Thursday, November 16, 2006

And How Was Your Day?

(cue announcer voice for the following sentence) It's time once again for another Stupid Sandra Moment!

First, I need to provide some background. One of the instruments I work with in the lab is a HPLC, short for High Performance Liquid Chromatography. It allows us to separate, identify, and quantify compounds we're interested in. It does this by flowing a stream of liquid, such as water, a buffer, or an organic liquid, over a column. A column is a thin metal bar with an interior matrix that can be made up of a polymer or some other material, depending on the application. Different materials will be retained by this matrix for different lengths of time, so when they come off, they do so at different times. Other equipment then detects the compounds and registers them as peaks against a baseline. The whole setup takes up a good chunk of a lab bench and costs more than my car. When it works, it works well, but lately we've been having various problems with it.

We purchased a new column recently for a new project. I installed it today. The manufacturer recommends having the solvent running during installation to prevent air from getting into the column, which is a bad thing. This particular column requires a mix of water and acetonitrile, not one of the safest chemicals I've worked with. So as I put the column into place, I held it over the waste carboy we use to temporarily store used solvent before we dispose of it. Meanwhile, every connection of this column to the line was leaking. In attempting to fix that, I got lefty-loosey and righty-tighty mixed up. The column came free and slid down the funnel into the waste carboy.

I freaked a bit. Columns cost hundreds of dollars, and the other chemicals inside the carboy could damage this one. How could I get it out? The carboy opening was too narrow for me to reach inside -- and I wouldn't want to anyway; a mere glove wouldn't be enough protection. I tried fishing out the column with a magnet, but that was too weak to hold it. There was only one thing I could do: empty the carboy into the storage drum and catch the column when it came out.

I donned my lab coat and took the carboy to the warehouse where the drum is kept. As I unlocked the cabinet containing the drum, my boss came by with a gas cylinder. He's always the one empty out the carboy, so he came over and asked what I was doing. I'd hoped I wouldn't have to tell him what had happened, but I had to confess what had happened.

He doubled over in laughter. Then he shooed me back to the lab to take care of it.

Luckily, my boss was able to rescue the column, and we installed it. I'm still testing it, but I think it'll be OK. (Some of our columns are so delicate their matrices wilt if you look at them funny, so I'm glad this one isn't that sensitive.)

Now that I've atoned for my mistake by confessing it on the Internet, I hope the HPLC god will be satisfied and let us get some work done for a change.

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