Life in the lab

Last fall, I briefly introduced the lab where I work here at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest.  I wanted to follow that up with a more detailed look at the lab, looking similarities and differences with the labs where I’ve worked in the US.  Some of this will be fairly technical for the non-scientists in the crowd, but hopefully you can follow along.

Overall, things function fairly similarly to labs in the US.  It is fortunate that my area of science — organic chemistry — is not overly reliant on expensive equipment.  Given some chemicals and flasks, anyone can get a reaction started.  The standard lab equipment (heating/stirring plates, rotary evaporators) in my group is new and of very high quality — better than any that I’ve used in the US.  Some pictures are shown here below: the hot plates have attached thermometers that are used to regulate the reaction or bath temperature and the rotovap is connected to a handy membrane pump to provide the vacuum.

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As for larger equipment, that can be more difficult.  The standard piece of analytical equipment for organic compounds in an NMR spectrometer, the price tag for a new instrument starts at about $250,000.  ELTE has a couple of these instruments, the one available to our group (and other organic groups) is a 250 mHz instrument that was donated by Princeton university.  The magnet is probably about 20 years old, but the electronics and interface are newer.  It is well-maintained and very functional, though NMR seems to be generally less relied on her, probably because of the limited availability of instruments (by comparison, the University of Wisconsin, where I did postdoctoral work, had at least 7 instruments, most much more powerful than the one at ELTE).

The other big difference is the approach to consumable supplies. In the US, we buy (and discard) large quantities of lab equipment: pipettes, test tubes, kim-wipes, etc. In Hungary, these smaller items are commonly reused, and sometimes missing altogether. Almost nothing is discarded: Pastuer pipettes, vials, and test tubes are collected, washed, and reused.  The acetone solvent used to wash them is collected, redistilled and reused.  I have yet to find Kimwipes (the chemistry equivalent of paper towels, just more sterile); instead we have a roll of toilet paper (harvested from the WC across the hall) neatly rolled up inside an old box.  Likewise, we have no true weighing paper; instead old chemical catalogs are chopped up into pieces for weighing chemicals.

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I suppose the savings on supplies adds up over time, perhaps enough to buy a small instrument.  When I return to my home lab, I’ll think more carefully about how we use supplies; probably not this carefully but we definitely discard more than we need to.

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