Shipping Assay Samples: The FedEx Paradox

There is nothing that takes the wind out of your sails quite like when you think you’re being clever, and later find out how totally lame your attempts were. Synthesizing some precursor by a route you think is super streamlined, only to later find a simple, one-pot prep. Driving and taking a ‘short cut,’ only to wind up hopelessly lost. Making eyes at the cute girl in the neighboring lab, only to realize your fly was down. Stuff like that…

Recently, my PI asked me to prepare a few aliquots of a compound to be shipped out for biological testing. Of course, I put the samples on the back burner, because hey, I already had the compounds made… how hard could it be to stick a few mgs in a few vials and ship them? (That’s not rhetorical. The answer for this circumstance is “harder than one would expect.”)

When I finally got around to checking everything out, and preparing to pack and ship everything, I noticed the HPLC of one of the compounds was a bit iffy looking. After a quick purification, rotovapping down, weighing out, administering aliquots to HPLC vials, and rotovapping them down, all samples were on dry ice and finally ready to ship. The biochemist I’m working with and I grabbed a box, crossed over the labels (it had obviously been shipped a few times before), and loaded the styrofoam cooler into it. However, by this time, we’d missed the 4 PM FedEx pickup at our shipping and receiving.

No problem, I thought. “I can just walk it over to the local FedEx store. Their last pickup is at least 6 PM.” So, down the street I walked, with box under one arm, and shipping label in hand. Upon arriving, I felt like a boss. “Here’s this, shipping to here, overnight, and here’s the account number.” As the clerk picked up the box and went to weigh it, the dry ice started to rattle.

“Whats in here?” she asked.

With minimal thinking I replied, “Oh, a few vials of solid material, over dry ice.” In my head, it made perfect sense – FedEx ships dry ice, it should be no problem. The samples are solid powder, not volatile liquids or anything. No problem, right?

The clerk – “Nope. I can’t take this.”

Myself – “Uh. What?”

“Yeah, we cannot accept anything on dry ice here, we have nowhere to put it.”

“It’s… just dry ice? In a styrofoam cooler? In a box? Isn’t that the point that you don’t necessarily need a place to put it?”

“We can’t accept it here. The closest place you could take it is our main distribution center on Summer St, they can accept dry ice, and they’ll have to authorize it. It’s at 775 Summer. Do you know where 775 Summer is? It’s in South Boston. If you head into downtown and go… Hey,” she turned to her co-worker, “How do you get to the distribution center on Summer?”

“Oh, it’s in South Boston. If you head into downtown and…” The co-worker started.

“I know where 775 Summer is. Thanks though,” I interrupted.

I took my box, and headed to an early dinner. While sitting at the window of the pizza place, my box tagging along next to me, I called FedEx’s 800 number to see if there were any other options. They weren’t the most helpful here, either, but let me know that on-call pickup was still available in my area until 7:30 PM, and that they could pick up the package from me, at my business or residence. Herein lies the FedEx Paradox: They may take it from you, but you may not give it to them. Ah… Zen-like, is it not?

Of course, being after 5 at this point, shipping & receiving in my building was closed… see where this is going?

I ran home, and handed the package off to my roommate, explained the situation to him, and went back to lab. I explained the admittedly half-baked and hair-brained circumstances to my biochemist co-worker, and she was like “That’s weird, but whatever works…” In a bit, the roommate confirmed FedEx had picked up the package. Ah ha! I had won!

Of course, the next morning, the box had been Return-To-Sender’ed, as we had crossed over one of the two “Dry Ice” labels, which FedEx did not seem to appreciate. We re-boxed the shipment, labeled it extra carefully, and let shipping and receiving work their magic. It was received the next day, safe and sound.

Moral of the story? In chemistry, there are times when clever, simple innovation can triumph over minor, but obnoxious inconveniences (I’m working on a series of posts entitled “Stupid Solutions to Stupid Problems” to celebrate just this kind of innovation!). In shipping, this does not apply. There are people in your department whose sole responsibility is to ship and or receive. Your job is chemistry. Go talk to the Art Vandelay (the importer-exporter, not the architect) of your department, and let them handle it.

Next time, I’m just going to adsorb the compounds on filter paper, and send them in a standard envelope via the USPS, the good, old fashioned way…

Author: chiraljones

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