Worth the effort

Posted by on May 8, 2013

So April turns into May…

How the time has flown by! I recently sat down and had that errant thought: When was the last time I blogged? I’m ashamed that it’s been over a month already, but now I’ll certainly have a wealth of beautiful experiences to share with all of you! It has been a month of trying new things and embracing the friends and activities that are defining my cultural growth here. I wouldn’t trade my days here for anything, because it’s through this unique period of travel that I am fully realizing some important character traits in myself and living a life that I may never have again.

Because I’ve had a diversity of experiences this month that would make this blog post ridiculously long, I hope to publish a series of entries over the next few days to document the month. (Probably what I should’ve been doing all along, but better late than never!)

So without further ado, what has this negrita been up to for the last month?!

(I should explain: “negrita” is a common endearment that literally means “little black girl” but refers more to how tan one’s skin is. I have achieved full cordobesa status!)

A chemistry internship

Yes, you read that right. What nerdy chemistry major wouldn’t study abroad and willingly devote 120 hours of her semester to atmospheric chemistry research?

It’s actually a fun story, my foray into research conducted in my second language. Up until the middle of March, I was hopeful but not convinced that I would be eligible for an internship experience. In Argentina, it’s not that common for undergraduate students to perform research until their fifth year of college – the university system operates in five years rather than four – so my director told me quite plainly at the beginning of the semester that finding a professor or company to host me would be next to impossible. Imagine my surprise when I received an email from her informing me that I had an internship and needed to be in my professor’s office the very next day!

My meeting with Dr. Mariano Teruel was scheduled for 6:00 on a Wednesday night. Due to my deeply ingrained Wofford habits, I arrived at 5:40; in true Argentine fashion, Mariano didn’t show until 6:10. The moment he arrived, he invited me to an international chemistry student conference that was in progress upstairs, and we entered the conference room in time to catch the last ten minutes of a student presenting about his semester studying chemistry in Spain. I noted with a smile that I was currently on the other side of the equation. I also noticed that I felt rejuvenated and comforted in a way that I hadn’t realized I was missing. Let’s be honest: as a chemistry major, I spend an inordinate amount of time in Milliken, but half the time that I go there, it’s to soothe my nerves with a hot coffee and good company in Great Oaks Hall or the chemistry suite. Merely being in the same space with undergraduate students that share my passion and knowledge base brought me contentment in an unexpected but certainly welcomed way.

Perhaps Mariano sensed my enthusiasm, because as the next student began her presentation about the University of Texas at Austin, he invited me – well, obligated me – to introduce myself to the group and explain what I was doing in Córdoba! I was scared out of my mind, since my Spanish wasn’t to a level that I felt comfortable using in such a large group and we hadn’t had even a casual conversation about my project yet, but I rose to the challenge and apparently made a strong impression on the group. I was even mentioned in a short article on the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas (Department of Chemical Sciences) website!

After that moment, my responsibilities were much lower-key. I spent the next two days learning about the project and observing the experimental method to replicate on my own time. Essentially, my research group is studying the impacts of pollutants in the atmosphere when they undergo oxidation reactions promoted by the sun’s rays. To simulate this process and determine rates of reaction, we fill a large collapsible Teflon reaction bag with a chemical with unknown velocity constants (our substrate), a chemical with known constants (our reference), and either hydrogen peroxide or chlorine (our oxidant). The filling process involves a lot of glass pipes, valves, reaching certain pressures, and letting nitrogen carry the gases into the bag, but after two weeks of following my co-workers, I pretty well got the hang out it! Once the bag is full and the gases mixed more or less homogeneously, we test the mixture twice in a gas chromatograph to determine the retention times of both the substrate and the reference. After that, the bag is placed in a chamber of UV lamps (meant to represent the sun) and photolyzed at least five times, with a GC scan between each photolysis. The areas under each curve generated in the chromatogram are tabulated and used to form a linear curve, from which we can use the slope of the line and the known velocity constant to calculate the velocity constant of the substrate.

WHEW!

Before some of you get worried that I’m missing out on Argentina by spending too much time in the laboratory, I have gained some incredibly valuable social interactions through this process. For one thing, I’m practicing technical vocabulary and professional relationships IN SPANISH every day. I’ve had to learn how to ask questions and verify concepts in my second language, as well as know the equivalents of new concepts in English to help my team translate their papers from Spanish for publication. For another, I’ve made some amazing friends! The girl that I spend the most time with is a graduate student from Paraguay named Cynthia, and from the start, she’s been just as interested in befriending me as guiding me in the lab. During each of our experimental runs – which involve about twenty minutes of simply watching a screen, and then repeat – we share stories, cultural backgrounds, and sleeves of cookies to pass the time. I’ve even spent a couple of afternoons in the park or at her apartment, Casa Colón, to drink mate together. (I will be coming back to Casa Colón later!) She’s fantastic and, unfortunately, going home this Saturday, so we’ll be having a going-away party for her either Thursday or Friday of this week.

Other girls in the group that I’ve spent a significant amount of time with are Carmen and Elizabeth. Carmen is a graduate student from El Salvador, and her glowing characteristic is her incessant questions. When she’s not asking me about my family and university life in the States, she’s verifying that I understand the theory behind the methodology and testing my observation and hypothesis skills – I learn a lot about the project in a very short time! Elizabeth, also from Paraguay, is quieter but very curious about English phrasings and the differences between cultures. All of us girls spend a good deal of time drinking tea in the office and swapping stories until the next experiment.

Overall, it has been an amazing experience working in a laboratory in South America. It has its differences and occasional challenges, certainly, but I get to maintain my practical skills while building my lingual and relational skills at the same time. I’m very grateful for this opportunity!

The basic setup of glass pipes, nitrogen tank, and Teflon reaction bag.

Photolysis chamber.

Yes, I was obligated to buy a lab coat (or “guardapolvos”). I have achieved full nerd status.

 

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