In Dante’s Inferno, the Ninth Circle of Hell is the lake Cocytus. At the centre, trapped in the lake, is Satan, gnawing on the most treacherous of humans. They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It turns out that they also fill the lake of hell.
I always start out in good shape: clean glassware, tidy bench, everything labeled, solvent bottles filled, waste bottle empty. Heck, I might even try to start my lab-book entry with perfectly-formed cursive writing. I’ll set up my system with the most perfectly constructed sequence that will execute flawlessly for a whole day and deliver the most exquisite results along with bringing me everlasting renown. I might well be the greatest HPLC operator the world has ever seen!
Then, slowly, ever so slowly, things start to happen.
Somewhat innocuously at first. It will probably be that a droplet of liquid falls, with incredible precision, right onto the centre of the date that I had inscribed in my notebook ever so neatly that morning. Never mind – that’s easily fixed and certainly not enough to remove my HPLC-operator crown. With a slightly crooked, fuzzy line I cross out the now-indecipherable date and re-write it. Crisis averted!
Time to restore my shaken confidence by taking a look at the beautiful check-standard chromatograms that are flowing out of my immaculately-maintained HPLC system into the chromatography data system.
Well, that’s odd. Shouldn’t those peaks be resolved? And why is my baseline so noisy and wobbly? It must just be that I didn’t give enough time for equilibration; I’ll just add a couple extra lines into the sequence and we’re set. In fact, maybe it shows that I am extra diligent in monitoring my data and taking quick action. I hardly dare think it, but maybe I am even better at this than I suspected!
Ugh. Why is the whole corner of my notebook now soggy? Oh no, why is there liquid coming out of my system?! OK, OK. Don’t panic. No one else is in the lab, they haven’t seen it. You can recover and set up an even better batch. Maybe the best batch. The acme of batches!
Keep calm and first, find the source of the leak. Ah – I’d not tightened the fittings properly and this ferrule looks a bit damaged anyway. Let’s replace that and re-check the whole system.
Twelve ferrules later (the first eleven dropping on the floor and being vanished away by the ferrule elf), we’re all plumbed up again. Let’s get running, but be extra cautious this time. I’ll prime the system for extra-long, and then set up way more equilibration samples, then run that sequence again. Although it will be late by the time the samples start executing, I’ll be good to go for an overnight run. I can still deliver my results on time. Perfect.
It's now getting dangerously close to the end of the day and I am still struggling. There are many tissues scattered over my workspace from soaking up leaks and spills, various manuals open on my PC, and I’m still not getting the expected performance from my system. There are smudge prints all over my notebook as my hands have started sweating from nervousness. However, there’s nothing like a shot of adrenaline to speed things up. The system finally delivers some great-looking chromatograms from my standards right as I need to leave. I’m going to get that overnight run as planned!
The next morning, I skip over to my system. The worries from the day being past, I want to bask in the glory of my results which should just about be finishing up. I’m so excited I fail to notice how quiet the system is, but as soon as I open my results… I see the sequence stopped at 8:13 pm. My solvent had run out! This pattern repeats for a few days, with my colleagues getting more and more frustrated waiting for the results they depend on. My delusions of HPLC grandeur are certainly past, and then the worst occurs: I had forgotten all about my waste bottle. I enter the lab one morning to discover those missing ferrules sitting in a giant pool of water, reminiscent of those lost souls trapped in the lake of Dante’s hell.
Operators like me want to deliver results on time, with exceptional quality and precision, to allow our organizations to meet their goals and to also bring us satisfaction in our daily life. However, we aren’t always empowered to do so. We are held back by partially forgotten system familiarization training; outdated, fiddly system fittings; inaccessible operating and troubleshooting guides; and systems that should be more intelligent. This is the day to day reality of thousands like me, there are probably even some in your lab right now.