Analytical Chemistry

Ramee Indralingam, Ph.D., analytical chemistry; department chair

What is analytical chemistry?

Analytical chemistry is that branch of chemistry in which samples are analyzed in order to determine their components qualitatively and quantitatively. In other words, analytical chemists try to answer the questions, "Exactly what substances are in this sample?" and "How much of each substance is found in this sample?" The exciting part of analytical chemistry is that you get to work with all kinds of samples and analytical chemists have jobs in various fields such as the food and drug industry, soil chemistry, the perfume industry, and medical laboratories, and of course as teachers in high schools, colleges and universities. The area that currently appeals to most students is forensics, because of the popularity of TV shows such as CSI, Forensic Files, and Cold Case Files.

Why study analytical chemistry

When I was a child, I had to wait after school for my older sister to finish her chemistry lab so we could walk home together. While I waited, I hung around just outside the door of the laboratory, and I was fascinated by the students mixing solutions in test tubes and seeing them change colors, make bubbles, and form colored precipitates. A little explosion once in a while just added to the sense of excitement! When it was time to choose my major, my memories kicked in, and it was an easy decision.In fact, I am the faculty advisor to the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society, Stetson Chapter, and we regularly have "magic shows" for the area elementary school kids at which we do chemical experiments to stimulate their interest in science. Our Stetson students enjoy doing these magic shows, and, from the feedback we get back from the kids, it's interesting to see that the experiments they especially like are the ones in which solutions change colors or luminesce (glow in the dark). The absolute favorite is the exploding balloon -- we have to do that one three times before the kids are satisfied! So...why did I study chemistry? For the fun factor! Why did I pick Analytical Chemistry? So I could add to the fun by picking any kind of sample I fancied.

Research Interest: Isolation and Identification of Chemicals in Spices

I was born and raised in Sri Lanka (which was hit by the tsunami last December, but that is another story), and we use different spices in cooking our food. I noticed that each spice had a characteristic aroma and flavor, and became curious as to what compounds were present in the spices that gave rise to the distinct odors. This is what I am working on right now. I am fortunate that several students have also found this research intriguing and have happily worked with me. What we have found so far is that one particular kind of seed or fruit has so many different compounds, as many as hundreds! We are trying to characterize all of them. My other interest is in developing new labs to be used in our courses in the chemistry department. So far, we have improved labs by modifying instrumentation so that an innovative technique can be used in a chemical determination. Again, I was fortunate in having students who like to work on these projects and we have been able to publish them. I have also found that students like doing labs that use real-life samples, and have been working on labs that use eggs and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals as samples. We are working on novel techniques of determination with these samples.

Advice for Prospective Students Considering Careers in Chemistry

The main thing is that you must like what you do. Do not pick a career just because it seems to be the "in" thing, (like forensics right now), if you really don't enjoy lab work or the work involved. If you enjoy what you do, then you won't mind hard work when it is necessary; and remember that hard work is essential in any job. This might sound like the same old yada, yada, yada, given as advice by older people, but think about it. For example, forensics requires very meticulous and careful experimentation because you really don't want an innocent person to be found guilty due to a false positive; at the same time you don't want a guilty person to go free because of a false negative. Both of these errors could happen if a crime lab analyst is sloppy or careless in his or her work. By the same token, you don't want erroneous results in a medical lab which could lead to the wrong diagnosis for a patient. Even careful people can sometimes make mistakes, but a chemist who does not like what she or he does is liable to be slipshod and casual in her or his attitude and that could be disastrous.