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Biological Chemistry

Dirty jobs in the lab

Cleaning up after others in the lab doesn’t have to be a thankless task

by Chemjobber
April 11, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 16

It’s not fun to wash glassware, but it has to get done. Instead of letting it pile up, you should take your glassware over to the sink, lather up a basin with some Alconox, scrape out the gunk, and squirt down tarry flasks with some acetone—if there is any.

Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

Of course, there is never, ever any acetone. Why is the acetone bottle empty? Well, inevitably, it’s because it takes a huge amount of time to fetch the acetone jug, get your PPE (personal protective equipment) on, walk out to the warehouse, get the pump, ground the drum, and pump a few liters of acetone into your bottle. None of us wants to spend 15 minutes of our day doing this, and because of that, it doesn’t get done.

I don’t mind fetching the acetone; I actually enjoy it. But there are jobs around the lab that even I avoid doing. You won’t find me fixing our balky HPLC or sweeping out from underneath the laboratory refrigerator.

Why does it seem that, in too many labs, the same people do the same crummy jobs? How can we spread this pain around so that it is a little fairer?

The key work of a laboratory is, of course, the scientific experiments and the data they produce. But so many aspects of keeping a laboratory clean are hidden, and those jobs aren’t very glamorous.

A classic dirty job is cleaning out the laboratory refrigerator. It’s not much different from cleaning out the break-room refrigerator: It’s an awful, grimy job that is both vital and smelly. Hopefully, no ancient items need special safety precautions. After pulling out all the old reagents and the unlabeled vials and flasks, there’s still work to be done dissolving out the various crusted-up compounds and scrubbing out the bottles.

On the other hand, some of these tasks are systemically important. More biologically oriented laboratories often run on liters and liters of buffers that all experiments are run in. Get that buffer wrong and weeks worth of work can be destroyed, often without a strong sense of what the culprit actually is. Didn’t order enough deuterated solvents for an organic synthesis laboratory? The lab will grind to a halt before long, and the workers will begin to either steal from other laboratories or (worse yet) hoard their own supplies. These crucial tasks should be handed out to the most reliable members of the group, those who can be counted on to do their jobs without fail.

Crummy jobs are actually a great way to get to know your coworkers. No one loves the job of inventorying supplies for your lab, but if you make it a job that people do together, it can become one of those moments where you and your fellow scientists can choose to be around each other and collaborate as you count through the stacks of test tubes and bottles of HPLC solvents. I’ve learned a lot about the operations of other departments and just exactly why those analytical results aren’t going to be coming today, changing my impatience for results into sympathy for my coworkers.

When things are tough in the lab, I have a favorite difficult job that I still perform from time to time: changing the pump oil. Vacuum pumps and their manifolds need care and attention. I have always loved this task, and there is a rhythm to it. You pull out the waste oil jug, drain the old oil into the jug, close the drain, and add fresh oil. What is so wonderful about this task other than its simplicity is how revived it can make a pump sound. When experiments are going poorly, it’s nice to be able to make a simple improvement to the laboratory that benefits everyone—just make sure to clean off the pump oil with the right solvent!

And that’s another reason I often find myself at the sink scrubbing beakers and three-neck flasks again with some dilute Alconox solution and acetone. I’ll be scrubbing away with my hands, but my brain is pondering that mystery peak in the HPLC or a new chemical thought that my boss had.

I’d rather not get acetone for the whole lab yet again, but doing the dirty work of cleaning glassware is a great way of getting some deep thinking in.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.




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J. A. Beck (April 12, 2017 4:21 PM)
Doing the unpleasant, mindless, but required chores that exist in any environment is especially important when the usual work is mentally draining. Those few minutes to do the necessary nasties and mentally "zone out" is like a catnap for the brain. If you let your attention drift while working on a chemistry experiment, the results could be really bad for both the experiment and the experimenter.
J. Mason (April 13, 2017 12:04 PM)
I'm still in undergrad, but I've always taken pride in maintaining a clean and respectable laboratory space. A lab should always be presentable, especially to incoming students who may be on the fence about where they want to go to school. The upper level majors (like myself) don't often receive open praise for it, but we know it's the right thing to do.
Hormuzd Mulla (April 13, 2017 11:17 PM)
I've come up against this necessary evil in grad school, as a postdoc and in industry. Housekeeping and regular upkeep of the laboratory are tedious but extremely necessary things in a chemical laboratory. As a team leader, we used to designate a day (a friday or if everyone agrees, a saturday morning) to clean up the lab. All the tasks were listed and distributed equally amongst the group members. Every piece of equipment was cleaned, oil changes, transfer of compounds stored in lab glassware as well as inventory, checking and arrangement of all chemicals was taken up. The cleaning up of personal work spaces was done by individual chemists. The exercise took approximately one working day when all chemistry/work-related activities were suspended with no exceptions. Once the job was done, there was a group lunch or dinner for all involved. This was a great way for everyone in the group to work as one where everyone was doing the same thing, to make the lab a good environment to work again. It was also an excellent way to bond with colleagues across rank and file.
Lisa Nagy (April 14, 2017 12:37 AM)
A good lab cleaning/purge always seemed to turn my luck around. Throwing out all those column tails and mother liquors (really, you're going to repurify that junk for an extra 2%????) was so liberating.
Musa Maliki (April 16, 2017 10:04 AM)
For respectable and outstanding results to be achieved in any experiment maintaining a clean and conducive laboratory space and glassware is an indispensable factor take note.
Doug Kindra (April 18, 2017 10:59 AM)
There is nothing quite like taking the filthiest round bottom you've ever seen, and over a few days, turn it into a glowing, spotless, perfect example of Pyrex.
Robert Buntrock (April 24, 2017 11:06 AM)
As an undergrad and grad student researcher I always tried to keep ahead of my dirty lab dishes and apparatus. I also used TLC a lot and usually took responsibility for preparing a batch of new plates. We had a few extra plates so that not all had to be turned in for cleaning before preparing a new batch, but some lab mates were tardy, especially the post doc working across the lab bench from me. He had accumulated the majority of the plates and they'd been sitting on his bench for at least a couple of weeks with no activity. Since it was not efficient to prepare just a few plates, I arranged his dirty plates so that they spelled "wash me". He was irate and yelled at me (since he was a former tank commander in the Israeli army he had me worried). He eventually cleaned the plates.

Incidentally, a trick I learned the summer before grad school involved mini-TLC. Dip a pair of microscope plates into a silica suspension, separate, and dry. Develop in a small beaker.
Lark Leazar (April 26, 2017 7:41 AM)
Great column, loved it! I have a solution (ha) for the "Why is my acetone bottle always empty" problem. Maybe 15 years ago, I started labeling MY acetone bottle "DMK" instead of acetone. Amazingly, now it's only empty when I don't fill it. DMK is short for dimethylketone, which is obviously acetone. I suppose you could label it 2-propanone instead, but DMK is easier. It makes me smile every time I pick it up and it's not empty.

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