Keeping Up With The Khemists: Series Recap & Review

A few months ago, the Newscripts gang brought you a preview of MIT’s reality-TV-like Web series about chemistry students. A recurring four-week course designed to teach freshmen about chemistry theory and lab procedures, MIT’s 5.301 Chemistry Lab Techniques class was, for the first time in MIT (and the Internet’s) history, filmed and streamed online. Now that the season’s over, we thought we’d recap the season’s (experimental) trials and tribulations, (antibacterial) drugs and drama, and (laboratorial) rats and reflections. And as a special treat, most episodes end with some words of wisdom from the class’s outspoken teaching assistant, Phil – Phil-o-sophy as the series likes to call them. We’ll be sure to include snippets about those as well.   Episode 1: Great Expectations Right from the get-go, the stakes are set high. Fourteen students. Three teachers. One prestigious institution. (Narrator fun fact: MIT was founded before Canada, take that, Canucks!) If the students pass the four-week class, they’ll be awarded an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program internship. If they don’t, they’ll forever go down in reality TV lore as the wannabe chemists who were voted off the island. Despite the pressure, everyone seems excited to explore MIT’s secret tunnels and … cover their dorm room walls with derivatives and kinematic equations. Ruthless, ruthless nerds.   Episode 2: Overwhelmed Just when the students think their chemistry-filled lives are made, Professor John Dolhun and teaching assistants Tengfei and Phil show everyone who’s boss. For many, it is the first time in a lab. For some, it appears to be the first time they’ve attempted to open a drawer. The first lab involves using nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to identify mystery compounds. Sounds fun! This is, until the kids are told never to bring metal near magnets, lest they want their freshmen flesh impaled. Student reactions include: “Oh my god. What have I gotten into?!” and, “I am going to fail this class!” Buck up, kids, it’s only Day 1. Phil’s last word: Cupcakes.   Episode 3: Rotovap Mishap The task seems simple enough. Take 0.10 grams of ethyl 3-hydroxybenzoate contaminated with triethylenes, and separate the target via extraction. Ether, acid, salts, rotovap, yadda yadda. Anthony is ahead of the game and starts rotovapping, to no avail. The slower-pokes eventually start rotovapping, and they all get some dried sample on the edges. Remember the tortoise and the hare, Anthony? Remember? He tries a new rotovap. Now the sample he gets really doesn’t look right. Nonetheless, he runs the sample through the NMR. He doesn’t get impaled, but he does get a 70% yield of the pure compound. Well done, Anthony, well done. When in doubt, it’s probably a broken rotovap. Phil’s last word: I’m not a gambling man … I do slot machines. Keep reading for recaps of all the episodes...   Episode 4: Crystal Clear Just when the students think the stakes can’t get any higher, they do. In this recrystallization competition, the prize for the largest single crystal is lunch with John and the teaching assistants at the fine-dining establishment Legal Seafood. To use a brief metaphor, dangling free food in front of college kids is like … well, that’s a really descriptive reward in and of itself. In the practice lab leading up to the competition, the students pick out their own solvents to filter impurities and then recrystallize the pure compound. Some are doing better than others, and in the end, one student gets a yield of 3% and another gets 101%. Okay, so maybe nobody’s really doing so hot. Overall, everyone seems cheerier – unless it’s all a front to make their opponents feel safe. Phil’s last word: Take your vitamins.   Episode 5: The Alliances To up the competitive ante, the teachers announce that the winner can bring one friend to their victory lunch. To up the chemical ante, the assistants tell the students that they must first synthesize a chromium complex before recrystallizing. Possibly because the students are terrified out of their minds at the prospect of doing their first real reaction, and possibly because it seems like a Survivor-esque tactic, alliances begin to form: Yi-Shiuan & Jason, Julie & Anthony, Hansol & Dan, Emily & Dan. … The problem? There’s only one student named Dan. One conniving, calculating student named Dan. Phil’s last word: I have this recurring dreams of jogging through a park and stop to talk to Kris Jenner, and she pours Kool-Aid on me. Now if it were Bruce Jenner pouring Kool-Aid on me, that’d be a nightmare!   Episode 6: Crystal Cloudy “Everyone will probably eat lunch, it’s just a matter of where they eat it, whom they eat it with, and if they pay for it,” Phil slyly points out. He’s getting that elusive free lunch regardless of who wins the competition. Julie is first to grow a large, single crystal and is declared the winner. Jason, however, cries foul – he goes to check on his crystals and finds that he’s grown multiple large crystals. After much debating, bickering, and tattle-taling (which are, incidentally, commonplace in both classrooms and reality-TV competitions), Dr. Dolhun still declares Julie the winner for actually coming forward with her results first. So I take back what I said about Anthony in Episode 3 – sometimes being the hare has its perks. Nevertheless, in an everyone-is-a-winner move (which also, incidentally, has become commonplace in classrooms and reality-TV competitions), the entire class gets to go out to eat with the professor and teaching assistants at a Chinese restaurant. Phil’s last word: At the victory lunch: “I’ve never felt so close to dying in my entire life.”   Episode 7: Chinese Wedding The students are faced with their hardest experimental technique yet: column chromatography. But Phil puts it in perspective by telling them his day-to-day routine. “So if you think about all of the things you’ve done over the past two weeks,” he says, “the goal is essentially to do all of that in one day.” How do the students fare during this high-pressure day of lab work? Well, they mess up lab prep, forget to wear goggles, and break stuff … lots of stuff. And the teaching assistants? Well, to help out, they bang on the side of columns, suggest wedding traditions, threaten to poke people with lab equipment, and ultimately go rogue. But in the end, the students get pure samples and enjoy the difficult but rewarding lab. Another typical day in 5.301, it seems.   Episode 8: Serious Business Imagine feeling very unprepared to give a five-minute oral presentation about your lab work. And then imagine watching your labmates go first and fail miserably. Now imagine that over, and over, and over again. You actually don’t need to imagine it: Just watch Episode 8. Viewer discretion advised – there are a lot of “ums” and awkward silences. Dr. Dolhun is very disappointed by the presentations and the students’ inability to answer his probing questions. The next week, students in the (much luckier) second half of the class give their (much better) presentations. Tortoise: 2. Hare: 1.   Episode 9: Roses And Death Anthony snaps on his “murder” gloves, ready to kill some bacteria. Watch out: He seems like a natural! Students pair up to see who can create the most effective penicillin derivative from 6-aminopenicillanic acid and a randomly assigned acyl chloride. But they’re distracted by the stench of, as they describe it, grilled artichokes, potatoes, death, rotten roses, and rotten cabbage. The smells emanate from the acyl chlorides, and no, you shouldn’t be sniffing them. In the haze of foul odors, Dan and Hansol skip a step and spiral into an hours-long detour. Next time on Masterpi  ChemLab Boot Camp: Watch the other groups leave Dan and Hansol in the dust as they race to create penicillin to ruthlessly murder bacteria. (Sorry, Downton Abbey’s back, and this reviewer is a tad distracted.)   Episode 10: The Killing Curve Despite two showers to wash off the nasty odors, some of the students still smell like  acyl chloride. But it’s worth it, because all seven teams have made their versions of penicillin and are ready to test which kill E. Coli most effectively. Before plotting “killing curves” and letting mathematics determine who’s boss, they watch as their test tubes get more or less cloudy, indicating culture growth. Finally, using a spectrophotometer, they gather their data and start plotting their data on a white board. And the winner is … ? Anthony! I knew it! He was so good at putting on ”murder” gloves! (But wait. Didn’t he have a partner? Who he’s not mentioning right now? Now we all know who not to team with to start a business, plan a surprise party, or split a lottery ticket … ) Phil’s last word: Just imagine having a President who’s a bachelor without kids. I think we’ll have a gay president first. [A Boot Camper history buff points out that James Buchanan, the 15th U.S. president.] “Oh my god, I’m so stupid. I should definitely fact-check before I talk …”   Episode 11: Pass/Fail Last day, let’s see who passes and who fails! Let’s see who is the Biggest Loser/Survivor/Real Chemist of Cambridge.  Everyone admits they learned a lot, and a few students even switched their majors to chemistry! The video turns sepia-toned to match the sentimentality and nostalgia that the undergrads all feel leaving this class and that you’ll feel closing the tab on your browser. Dr. Dolhun debriefs the students, and a few weeks later, Emily, Hansol, and Ike all have UROPs (guess we know who the teacher’s pets are). Anthony, Lina, Emily, Ike, and possibly everyone else passed this class. Lamest. Reality. Chopping. Block. Ever. I wanted to know who was the Weakest Link?! I really just wanted to hear Anne Robinson say “Goodbye!” or Heidi Klum say “Auf Wiedersehen!” or something! Nevertheless, it was possibly the most brain-stimulating, practical, and nerdy show ever. Love it. Phil’s last word: “Oh no, don’t film this!” Sorry, Phil, it’s all over the Internet now.   And if you haven’t had enough already, there are bonus videos snuck in throughout the season, like hidden tracks on your favorite music album. So go on, turn off that Breaking Bad episode and start watching real(ity) chemists in ChemLab Bootcamp.

Author: Sophia Cai

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  1. Nice recap, Sophia! The bit about Dan made me laugh and laugh. 🙂

  2. “The first lab involves using nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to identify mystery compounds. Sounds fun!”

    *sounds impossible*

  3. Nice to see gloves and safety specs. BUT where’s the labcoasts chaps?

  4. Worried@8:01, I was asking myself the same question after watching a few episodes. These students are working in an organic lab and where are their lab coats?

  5. Most students had little or no lab experience. They had a lot to do in 2 ½ weeks and I think they did quite well. There was a lot of spilling of solids and not much clean-up. I wish Phil would keep his eye protection over his eyes and not on top of his head. If I was the TA, I’d have splash goggles on all the time.

  6. Trying again! I’m definitely human, I think. Great series of videos, really enjoyed this. Nice to see normal (even if very bright) kids pursuing an intellectual challenge rather than the vapid types we usually see. Surely this could make it to main TV, I’d love my kids to be watching this kind of show.

  7. Impresive to see students at work, i think it’s a great experience for them, well done!
    Glad to see that you took all the safety measures as well.

  8. A bit like reality TV but then there is the serious side to this. Good viewing