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April 2, 2009
By John Trent
Is your laboratory lacking some of the essentials? Test tubes? Test tube racks? Miscellaneous glassware?
Are you a little short on ethanol for that latest experiment? Need a bit more potassium iodide for that lab experiment overrun by anxious inorganic chemistry students?
Or, perhaps you are simply a lover of the latest in nouveau scientific art and would like to take a gander at one of the world’s largest slide rules?
The Department of Chemistry’s Research Stockroom, located in the basement of the Chemistry Building, Room 017, could be the place for you.
“We’re not exactly Costco, but we certainly do fill a need on campus,” says Doug Howard, the longtime manager of the stockroom. “We have something for just about every science discipline at the University.”
Howard has helped run the stockroom, or “ChemStores” as it is known, for close to 20 years.
Clientele ranges from the usual suspects in the so-called “hard” sciences such as the Departments of Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology and Physics, the Cellular and Molecular Biology Program, Medical School, as well as some more unlikely customers such as the Anthropology Department.
The advantage of purchasing items through ChemStores, says Howard, is that the store is able to order large quantities of supplies, thereby saving campus customers money. Howard often buys popular chemicals in 55-gallon drums, and keeps certain chemicals on site that would be otherwise hard to find at other stores in the region.
“We purchase not only for the Chemistry Department, but for all the science disciplines,” he says.
ChemStores has been in existence for more than 40 years, almost from the time the Chemistry Building opened on campus in the late 1960s.
Over the years, the basement space has been reconfigured several times to meet growing faculty and laboratory demands in the building. You can still see the imprints on the floor from long-ago desks and shelving that has since been rearranged as the campus’ science faculty has grown.
“We used to have everything on index cards,” Howard says, harkening back to a time that was less computerized and more grounded in elbow grease. “And we had two more storage areas … we used to have a lot more room for storage.”
Today, ChemStores is a maze of wooden shelves, supply jugs and various instruments and utensils that are common to the world of science. Caustic and flammable chemicals are kept in a separate nearby space for safety reasons.
Business is usually brisk, Howard says.
“Just in the last hour,” he notes during a recent afternoon interview, “we’ve had Biology and the Medical School in here. We’ve sold 15 gallons of ethanol.
“That’s one of the nice things about the store. We’re meeting a need on campus, and we usually have most of the things that people request. If we don’t, I will always supply a customer with a vendor or source to find what they are looking for.”
In addition to the chemicals and research aids, the ChemStores also provides chemicals and supplies to two teaching stockrooms to help support the teaching laboratories on campus, says Scott Waite, director of chemistry laboratories.
“The convenience of the store is really a great thing,” Waite says. “If the teaching labs need anything, ChemStores is only a door or two away, or maybe only a building away, from where the work is being done.”
From acetone to methanol to petroleum ether to inorganic salts and metals to beakers, flasks and test tubes, and even featuring copious supplies of dry ice, just about every aspect of scientific work is covered in ChemStores.
And, if you are in a pinch and need a slide rule to figure out how all of this might interact, there is the massive slide rule that adorns one of the walls.
The slide rule, which reaches the floor and almost runs to the ceiling has been in the ChemStores even longer than Howard has, the veteran store manager says with a smile.
Like everything else that is offered in the store, it’s a bit surprising, yet reassuring, to see the slide rule on display ... a sort of yellow monument to all the work that has been accomplished on campus thanks to the ChemStores’ supplies.
“We’ve become like a gem to the people who have stumbled upon us,” Howard says. “They figure they’ve found a really good resource … and they keep coming back.”