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Help, I’m sick of stuffing up and it’s your fault I can’t do it because I’m not a chemist and you are!

October 2, 2018

So part of my job is to help people and I quite like doing it most of the time. However, there are some times when it just sucks balls…

I don’t want to be rude but I am going to be so I may as well own it.  Some people just don’t seem to understand that science is as much about the failures as it is about the success. Sure it SUCKS when you get the experiment wrong again and again and again but as long as you are keeping your little lab book up to date, recording your changes and making sequential and logical tweaks to your experiment you might just get there in the end. Either that or you will learn that the whole idea was shite and you shouldn’t ever go there again.

Can I just interject here and say that none of this is my fault oK?

I cannot even begin to tell you how much time and energy I’ve spent on making batches of absolute rubbish.  Formulations that fell apart, ideas that looked great on paper but then grew mould, split into two or stung my face off.  The more you experiment, the more you fail but also (and this is the good part) the more knowledge you get – with any luck!

Science is a practice, we are all practitioners.  We think up an idea (hypothesis) and test it in the lab.  The more outlandish and complicated the idea the more time-consuming the experiment and the more likely it is to fail, at least at first. Most things can be worked out in the end – as long as you have the patience and budget.

Now everybody has to start somewhere and as a consultant with over 20 years of lab work under my belt I am starting a fair way ahead of some of my clients.  This thing is called ‘experience’ and it is what I use to help people.  I know I’m talking like an arse hole again but I am doing it here so that by the time I get to you I will be all sweetness and light, like that teacher from Matilda – Miss Honey.   Now I use my experience like a database and after listening to the problem that a client has I scan my database for matches – times when I’ve tried similar or even the same experiment, come across the same ingredients or tried to achieve the same sort of outcome.  I don’t always have a close-enough reference point to work from but my database also has plenty of resources in the ‘general advice’ box which helps me dish out advice such as asking  ‘did you check the pH’ and then ‘what was it?’  or ‘what temperature did you heat it all up to and for how long?’.  There’s usually a fair bit of cross-over in most people’s problems although the detail is always different and always needs a careful ear to hear (and I’m all ears, even though I’m actually a bit deaf in both of them).

It turns out that helping is a two-way street, a dance  if you will.  An interaction where we come together and share for a bit, bat around some ideas, formulate a plan then retreat off to our own spheres and do what needs to be done next to get to the bottom of this thing.  It also turns out that sometimes the reason that the product of your imagination doesn’t already exist and can’t come into being  is because it’s an idea without a market or because it doesn’t technically work or isn’t practical for the scale you can achieve or something else.  Again, these things aren’t my fault. Don’t shoot the messenger.

It also turns out that sometimes, in the process of investigating something, one (either me or the other person) finds out that they don’t actually have what it takes to do this, to finish it successfully and ‘win’ at the project.  That sucks too but I do try to remind people who again, this is all part of being a scientist, that the work is experimental by nature and experiments help you find out new things including the fact that you can’t actually do this.  If this happens we all have to just take a deep breath, put the time invested and frustration accumulated in a box marked ‘experience’ and move on.

The last thing I want to say is about that line ‘because I’m not a chemist and you are’.  Sometimes people seem quite upset that I’m chemistry trained and they are not.  I get it, that it is easy for me (now) because I have this understanding that most other people don’t but I didn’t get born with this and neither did I purchase myself the privilege of knowing the chemistry I know. I earned it and am happy enough to pass on my short cuts, insights, experimental learnings and failures as and when the situation warrants it but while that information comes freely to clients, it didn’t come free to me so it’s nice when people don’t try to whack you over the head with it.  I really don’t like that.

So, now I’ve got that off my chest I just want to re-assure you (all) that I do like helping, being helpful and generally discussing all things cosmetic science with you all but what I don’t like is to be your scape goat (or escape goat as my husband often says).  Most of what I’ve learned has come the hard way and I’d appreciate it if you could just come with the understanding that I’ll do the best I can to answer fully and openly but I can’t do magic and if you can’t make it work then C’est La Vie!





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