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Do you remember your first time? Perhaps it was a tie-dye party. Maybe you experienced marker pigments dividing across a paper towel dipped in liquid. Was it a few spots crawling up a plate in organic chem- istry class? Possibly it was pushing the plunger on a syringe and seeing what was once invisible turn into beautiful, Gaussian artistry walking across a chart recorder or computer monitor.
Whenever it was, if you’re reading this journal, then you’ve most likely applied chromatography and remember the first separation that sparked your love for the field. That magical moment you felt was more than a waxing poetic memory. In fact, it was probably the time you were most apt to learn chromatography...or...apt to learn anything!
We learn best when we approach something new. What’s more, if we can revert to a childlike innocence, our ability to gain competency (not to be confused from mastery) is rapidly accelerated. Our steepest learning curves come when we deviate from skills we dismiss as already acquired. For example, efforts to learn to sing to a level for public performance or to draw beyond doodles are so hampered by already ingrained mindsets that progressing those skills is more difficult than learning something entirely new. Consider how much harder it is to learn a second language in adulthood, when your brain has already been taught how to converse, versus as a child that has never had to diagram an English sentence.
“I can’t run this new supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC) instrument because it’s different software, there are settings I don’t understand, and I’ll look dumb to my coworkers.”
Yet this example, assuming you are versed in another area of separations, is a perfect opportunity, as it’s likely within the zone of proximal development. This is an optimal learning space between what you can do unaided and what you can do with a little help. It may feel like the edge of impossible at first, but it’s closer than you realize.
When trying to elevate something that has become routine, the key to advancement is in variable learning. Runners that takes the same path at the same pace will quickly plateau in their training. If they add some sprint intervals or hill climbs or anything new, they’ll achieve more progress. A chromatographer that runs the same gradient on that 5 μm C18 column every day could also benefit from changing things up. If your environment frowns on these kinds of deviations, other avenues exist. If you’re a gas chromatography (GC)–minded scientist, take a chance and read that article a few pages over on liquid chromatography (LC) (and vice versa for the liquid-phase folks). Curious about what’s going on in that mass spectrometer at your column outlet? Hop on www.chromacademy.com and wander through the available content (there’s tons for free). Lucky enough to be at a conference (I hope we’ll see many of you at Pittcon 2023 for the ACS SCSC annual meeting!)? Try attending a session outside your comfort zone. Alternatively, take a lunch break and watch a webinar outside your daily sphere, such as at www.ACS.org/content/acs/en/acs-webinars.html. Pharmaceutical scientists may find the latest advances in forensic technology as a breakthrough innovation in their own field. The key is to not be a robot running the same routine. Tangents aren’t just for peak integrations.
Learning one new talent helps subsequent attempts at other new competencies. I prefer to think of it as becoming more comfortable with falling and regaining my childlike mindset. Take a stroll through your local library’s shelves and pick up a 101 book on whatever stokes your passion, whether it be coding or cooking. Download a new language course and listen on the commute to work. Sign up for that community class on plumbing, which will also be directly applicable to LC and GC! Go ahead—indulge yourself in that new skill, whether it be juggling, forging, or multidimensional separations. Learn to learn again!