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August 4, 2013 / swati

What if I die?

It’s time to clear the backlog!

11 Jan, 2013. As I was going on a ski trip, I sat next to a PhD student at MIT. It was dark outside, there were no lights in the indoors, just one very annoying bright screen, with “The break-up” playing on it. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. It’s funny how His humor works! I really can’t tolerate one bright light shining on me, especially if everything is dim. I just can’t tolerate that brightness. But that’s not really the point of this post.

I was sitting next to this Phd student at MIT. We started talking about well, everything to do with the grad life – our work, the seemingly unending research hours, the tending-to-zero social life, the funny advisors, weird advisors, expecting advisors, disappointed advisors, over-enthu advisors, the poke-their-nose-in-everything advisors. And then came the nuances of being in academia, the job market, the applications, how to ask for recommendations, how to be shameless, the occasional staring out of the window, wondering why am I doing research, if it will change the world, if I should become an artist instead. The desperation of missing something that you want to do in life.

“I am always scared about – what if I die, this very moment, will I have any regrets?”

“Talking about dying, I was scared of dying, terrified in fact, because of the kind of research I do. But now, it’s been day after day after day of doing research, that I have given up being scared.”

“What?! What do you do for research? Do you work at the nuclear plant?”

“No, no, I just work with sulphuric acid, and then at times with hydroflouric acid. ”

And then came a series of unasked but eye-opening details. Hydroflouric acid burns the skin like hell, and it reacts so quickly that these burns can actually be fatal. But the worst part of it is, the burns can go undetected! HF actually interferes with the nervous system, and you might not notice a burn until long afterwards. To quote from Wikipedia –

Hydrofluoric acid is a highly corrosive liquid and is a contact poison. It should be handled with extreme care, beyond that accorded to other mineral acids. Owing to its low acid dissociation constant, HF as a neutral lipid-soluble molecule penetrates tissue more rapidly than typical mineral acids. Because of the ability of hydrofluoric acid to penetrate tissue, poisoning can occur readily through exposure of skin or eyes, or when inhaled or swallowed. Symptoms of exposure to hydrofluoric acid may not be immediately evident. HF interferes with nerve function, meaning that burns may not initially be painful. Accidental exposures can go unnoticed, delaying treatment and increasing the extent and seriousness of the injury.[8]

Once absorbed into blood through the skin, it reacts with blood calcium and may cause cardiac arrest. Burns with areas larger than 25 square inches (160 cm2) have the potential to cause serious systemic toxicity from interference with blood and tissue calcium levels.[9] In the body, hydrofluoric acid reacts with the ubiquitous biologically important ions Ca2+ and Mg2+. Formation of insoluble calcium fluoride is proposed as the etiology for both precipitous fall in serum calcium and the severe pain associated with tissue toxicity.[10] In some cases, exposures can lead to hypocalcemia. Thus, hydrofluoric acid exposure is often treated withcalcium gluconate, a source of Ca2+ that sequesters the fluoride ions. HF chemical burns can be treated with a water wash and 2.5% calcium gluconate gel.[11][12][13] or special rinsing solutions.[14][15] However, because it is absorbed, medical treatment is necessary;[9] rinsing off is not enough. Intra-arterial infusions of calcium chloride have also shown great effectiveness in treating burns.[16]

“And now working with these acids everyday, being fully educated about the risk that comes with it, and still working with it everyday, I’ve lost the fear of dying. ”

The following staring out of the window was immersed in thoughts – so what if I really die? Is the thought overrated? And, ofcourse – Oh god! I’m glad I’m not in a lab like this! Skiing should be fun.


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