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.

Final Exam Season

Two of my friends in the group, Balázs and Bálint, showed up at the university dressed up in 3-piece suits, white shirts, and ties this morning.  I haven’t seen much of them since the beginning of the year; they are both masters students and are in their final exam period now (today was their Physical Organic Chemistry exam). They join the smaller-than-usual, but better dressed-than-usual group of students that I find at the university each day (and Hungarian students are already better dressed than their American counterparts — no flip-flops, slippers, sweatpants, or PJs).  Students spend most of their time studying and only come in for exams, which are held between December 17 and February 1 (yes, 6 weeks!).

Why 6 weeks and 3-piece suits for exams, you ask?  Well, let’s just say the final exams are very important.  That’s actually an understatement — they are everything.  I asked Balázs and Bálint whether they had any other assignments, quizzes, exams, papers, etc in the Physical Organic Chemistry course yet.  Nope, just this final exam — an oral exam with just you and the professor.  The topics are wide open and can include any material covered during the semester.  I suppose that procrastinators don’t fluorish (or survive) in this system.  Good luck Balázs and Bálint!

UPDATE: Balázs has returned and received a 4 for the exam/course (5 is the highest); everyone seemed pleased. Bálint actually has a different exam: a comprehensive exam covering all of his inorganic courses.  It is also an oral exam (with 3 professors) and starts in 30 minutes. I asked him how long he expected it to be; he didn’t know but said (sarcastically) that he anticipated “long fun”.

Picking up where we left off

It was off to work for me again yesterday after an extended Christmas break.  Zoli (the professor I work with) gave everyone off until January 7 because the campus was to be shut down with no heat, but he said in actuality they didn’t turn off the heat and it was hotter than usual in the building.  Before we left for break, our last official get together was the group Christmas party.  This was a lot of fun, with lots of conversation (some of which I could follow), a gift exchange, and insane amounts of food and drink.  Given my slight frame and relatively low tolerance, I’ve learned to drink slowly and leave early.

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The group assembled at the Novak/Kele Christmas party. Third from the left (next to me in the gray sweater) is Zoli (Zoltan Novak). At the end of the table (in the sportscoat next to the guy in the red shirt) is Peter Kele, another professor that we work closely with.

Yesterday, on the first day back, we got a call in the lab at 3:30 PM that there was a gathering for wine in the breakroom.  Sure enough, all the PhD students and advisors in the Novak and Kele groups were there, with a few bottles of red wine on the table.  Where did they come from?  Apparantly, they were gifts from the area VWR (a large chemical and lab supply company) sales rep. This doesn’t happen in the US (is it even legal?).  They also received a VWR baseball cap (I’m guessing this was left from the US promotional items…).

So I got a Green Card….

sort of…except that it’s red.  Those of you that have been reading religiously may remember that at the beginning of the trip, I had to file some papers for residency.  We had tried our best to navigate the many options and requirements, and finally were informed that, since Dora is a citizen, I should be applying for temporary residency.  Since then, we’ve had some visits from the immigration authorities.  On the first visit, we weren’t home, but they were able to verify from others in the building that I did indeed live there.  The next time they came at a scheduled time; I was at work but Dora gave them all the information they needed.  They seemed surprised that I had filed in the first place; apparently what  I do doesn’t actually qualify as work (since I’m paid by LVC), and I could legally stay in the country for 90 days at a time as long as I leave briefly in between (not that anyone’s checking).  So, all for naught, but I was approved and now can legally work and reside in Hungary for the next 5 years.  I even have the red card with a terrible mug shot to prove it!

Work — An introduction to ELTE

As I mentioned in my last post, I want to start doing some posts about my work in a research lab in Hungary (yes, I do actually do work here!) I figured I’d start by giving you a brief overview of Eötvös Loránd University, also known as ELTE.  The University is the largest in Hungary, with over 30,000 students.  However, there are several campuses spread across the city, so it doesn’t feel that large.  The Lágymányosi Campus where the Faculty of Sciences resides is located along the Danube, a little over 1 mile from our apartment.  In September, I used a combination of walking and public transportation to commute each day, but this month I’ve given up my pass and am walking to and from the university each day.  So far so good!  It’s nice to get some exercise each day, something I sorely missed in the US.  Here are some photos from the campus where I work:

This first one show some of the neighboring buildings.  The buildings have a very modern look with some unusual architecture.

This picture is actually from my lab window.  Next to the modern buildings is the construction of a new research facility that will house the national academy of sciences.

Here are some shots of the building where I actually work:

Though the building seems to have gone through several additons/renovations, they’ve done a good job of giving it a nice exterior look.  From the inside, you can see different styles in different sections of the building.  All of the offices and labs, even in the older parts, are in pretty decent shape, though.  I’ll devote a full post to what research in the lab is like and how it is similar to and different from my experiences at US universities, but for now, here’s a picture of my actual lab:

Inching Toward Residency

One of our big concerns upon arriving was getting my residency permit taken care of.  There isn’t any visa requred to entry, but if you intend to stay longer than 3 months you need to get a residency permit.  We saw some horror stories on the internet, but did quite a bit of preparing and hoped we would be OK.  We filled out all of the forms and gathered all of the documents for a Residency Permit for the Purpose of Scientific Research, which seemed to fit perfectly my situation.  Turns out that I was wrong.  We arrived at the office yesterday, and were immediately informed by the officer there that we had the wrong form.  We were required to file and application for my residency based on the fact that my wife, Dora, is a Hungarian citizen.  Essentially, they now have me filing for what seems to be roughly the equivalent of a green card.  This required a different form and somewhat different documents, which we were able to fill out on the spot in the office waiting room (with the help of some complete strangers that Dora managed to round up as witnesses).  So everything seems to be OK at this point, though we won’t know for sure for 3 months, and they said they may call us in at some point for interviews (apparantly to make sure that our 10+ year, 3 kid marriage wasn’t a scam on my part to gain 1 year temporary residence in Hungary).

Ready to Depart!

Well, our adventure in Hungary is rapidly approaching.  We’ll be leaving on August 1st and will fly from Newark, NJ to Warsaw, Poland and then on to Budapest.  I’ll use this blog to cover many of the highlights of our year-long journey, including:

  • Living in Budapest.  We’ll stay in a small apartment on the Buda side of the city in the same building as Dora’s parents.
  • My work at Eötvös Loránd University. I’ll be working with Zoltán Novák, on a photochemistry project trying to use dye molecules to harvest light energy and initiate chemical reactions.
  • The experiences of our children, Daniel and Panka, in the Hungarian school system.  Daniel is 7 and will be in the 2nd grade.  He’s been working with his mom on his Hungarian, but isn’t fluent yet.  We expect that will change quickly.  Panka is 5 and will be in the equivalent of kindergarten in Hungary.
  • Our travels in Hungary and the rest of Europe.
  • Two of my students, Tai Nguyen and Rachel Denny, will visit and work with me at the university in the Summer of 2013 as part of the Arnold Experiential Grant Program and Lebanon Valley College.

If you are looking for pointers on what you need to bring with you when traveling abroad with a family of 5 for a year, this picture should give you an idea:

…and here is (some of) the stuff we left behind: