Chemistry and biology are related yet separate sciences with different practices and goals. In a chemistry lab, chemists combine and create a great variety of substances using the fundamental properties of matter and energy. Biologists, by contrast, investigate the anatomy and behavior of living things. Although chemistry and biology labs have some similarities, the tools and practices used in them cater to the special needs of each discipline.
Tools of the Trade
Chemistry and biology labs rely on different tools and equipment to perform scientific investigations. In a chemistry lab, for example, you’ll find specialized glassware such as burets -- long vertical tubes designed to dispense liquids in small amounts used to determine the concentrations of liquids. Some chemistry labs have sophisticated equipment such as mass spectrometers to identify the atoms and molecules in a substance. People working in a biology lab peer through microscopes to study the cells of plants and animals. They investigate DNA with a process called gel electrophoresis, which teases out the details of a cell’s genetic code. Biologists use scalpels, razors and other sharp-edged tools to cut apart delicate tissues.
Substances and Materials
Chemistry labs use hundreds to thousands of chemicals ranging from liquids and aqueous (water-based) solutions to solids, usually in powder form. By mixing the various substances, and sometimes adding heat, the chemicals are transformed into different compounds. Biology labs also use chemicals, but typically for the purpose of preparing or investigating tissue samples or living organisms. A biological lab in a school may have preserved frogs, fish and other animals so they can study their cells and anatomy.
Models and Charts
Look at the walls of a biology lab and you’ll find models and charts showing the anatomy of plants, animals and the human body. Biologists use skeletons and other three-dimensional models to teach the inner workings of animals. In a chemistry lab, you’ll see the periodic table, an organized chart of all known elements and their basic properties. You’ll also see atomic ball-and-stick models of substances including diamond, salt and other compounds. A chemistry lab may also have diagrams of organic molecules such as alcohol.
Both chemistry and biology labs deal with waste left over from experiments. Biology labs have separate containers for chemical and biological waste, as each calls for different disposal methods. In addition, most biology labs use an autoclave, a device that uses heat to destroy dangerous microbes and sterilize glassware, tools and other equipment. Chemistry departments generate liquid and solid chemical waste, including metal compounds. They also must dispose of powerful acids, bases and other dangerous materials seldom handled in a biology lab.
- Dartmouth University: Buret
- Georgia State University: Mass Spectrometer
- Purdue University: Gel Electrophoresis: How Does It Work?
- University of Utah: Chemical Storage
- University of California: Preparation Labs
- Creighton University: Anatomical Models and Simulators
- University of Maryland: Autoclave Procedures
- University of Wisconsin: Best Practices for Storing Corrosives
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