Inorganic Chemistry Research Lab gives students a creative advantage in the field
Associate professor of inorganic chemistry George Harakas, Ph.D., treasures a childhood memory of receiving his first chemistry set.
One of the experiments required the young chemist to take a soda glass, heat it with an oil lamp and stretch it out into a glass fiber.
“That was the first time I’d ever played with hot glass,” Harakas said.
Decades later, Harakas has come to learn that playing with glass is a fundamental skill of his chosen profession.
"Often in the research laboratory, there will be a task that requires knowledge of scientific glass blowing. For example, bending glass tubing to modify a funnel or flame sealing an air-sensitive compound in a sample tube under vacuum," he explained. "A well-rounded scientist needs to have theoretical knowledge as well as hands-on skills. Working knowledge of scientific glass blowing helps prepare our students for the future in their chosen career paths."
Now, Harakas is passing along this valuable skill set to students at Radford University.
In his advanced inorganic chemistry courses and through workshops offered to Honors College students, Harakas is integrating and teaching the basics of scientific glass blowing and lamp working. Students have created animal figurines, icicles and other keepsakes, but most importantly, they have learned a valued, cross-disciplinary skill that will differentiate them from others in their future endeavors.
“Because whether it’s a chemistry lab or biology lab, physics or forensics, or anything in between, you’ll always find glass, and it always breaks,” Harakas said. “So, if you know how to fix these things, you become very popular.”
Offering students these types of hands-on experiences is important to Harakas, who credits a new space in Curie Hall for helping him take his research and creativity to the next level and exposing his students to high-level learning opportunities.
The Inorganic Chemistry Research Lab
Located on the third floor of Curie Hall, the Inorganic Chemistry Research Lab houses an array of specialized equipment students are not usually exposed to as undergraduates.
There are fume hoods and Schlenk lines, which Harakas described as vacuum lines designed to handle chemical compounds that are not compatible with oxygen or water. His research students not only regularly use this equipment, they also assembled it themselves.
Without a doubt, Harakas said, the centerpiece of the equipment is the X-ray diffractometer. Installed in the summer of 2020, it allows students to synthesize a compound, grow a crystal of it and then analyze the crystal using X-rays to determine its molecular structure. In the past, the crystals had to be taken to a neighboring university to be analyzed.
“Now that we have this level of equipment, it really gives our students an opportunity to learn modern instrument methods in chemistry that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to until graduate school. That’s a really great opportunity,” he said.
Harakas said the expanded lab space itself has allowed students to work more independently and in greater detail.
“Being able to come into the lab and actually work on the equipment as opposed to watching somebody work on the equipment, or simply handing a sample out to someone else, these type of hands-on learning experiences are worth their weight in gold,” he continued.
Most recently, Harakas has enjoyed improving his scientific glass-blowing skills and teaching the trade to his students in the lab’s two glass-blowing stations.
He didn’t learn about glass blowing until graduate school, he said, and even then, it was a crash course. So, in 2017 he enrolled in a weeklong class, which “opened my eyes to what I should really be teaching our students.”
Traditionally taught to all chemistry majors, glass blowing phased out over the decades because it was considered more a vocation than a scientific skill. It has since reemerged due to education reform, such as the Makers Movement.
“Having the ability to teach this here at Radford is absolutely fantastic. It has helped me grow as an educator and learn new skills,” he said. “For my students, they are being exposed to chemistry techniques they most likely wouldn’t have until graduate school or working in industry. Not everyone has the facilities like we do to be able to produce this type of creative and important work and expand our capabilities as both educators and scholars.”