Exploding syringes of nitric acid. Animal testing. And a band called ‘Vector Sum.’ B&W staffer Anna Corke talked with chem grad student Paul Vadola to discover the secret life of chem students.
Why did you decide to go into chemistry?
I was a premed bio major. Organic chemistry is part of the premed package and the bio major. Orgo is normally the be-all-end-all for premed students– either you survive or you don’t. I was worried going into it, but after around two everything clicked and I thought “Wow, this is obviously something that I understand and really should look into.”
What are you studying right now?
My project is pretty neat, I have to say. What I’ve done is use the carbon-hydrogen activation reactions to make fluorescent derivatives of neurotransmitters. I’ve done serotonin, melatonin, and dopamine. The neat thing about my part is that, normally, the probes are something that really doesn’t look much like the parent compound– the cell just thinks it’s the same so it takes her up. I’ve actually taken the neurotransmitters and modified them to make them fluorescent. It still has the essential properties of the neurotransmitter– it’s like adding a third arm to your body, you have a third arm but it’s still you. These are still neurotransmitters, but they glow, so the cell should recognize them and we will be able to watch them move in and out of neurons. This is pretty important because neurotransmitters, especially serotonin, are very active in depression, mood disorders, and behaviors such as sleep and appetite. If we can determine the pathways, we can get better drugs for things like depression. That’s the big goal. We’re at the beginning, but that’s what we’re thinking about.
Any good lab disaster stories?
I was syringing about 10 mL of fuming nitric acid, which is as bad as it sounds, an extremely harsh acid that reacts with the water in the air. I pushed the plunger and it wasn’t going so I gave it a little extra push. Apparently the needle had a kink in it and I pushed so hard that the needle popped off the end of the syringe. The acid sprayed all over me. Within 5 seconds it started to burn through my shirt, so I had to rip off my shirt in the middle of lab, throw it into the sink, and splash water all over myself. The acid did a lot of damage to my shirt. When I took the shirt out of the sink it was full of holes and I had nothing else to wear in the lab so, for the rest of the day I had to wear a holey shirt. I had to wear it home on the subway. That wasn’t cool.
Do you have any moralistic boundaries when it comes to research?
Luckily, I’m not a biologist. I don’t have to worry about playing with animals in my day-to-day research. Some chemists do test on animals, which I don’t have that big of a problem with because, depending on what scientists are doing, it’s either going to kill a person or kill a rat. In my day-to-day chemistry I try to shy away from the government or any sort of defense field. Organic chemists are going to be the people who come up with new chemical and biochemical weapons since they’re the ones who have the power to synthesize new molecules that target parts of the body. That’s something I would not participate in. I hope nothing in my hands is ever involved in injuring or harming anyone.
What do you do other than chemistry?
I play a bunch of instruments– guitar, violin, sitar, piano, flute– and I’ve played in bands since I was in junior high.
Do you ever perform?
My band in college started playing benefit concerts, like ‘Come pay five bucks to see a school band and donate money to build homes in….’ I think it was a Navajo Indian reservation and somewhere in Ohio. We’ve done Lou Gehrig’s disease, global awareness, cancer awareness. People actually started recognizing us because we were pretty good. We used to get standing ovations. People see me and say “You’re the guitarist for Vector Sum!”
Wait, what’s your bands name?
Vector Sum. It was originally Vector Sum of Forces but we shortened it. We are each a different dimension. The drummer is, of course, Time, the bassist is X, the singer/rhythm guitarist is Y, and I’m Z.
What’s the most important thing about chemistry to you? I mean, why do you wake up in the morning and go to the lab?
It’s sort of like playing God. As an organic chemist, I know there’s only so much that nature can make out of chemicals. What nature does is enormous, but there are certain things that I don’t want to say nature can’t do, but just hasn’t found the way to do. If a chemist is really top notch, he can do anything he wants. There are no real boundaries as long as he can just be innovative in designing a new chemical, be it paint that glows in the dark or a new drug that targets a certain kind of cancer.