A day in the life of a chemistry researcher
With a combination of laboratory experiments, coffee, discussions, reading, writing and more coffee, one researcher offers us a glimpse into his typical day...
By Dr. Stefan Schrittwieser Posted on 14 December 2015
My day usually starts off with getting out of bed and scanning the fridge for breakfast. This is a quick exercise as it’s usually empty. The problem is that opening hours of supermarkets and my spare time do not overlap, so I depend on weekends to go shopping. If the weather is fine, (at least no snow on the streets), I use my bicycle to go to work. I really love cycling; it clears my head, wakes me up and I’m comforted with the thought that I have at least done some exercise for the day.
After saying hello to my colleagues in the office, I walk over to the lab to see what my students are doing. When entering the lab, I only have one question (“How were the results from the overnight experiments?"), but after several minutes of discussion, I leave the lab with five more questions in my head! Likewise, my students’ tasks have suddenly grown.
Reflecting on what could be improved or what went wrong in an experiment calls for my first coffee of the day. I then start to check my email. As my inbox fills up, I sometimes have the urge to run back into the lab. I go through the emails quickly nevertheless and then turn my attention to the ongoing experiments. I read through some scientific articles or textbooks. Sometimes I start thinking of technical details like how to stir a solution properly or how to best set up a precisely temperature controlled experiment. Normally, I return to the lab to correct or at least refine the tasks for the students.
Back in my office, I start to evaluate the experimental and/or simulation results. With routine measurements and simulations this can be done quickly. Based on the results, I switch from my office PC to the simulation PC to start new simulations.
Once it’s set up correctly I often have to simply change some numbers and press the start button again. The computer will now be busy for a couple of hours and it is a satisfying feeling to have at least one task finished for the day. I deserve another coffee.
Filled with caffeine, I then work on the current article that I’m writing. This starts with reading what I wrote the previous day. While contemplating on whether to rewrite parts of it, my lunch buddy shows up and asks if I want to catch something to eat. We discuss over lunch important scientific questions in our personal research fields such as football but this extends to everything else that holds the world together. Lunch is followed by a coffee break in our kitchen together with more colleagues. We often gather in front of a corkboard to check if anybody stuck up a new comic strip. Some of these comic strips are just nerdy, others are funny but the best ones are both.
Then it's time to get back to work. If the students are happy with what they are doing, I continue writing. Otherwise we discuss how to avoid what they call an “epic failure”, but in my opinion they are too critical of themselves. This is what I tell them, but patience is neither their strength nor mine.
In my experience, writing a paper is a process where periods of productivity are interrupted by a scientific problem that leads to a minor or sometimes major change to the manuscript. Some days are more suited to carrying out experimental work than actual writing. These are the days when I need extra motivation to keep moving forward. For me, this extra motivation comes in the form of a sculpture made of Bristol Blue Glass which I received as prize for my poster presentation at the 4th International Conference on Bio-Sensing Technology in Lisbon. A trophy I call “Bricksy” based on its weight.
A new travel companion
I had always planned to go hiking in Portugal after the conference in Lisbon but after I won “Bricksy”, I was suddenly faced with the dilemma of what to do with these extra kilo(s). I didn’t want to leave it behind so I figured, why not carry “Bricksy” and my poster tube with me? As it turned out, “Bricksy” and the poster tube were a great conversation starter. Fellow hikers were always rewarded with a short poster presentation when they asked what was in the strange tube I carried with me…
The writing process is often accompanied by a short discussion with my boss on developing new ideas on how to proceed. The word “short” isn’t always 100% accurate, which becomes obvious when my other two colleagues in my room put on their headphones.
On a normal working day I am also typically busy with supporting my boss by setting up new proposals to get our ideas funded. This can be the most time consuming part of the day in times when we have an unbalanced status in ideas and funding. To some extent I like writing both new proposals and summarizing results for reports. However the writing I like most is writing abstracts for scientific conferences. I love to travel and I love to see and hear what is going on in the scientific community.
I also check my agenda for any upcoming meetings and prepare for these. This ranges from simply reading the meetings’ agenda to digging into current literature on a topic I am normally not so familiar with. I love to do this because it is a way to create new ideas and broaden my own horizon.
Before I realize it, it is getting late and most people have already gone home. I give myself four options:
- Continue writing on my current article until the cleaners kick me out.
- Carry out some additional experimental work in the lab. With less people around, it’s great to have so much space on the benches. The problem of where to place another hot plate in the fume hood is a different matter…
- Print out a number of articles to read at home. This can be combined with a visit to a takeaway to grab something for dinner. I have to confess that sometimes the number of unread papers grow until the weekend. At least I don’t get bored on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Meet some friends, go to a concert or watch a football match either live in the stadium or in a pub. Obviously, this is one of my favorite options!
Regardless of the evening activity, I check my mobile before going to sleep to do a last check of my emails and answer them if possible. Then it is really time to sleep for some hours before I take another look into that empty fridge.
Can you relate to any of this in your typical day? Does it sound familiar? Have your say in the comments section below!
Stefan Schrittwieser obtained his master’s degree in physics at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria where he worked in the radiochemistry group at the Atominstitut. He received his Ph.D. in 2014 from the Bielefeld University in Germany under supervision of Andreas Hütten and Hubert Brückl. Currently, he holds a junior scientist position at the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna (Austria) in the Molecular Diagnostics group. Besides working on basic optical, magnetic and hydrodynamic nanoparticle characteristics, his research focuses on nanoparticle synthesis methods and surface modifications by specific proteins and antibodies to allow further detection of biochemical interactions on top of the nanoparticle surface.