Reinventing the Wheel

One of my biggest frustrations about chemistry research is the quantity of time that is spent reinventing the wheel – or perfecting reactions published multiple times previously, or done previously in the research group.  This is not necessarily a common problem but as a dendrimer chemist, I need  a small set of optimised reactions for each project I undertake.  I may also have a number of different researchers working on that project, and so need the hard won ‘best reactions’ to be passed on in reproducible detail at all times.  Not doing this wastes time and effort.

If we consider the scientific literature, then the biggest fault I would find with synthetic papers is the absence of small details.  For example, an experienced organic synthetic chemist may by habit do all reactions in flame dried flasks under carefully dried argon gas.  This might just be a left over experimental set-up from some particularly pedantic procedure, but it might also make a difference.  You don’t exactly get a line in the experimental section saying ‘postgrad chemist was anal about his lab technique and did blah blah blah for each reaction’, do you?

Take this molecule:

it’s simply 1,2-diaminoethane protected with a t-butyl carbamate (BOC) protecting group.  If we search in Beilstein for some reaction conditions to install the BOC protecting group, we find multiple papers and each with a slightly different method.  Some require column chromatography (variety of solvents with aqueous ammonia or triethylamine to tackle the base), some require BOC-ON, some require other BOC based molecules (such as the anhydride) to provide the prerequisite functionality.   Two of my project students have spent quite a bit of time trying to optimise the column chromatography step (because the concentration of aqueous ammonia is a moving target depending on the age of the bottle), only to finally figure out that it wasn’t really necessary if we just washed with 10% sodium hydroxide solution during work-up.  My question?  Why can’t we have a listing of ‘tried and tested’ methods for these very simple proceedures.

I’ll acknowledge at this point that I’m not an organic chemist, organic transformations are recipes and spectroscopic techniques are tools to verify the results.  I don’t want to spend 6 months optimising the conditions for a particular reaction because the goal of my work is not to develop reactions but rather to test hybrid materials as catalysts or for metal remediation.  Organic Synthesis has bailed me out once this semester with a reliable procedure.   As a resource it is simply limited by how many people submit methods to it, and how fast they can be checked out.

Between researchers with in my ‘group’  (which at the moment encompasses me, undergraduate project students and perhaps a summer student or two), what’s the best method of passing along these reliable methods?  It is pretty tiresome to wade through several lab books just to get the method you want, but not really practical to ask project students (who are constrained by the course guidelines on report writing and lab book keeping) to make any additional record of their reactions.   Sample spectroscopic data would be a useful attachment to this.  Ultimately these procedures form the experimental section of any publication, but we’re a long way off that stage.

I’m thinking about this mainly as a way of ensuring that important information is not lost, and that valuable research time is not lost.  When continuity on a project is an issue (with no ‘hand over’ period between researchers when undergrad project students are involved), it is important to get this right from the very start.

One Reply to “Reinventing the Wheel”

  1. Sounds like a job for a wiki. I know some people advocate for open lab books: they are written on the computer, and access can be given the the whole world, or just a select bunch.

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