used it a number of times that day to monitor my reactions.

Nevertheless, I continued about on this path for the rest of the summer. I became quite good friends with Chun-Xiao and Dr. Zhang, and our time in between tasks or during clean-up mostly consisted of Chinese/English language exchange and Chinese history lessons. As it turned out, Dr. Zhang obtained his PhD for physical chemistry, and jumped over to organic for his postdoctoral research. He was also always fixing machinery that broke down. His family also could make traditional Chinese food. In other words, he's a fully competent jack of all trades who also happens to be the nicest person I've ever met in my life.

Come the second week of July, however, my laboratory was set to lose a member. My main man Chun-Xiao graduated and had to leave Beijing for his home in Southern China. Eventually, he'll be in the US for graduate school at the University of Chicago, but at the time I had to say goodbye to him and continue where he and I left off. His project was formally transferred to Miss Cai, and she and I worked together for the rest of the trip. To be honest, I barely understood a word of what she said to me, and she couldn't understand me either. Sometimes it was easier to use Chinese, but my knowledge of chemistry specific Chinese was very limited. For example, there was once a bit of a dilemma after a long day of work when she excitedly said to me: “Han-Song! There is a small animal in the refrigerator!” (Han-Song Li is my Chinese name). You can only imagine what went through my head until I discovered she meant an insect. I thought I was going to have to remove a squirrel or something absurd like that.

Given all the circumstances and Olympics nonsense, my work in the laboratory went reasonably well. The hours were excessive at times, and the heat toward the end of July nearly killed me. Nothing good comes of trying to work in an organic lab that's hotter than the temperature outside with no way of cooling. Thankfully, this occurred when I was wrapping up my work.

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