Out of my element

I had the most memorable teacher after I finished with school. I had been accepted into the Research Experience for Teachers Program at UNM and was assigned to Tim Boyle’s Lab at Sandia National Labs’ Advanced Materials Lab. I was warned that he didn’t look like a scientist and was incredibly informal. I was thrilled. Tim greeted me and assigned me a mentor.

My research focus was to synthesize a gallium alkoxide. This involves reacting gallium trichloride with potassium bistrimethylsilyl amide in a hexane slurry to synthesize gallium amide. Then you strip it down, redissolve it, throw in an aryl oxide and (hopefully not) boom, you have a gallium alkoxide. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Lesson 1-Science is hard and it’s supposed to be hard.

Everything in the Boyle lab is terrifying beyond all reason. Every single chemical kills or injures you in even small amounts. Gallium trichloride reacts with even trace amounts of humidity to make hydrochloric acid gas. Every reaction we did was done in an inert environment. Gloveboxes were packed to the brim with chemicals and reactions that other people were doing. Your hands got sweaty in the thick nitrile gloves and it make grabbing, unscrewing, pouring, and reaching for things daunting at the best of times.

Lesson 2-You have to share space, be comfortable with being uncomfortable, be considerate of others’ work, and be safe.

 Our training wheels reaction involved synthesizing one of the compounds that Tim was known for. I progressed from shoulder to shoulder, line of sight, to earshot levels of trust with my mentor. I had to ask questions every step of the way and was completely out of my element.

Lesson 3-You are expected to ask questions. Assume nothing. Be patient.

 Finally I got my titanium neopentoxide ready for characterization. This means taking two bolts, squeezing a pea size amount of powder between them, and shining an argon laser through it. It’s known as Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR). The diffraction of the laser through the nitrogen gas will tell you if you have it right. If you don’t, you do it again until you do.

Lesson 4-All the rules matter all the time. You are expected to perform.

 The FTIR instrument is insanely expensive. So is the single crystal x-ray diffraction instrument and the nuclear magnetic resonance instrument. The chemicals are expensive. The glassware I worked with was $150 a piece. I broke three of them. Mistakes happen. He trusts high school and college students to use it all while only stopping in once and a while and never bugging you about things unless you have questions.

Lesson 5-Highly motivated people don’t need to be micromanaged; in fact, they resent it. They need resources, trust, and time.

 When you finally get something right, you have to do a presentation on it from memory. You’re expected to know every step, the chemical formulas and structures, and be able to ask questions about your work. If you don’t do it right you do it again. Dr. Timothy J Boyle makes sure there are opportunities to screw up because he delights in rattling students at every step of the process. But there’s a purpose to it. If you’re going to be successful in the world of science you can expect such treatment on a regular basis so you might as well get used to it now.

Lesson 6-Prepare thoroughly and always be prepared. You always need to be the most prepared person in the room. You never know when your elevator speech will be needed. There are those who will celebrate you one day and pounce on you the next, if only to advance their own agenda.

I was finally allowed to work on my research project. I failed the entire first summer. Nothing worked. The next summer I finally got something right.

Lesson 7-Real science is mostly failing until you run out of things to screw up.

 I was lucky to have Tim as a teacher. The second summer I also worked closely with his post-doc, LaRico Treadwell, who gave me laundry lists full of reactions to do. At one point I must have looked overwhelmed. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Speck it’s a race. That’s what science is. You got to do everything all the time.”

Lesson 8-If you want to do things no one else has done you have be willing to work insanely hard.

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