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Saturday, October 20th, 2007 05:50 pm
I can has enemarr spectromatar!

Am slightly worried by how happy news of my lab equipment working has made me, but loving what I'm doing day-to-day finally seems a very worthwhile tradeoff to make. Also, the reliability of a the fix (gaffa! no, seriously, gaffa!) holding a wire with a dodgy connection down is a little suspect, but as long as it's working, all is good.

I said I'd explain what it is I actually do with it, so...

NMR spectroscopy is a technique for investigating what atomic nuclei exist in a compound, how they are connected, and what environment they are in. We put the sample in a strong magnetic field so they all line up, put in various pulse sequences of electromagnetic energy which make them flip around, then measure the energy that they give off as they 'relax' and return back to their original state. (This skips over some very smart maths used to transform the measured signals into a spectrum of frequency vs. intensity. Fourier transform FTW.)

When you have a complex sample with lots of components (such as a plant extract) it becomes very difficult to see all the components without them interfering with one another. This is where I come in. I'm trying to develop a sequence of energy pulses that give the most information possible about what compounds exist in a plant tissue extract. Then we take the data I've generated, and feed it into a mathematical model of a plant cell to calculate the flux of each metabolic component through each enzyme in the system. Ultimately, knowing this sort of thing helps us to make crops, or animals, or bacterial cultures more productive.

In practice, much of my day is spent sitting in front of the console of a machine that looks like the ones at the Wikipedia NMR entry, trying out various pulse sequences, and trying to work out which ones give us the most information, and why.

At the moment the best sequences seem to be of a type called HSQC, which work by exciting a hydrogen atom, getting it to transfer that excitation to a carbon atom, leaving a delay for the surroundings of the carbon to have an effect, then transferring it back to the hydrogen to be detected. (Excitation and detection of hydrogen atoms is much more efficient, hence the indirect transfer rather than just detecting the carbon directly). There's also another method called TOCSY, which may be a little more precise, but offers slightly less information, but at the moment HSQC is providing plenty of interesting leads.In other news, I attempted to go to Brookes climbing wall on Thursday, and sat around for 2 hours waiting in vain for members of OUMC, and instead managed to meet a new caver, and anther potential climber, who also works in Plant Sciences. As per usual, term is filling up very fast, so I'm thinking it's time I made some definite bookings for trips, rather than expecting I'll slot them around other things. More exercise and being outdoors is always good, although even just having a 1-mile ride to and from the lab every day is helping my general mood and awareness.

Last night was birthday drinks for [ profile] mi_guida at Raouls. They have lovely tasty cocktails, and everyone assembled there looked beautiful, and made fascinating conversation, and the whole evening was generally wonderful. I also seem to have been persuaded into going to Queer Bop, and buying tickets for non-Wadhamites. Just need to go about sorting out my dress, then. Also, more useful adviice from people who have left Oxford on possible future directions.

So, I'm pretty certain I want to stay in academia now. Everything about it suits me - the not-entirely-but-close-enough-9-to-5 hours, having real problems that matter to solve, living in a city with students (I'm hoping that Oxford isn't too much an isolate in this, and that other university towns have similar levels of extra-curricular activity) The only problem with this is that my current marks are unlikely to guarantee me place in a lab. If I make a decent improvement this year, I could well pull my performance up, but it's by no means a certainty.

The obvious solution now seems to be to take a year out to work, which would have the added bonus of clearing the small but bothersome amount of debt I have outside of my student loans. Then I could start applying for courses based on my actual degree classification, and take some time out towards the end of the academic year to travel and do voluntary work for a bit. There's a lot of useful work that can be done by a well-placed pair of enthusiastic hands, and doesn't require four years of specialised training, which I sometimes forget. However, having acquired the latter, I think it'd be a crime not to use and enjoy it.

A 3/4 millon pounds worth of high technology, and we fix it with gaffa. This is wonderful. :)


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