The Great British Bake Off is a TV staple for most of us Brits – and further afield now it is on Netflix! But I often find myself in the lab following a protocol and comparing it to following your favourite recipe. There seems to be a load of similarities between following a recipe and doing an experiment in the lab – it’s just unfortunate that my experiments don’t produce a tasty, edible treat at the end – which you definitely should NOT do! But there is one avenue of science where there seem to be even more similarities and that is medicinal chemistry. So today I have a guest blogger who happens to be a medicinal chemist and is going to ask you to spot the difference between the Bake Off and medicinal chemistry. So, let me introduce you to Fiona S.
As a medicinal chemist my role is to design and make new drug-like molecules using organic chemistry that might lead to new medicines one day. I’m just over halfway through my PhD at Sussex Drug Discovery Centre based at University of Sussex in Brighton.
Specifically, my project involves making “tool compounds” which are used by biologists to evaluate whether shutting down the activity of a particular cell signalling protein, called a kinase, is useful for treating several different cancers.
Outside of the lab I enjoy baking and catching up with one of the UK’s most popular TV programmes “The Great British Bake Off”. I see a lot of overlap in my skill set that I use in the kitchen and in the lab. As stressful as the tent situation seems, it’s not all that different from working in a chemistry lab.
People don’t usually believe me when I say being a chemist is just like being a baker but genuinely, my days are spent weighing out chemical ingredients – although I’m generally weighing out milligrams rather than grams which can be fiddly – and combining them in particular ways and then leaving them to stir at a particular temperature for a particular length of time.
Our lab has an oven for drying glassware, fridges and freezers for storing temperature-sensitive chemicals in the ‘pantry’, microwaves – although our ‘chemistry microwave’ is a little different to usual, especially with the robotic arm – what is basically a kettle in the form of a rotary evaporator, weighing scales and hotplates for heating reactions – Bunsen Burners aren’t generally used these days as the open flame combined with flammable chemicals would be disastrous!
There are classic chemical reactions that I learned about in my undergraduate degree, e.g. how to you form a bond between a carbon and a nitrogen atom, how do you convert X to Y. I essentially had to learn a list of recipes.
When starting to make a new molecule I look up existing reactions on databases such as SciFinder and Reaxys to find either a previous example of the molecule being made or something as similar as possible – which is often more exciting to find because it means you’re likely the first person to try and make that particular molecule.
After trying out a new reaction procedure/recipe, if it doesn’t work first time – which happens very often! – I tweak some of the bits of the recipe like time, temperature, the liquid the reaction is in, the ratio of ingredients, until I have a reaction protocol that works to make the molecule I need.
As I mentioned above, I often use other people’s recipes as starting points in my project. Often the first attempt is a lot of guess work, depending on the quality of the protocol you’ve been given in a paper.
Sometimes researchers have been really thorough in explaining how they made a molecule while in most cases, they’re been a little vague. There’s a lot of figuring out which bits of the recipe apply to you and the equipment you have in order to carry out the reaction.
Most of the time during my PhD I feel like I’m in the middle of the final challenge of a GBBO episode. There’s a lot of multitasking involved. I typically have a few reactions on the go at once. While some are stirring away at the back of the fume hood I work in, I’ll be working to purify others using different techniques to get rid of side products and excess starting material that may still be in the reaction mixtures.
That in combination with analysing data generated from the molecules I’ve made to make sure I’ve made the right molecule and reading literature about kinases, medicinal chemistry and general drug development, there’s always something to do.
At the end of each week I summarise everything I’ve done on one side of A4 and present it to the post-doc who supervises me on a day-to-day basis to discuss what chemistry has worked and what I should try next. While he’s nowhere near as scary as Paul Hollywood, I can identify with the pride/peril the bakers experience when showing the fruit of their labour.
Thankfully no one is chucked out of my lab each week but it would be nice to perhaps have a star chemist of the week. I hope I’ve helped you realise that working in a chemistry lab is not as foreign as you might think. I write a bit about my experience as a PhD student, chemistry and how it relates to everyday life in my blog TheChemistryOfAPhD.
Huge thank you to Fiona for writing this guest blog for Soph talks science. I hope that you can all now see a little clear that being a scientist isn’t actually that different to being a baker. If you want to see more of Fiona’s writing, please head over to her blog and follow her on social media too!
How many differences did you spot? Who now thinks baking is a science too? Want to know more about medicinal chemistry? Ask your questions to Fiona via social media or post them in the comments below.
♥ Love what you see? Then don’t miss a blog post by signing up for email notifications!