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How to solve a crime

November 13, 2008

The sign above the door to my analytical chem lab now says "Oberlin Crime Lab." For the rest of the semester, we're solving a crime that occurred at the Olympics involving arson, secret notes, drugs, and missing silver medals. The class has been split into two parts - prosecution and defense - and we're now preparing for the trial in December.

I'm part of the prosecution, and I must say, we're doing pretty well. I can't discuss specifics, though. We're trying to keep everything we figure out secret, in case that gives us an advantage over the defense. My group is testing the drugs. We want to find out what kind of drugs we've collected and what cutting agents were used. Once we have that data, we'll (hopefully) be able to find connections between the various people involved in the case.

I spent most of lab on Tuesday preparing little clear pellets of the sample drug and potassium bromide to be analyzed by another group member. To make the pellets, you have to measure out very, very small amounts of the sample, grind it up with some potassium bromide, and then press the whole thing in an ancient-looking machine while pulling a vacuum. The instruction manual for the press is just as ancient, and full of so many revisions that it's probably easier to just not read it.

It would be rather cliché to say that my time in lab Tuesday re-affirmed my faith in lab work in general, but it pretty much did. Let me say this now: labs tend to make me nervous. I feel like I don't have a lot of experience with them, even though I've had one or more labs for all of my semesters here. The fact that the nervousness may be irrational doesn't mean that I can make it go away, though I'm working on it.

Standing there, in a little room separated from the rest of the lab, grinding up mysterious white powders and fiddling with vacuum tubing, I had some time to think. And I realized I rather liked what I was doing. I was confident enough in the lab procedure itself that I could focus on the analyzing the results, instead of worrying about whether or not I'd messed up somewhere. Which certainly is a good thing, because the data we've started getting is puzzling to say the least. Next week, we're going to have to figure out what it means, and probably run more tests.

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