Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Synthesizing in Georgia

As I mentioned in a previous post, my chemistry professor, Mzia, invited me to come work in her laboratory at the Institute for Physical and Organic Chemistry. She had warned me that conditions there were bad: there wasn't always running water, electricity wasn't guaranteed either, heating couldn't be afforded, etc... But I wasn't put off in the least; after all, I'm living in those conditions in my apartment.

Yet when I approached the building for the first time last Friday, I realized that Mzia had made the facilities sound relatively good compared to what I was looking at. The exterior of this soviet-era building is falling apart, and it's even worse on the inside. I entered through a side door and descended a flight of stairs to a poorly lit basement that had large gaping holes in the floor where I rode a rickety elevator to the third floor. I might as well have been in a horror movie. Again, the lighting was poor, but slightly better due to the sunlight streaming through the windows. Mzia gave me a brief tour of her lab (Organic Synthesis) and the lab of her colleague, Roini (considered to be one of the best chemists in Georgia, who, in spite of the conditions, consistently gets better results than his colleagues in Moscow). Besides the overall poor condition of the fume hoods and lab equipment that one would expect from a laboratory that hadn't been upgraded since the soviet-era, I was struck by the dozens of two liter plastic beer and soda bottles. These vessels held precious water. I don't think it needs mentioning, but water is necessary for chemistry. At the institute, water only runs for 3 hours, 3 days a week--that's only 9 hours a week of water! The powers that be at the institute restrict the water supply citing costs; for the same reason, they also forbid heating the building (which is why no one takes off their coat in the lab). Last year, there weren't enough funds even for electricity, so for 5 months, research came to a halt, except in Roini's lab: he used a propane stove to perform most of his experiments and somehow managed to still get good results. As Mzia told me, If you can synthesize in Georgia, you can synthesize anywhere.

Mzia then invited me for some coffee and a chance to review some of her research (currently, synthesizing compounds with anticoagulant and antioxidant properties). I also read one of the lab's research papers still in the drafting stage. I noticed many grammatical mistakes which Mzia kindly allowed me to correct; this is probably how I can help the institute the most. That and perhaps grant writing. She also reminded me that my work would be without pay as the institute did not have funds for another salaried position. She revealed that her monthly salary, as the director of a lab mind you, is $100 (one hundred, in case you thought I left out a zero) and she comes to the institute almost everyday. Shortly, Roini arrived with a liter of Odessa wine, and within a matter of minutes, it was gone--I've almost come to expect now that I'll be drinking in the oddest of places. After what I thought was the last toast, Nino, one of Roini's research assistants, came in to announce that the water had stopped running, and also came bearing another 1.5 liters of wine, which didn't last long either. In spite of downing a liter of wine, I was still conscious enough to say that I would be back the next day to start helping out.

I did come the next day to Roini's lab, where Roini and Nino had already been working for a few hours. Roini wasn't in best form because apparently, the day before, after drinking with me, he went to a friend's birthday party where he drank 5 (!) more liters of wine and was paying for it now with a hangover. Therefore, Nino and I (to some extent) took over the experiment, which mainly involved pouring water from a plastic bottle into a funnel to feed water to the condenser. Nino knows very good English and has been kind and patient enough to explain the experiment in detail (we're synthesizing a ruthenocene derivative). When things slowed down, Nino prepared a lunch of fried potatoes, cheese, and various pickled vegetables for the three of us (yes, there is a small kitchen in the laboratory). And of course, Roini brought out another liter of wine. I think I'm going to like working here...

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