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Lab Rat

My name is Jecca, and I’m an Environmental Lab Analyst.

I facetiously explain this by describing myself as the girl companies go to when the EPA wants to find out how badly they’re raping the environment, you go to when you want to see if your yard’ll make your dog grow extra legs, or saying that I get paid to burn stuff and blow things up.

I wish it was more complicated than that. I really do.

In actuality, whenever the Dover Air Force Base needs to dispose of anything from water to firearms residue, it needs to be tested to determine if it needs to be classified as hazardous. When a city wants to institute a new water treatment protocol, they need to find out whether or not it works. When a construction company needs soil to backfill an excavated area, they need to know whether or not it’s clean.

So, in short… Companies send me their water, soil, building materials, gunpowder, textile scraps, insulation, you name it… and I tell them if it’s full of cyanide, sulfide, hexavalent chromium, mercury, or if it’s going to explode if you hold a match to it. Fun stuff.

Ninety percent of my job involves observing how stuff behaves under conditions of heat, pressure, and corrosion.

So the “burning stuff and blowing things up” descriptor isn’t all that far off, really. The only trouble is that for every cool thing I get to do, I have to fill out two hours worth of log books.

Environmental Chemistry- Saving the world in the most mundane and boring way imaginable!

Until recently.
But I’ll get to that.

Anyhow, as you can probably imagine, I have to stir stuff. A lot.

The trouble inherent in stirring things is contaminating them. Plus the fact that I generally kind of need to… you know, do other stuff at the same time. So, instead of a spatula or stirring rod, I use stir bars. They’re magnets about the size of a tablet of penicillin. Drop one in a beaker, set it on a stir plate, crank it up, and a rotating magnet in the plate causes said stir bar to spin, stirring the sample at a nice, constant rate. All hands free!

… Hey, I thought it was cool the first time I saw it.

Don’t judge me.

Needless to say (but I’m gonna tell you anyway. Don’t you hate when people do that?) these little guys need to be cleaned. Constantly.

Let me preface this next bit with “Laziness creates efficiency.” I’m a firm believer in that.
Now, allow me to introduce my good friends Aqua Reagia, Isopropanol, and Dawn dish liquid.
Generally, the first step is Dawn. A lot of Dawn, a little water, and you’ve got a good all-purpose degreaser. Trouble is, it doesn’t do jack-diddly-crap for the tiny iron filings that end up stuck all over my magnets.
So! Step two is AR. Three parts concentrated nitric acid to one part concentrated hydrochloric acid.
It turns orange.
It bubbles.
It releases pungent amounts of painfully corrosive gas.
It looks, smells, and behaves like every badass mad scientist chemical you can possibly imagine would. And it dissolves metal like sugar in hot coffee.
Isopropanol is just plain old rubbing alcohol.

But dish soap is just dish soap, right? So what harm could it do if I threw a couple of drops into some AR, and save time?
Not much, as it turns out.
… however, when you don’t adequately rinse out said jar-avec-magnets, then dump in some isopropanol, things get kinda interesting.

Interesting, as in “vaporize a half inch thick shatterproof glass jar and stand there staring at your own hand like a moron while your lab coat hangs in steaming tatters around you because you can’t believe you still have all of your fingers while your ears continue to ring from the sound of the blast” kind of interesting.
It took me a few minutes before I had the presence of mind to pull off my coat, throw my clothes in the sink, and rinse the horrific acid-soap-alcohol combination off of myself, and several hours before my heart slowed back down.

… but holy crap, did it make a cool noise!
Gods, do I ever love chemistry.

Oh, and the other ten percent of my job? Water balloon fights with my coworkers. Science r serious bizness.

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