The hidden perks of at-home labs

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By James, Chemistry
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Birmingham

As a third year MSci Chemistry student, I have been lucky enough to undertake some socially distanced in-lab projects along with some really cool ‘at home’ lab projects. Here’s an overview of some of the fun experiences I have encountered over this academic year.
When I heard the phrase ‘at-home laboratory sessions’ for the first time, the first thing that came to mind was how on earth I was going to explain to my housemates why there was a big bottle of Hydrochloric in the fridge.

Thankfully, my home lab projects involved ‘household’ items and I was provided with any required equipment from the department.
My favourite project involved the recording and analysis of contact angle measurements with different household liquids such as cooking oil or washing up liquid. The liquids were applied to various surfaces such as rubber, plastic and glass to investigate how different surfaces affected the contact angles of these liquids. I can’t say that I would have expected to be investigating how cooking oil interacts with the rubber in my pencil case this time last year!

I really enjoyed how the project gave me the freedom to investigate my own hypothesis compared to following a set of instructions which is often the case in lab projects. The project also allowed me to use coding software such as python to operate hardware. Coding was something I had done a little bit of over the summer, so to actually apply this knowledge to a lab project was really cool to do!

Although social distancing rules significantly reduced the number of students present at my in-lab projects, this actually came with some welcomed perks! A nifty little addition to the labs were the headsets provided to every student. It allowed us to communicate with each other from different sides of the lab while working in groups. Pretty genius if you ask me! The highlight of my headset use came after spilling a chemical all over my fume cupboard while my whole group could hear me frantically whispering some slightly rude words under my breath, much to their enjoyment of course…

Each person gets a whole fume cupboard to themselves! Anyone who has shared a fume cupboard knows how cramped it can get with 2 or even 3(!) people working in a fume cupboard. It was really nice to have your own fume cupboard with the screen to scribble some intricate mechanisms all over. Yet despite all the space, being me, it was still guaranteed to be an absolute mess by the end of the day, you only need to look at the photo for evidence here!

Here’s my fume cupboard! Lots scribbling and in desperate need of a clean…

Like most people, of course I can’t wait until we can all return to the madness of 80 people in the lab at a time. Everyone frantically rushing to make their final compounds is comparable to an extreme sport at times, and deep down I do miss it!