Day in the Life: Simo the analytical chemist

Analytical chemist Simo Lõo at the the Cambrex R&D lab in Tallinn. 26 October 2018.
Analytical chemist Simo Lõo at the the Cambrex R&D lab in Tallinn. 26 October 2018. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

When I was still in grade school, I thought it'd be interesting to do something for a living when I grew up that not everyone wants to do. Now that I work in a research and development lab, no two days are alike. My name is Simo Lõo, and I am an analytical chemist at Cambrex Tallinn.

Lately I've been quite the lazybones, which means I haven't followed that rigid of a morning routine. That being said, I always make a point in the morning to take a quick look around my flat to make sure it's neat, as well as make sure my plants are watered. After that, I have time for a bowl of instant porridge, which I eat while listening to Klassikaraadio, Estonia's classical music station, and enjoying the view from my window. It's a nice and peaceful way to start the day.

I work for Cambrex Tallinn AS, a subsidiary of the Cambrex Corporation. At our facility in Tallinn, which is located adjacent to our collaborative partner Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) and in the shadow of Skype's Tallinn office, we provide custom organic synthesis and contract R&D services. Most activity involves providing expertise in managing research programmes, producing reference standards, initial gram quantities of pharmaceutical products as well as non-GMP scale-up to kilogram quantities.

In my role as an analytical chemist, I develop and validate analytical methods, but I also provide analysis for colleagues who synthesise various chemical compounds. True to what the average person may be picturing, this often involves a white lab coat and safety glasses as well as laboratories full of neat rows of vials and various chemicals. But no two days are actually alike for me at work. One day I might spend all day poring over an analytical scale and standing at a fume hood, and the next I may sit at my desk all day, analysing samples. Or some combination of the two.

My understanding of what is a "typical" workday is probably in itself atypical, however, as is my understanding of what is considered unusual or not at work. A lot of what some may consider unusual is actually nothing out of the ordinary for us at a chemistry lab.

Unfortunately I come in less direct contact with all kinds of interesting chemical and physical processes, as I work in analysis. But there was recently a funny incident where one colleague went to go look for something in the lab and came across another colleague observing their synthesis. That in itself isn't unusual, but the second colleague was observing from the opposite end of the room — as a safety precaution.

(Safety of course comes first everywhere at work, in everything from our clothing to various technical solutions. But also just in plain old standing back sometimes.)

Our 30-strong team also ends up sharing a lot of inside jokes, but unfortunately they're a bit too involved for a layperson to really be able to understand, as is often the case in highly specialised fields.

Actor, architecht… analytical chemist

I was raised in the village of Vajangu, some 30 km south of where Tapa Army Base is located. Our family had our own house and yard, which entailed plenty of work year round, but I also spent every summer at a friend's farm, where I was happy to help work as well. As a child I also explored every nook and cranny of our village's forests, and I'm grateful that my childhood years were so closely connected to nature.

My childhood was pretty carefree in general; my only concern was juggling spending time with my many friends from different groups.

I wanted to grow up to be a number of different things, one of which was definitely an actor. Later I also wanted to become an architect, or a biologist or botanist. I'm still interested in some of these, but thankfully you can act in a play without necessarily being an actor, and singing in a choir likewise helps me scratch that itch to some extent. As I walk around town, I can be an architect in my own head as well. Spending time out in nature, my garden and my houseplants at home, meanwhile, ensure that I get enough green in my life.

I'm very pleased with my current job, in any case. I remember when I was still in school, I thought that since I wasn't stellar at any one subject anyway, I should do something for a living in the future that not everyone wants to do — something that is different and interesting. And so I ended up in the chemistry field.

Job-seeking via online jobs sites wasn't working out for me, but a number of my university classmates ended up working at Cambrex, and I met someone at a get-together with mutual friends who used to work for the company and also ended up recommending me to my current employer. I realize how lucky I was to get this job that way — four years ago already.

I love analysing things. Often I have to come up with a method of analysis for a chemical compound. You may think sometimes that this might be simple if universal methods exist already, or if the compound in question should behave similarly to another one, but this often ends up not being the case. And all of these tiny details mean new experiences and something new and interesting to share with your colleagues. I'd even say that my only complaint about my job is that I often don't end up having as much time as I'd like to conduct even more experiments or get even more absorbed in my work.

Ice swimming, choir singing

After work, I have time to go work out at my gym,, where I have been going for over two years already. I'm not a fan of working out solo and I need someone to actually keep an eye on me, so I do circuit training. With good trainers and workout buddies, this becomes less chore and more hobby as well — and even if you start wondering at the time why you torture yourself, you still end up feeling so good afterward. After all, they say that when you work out, your body actually produces happiness hormones, such as endorphins and serotonin.

Another fitness-related hobby I've picked up recently is winter swimming, which at this rate will be ice swimming soon enough. I really hope I stick to it through next spring.

I also have the honour of singing tenor in the Youth Mixed Choir Vox Populi, under the direction of Janne Fridolin, which has enriched my life a great deal through various performances, knowledge, and friendships. I have sung with the choir for ten seasons, and am serving as president of the choir for the second season already. I wish I could do even more for the choir, but I have to keep in mind that there's no point in biting off more than I can chew; as it is, I'm already dedicating a good deal of time to choir-related activities each week.

I currently live alone. I have considered adopting a pet, but last time I did, my parents cat-sitting ended with Kipper becoming my parents' cat. In the meantime, however, I am happy to pet-sit for friends, as well as babysit for those friends with children. I have a great affinity with children, which I probably inherited from my mother, who is a kindergarten teacher, but I don't want any myself.

Over the years, I think my core self has remained the same, but both my work and my involvement in choir have taught me better time management skills, to better think ahead as well as how to lead things and how to word things. If my childhood and current selves were to meet, I'd have some lessons to share with my younger self, but then again, if I had done things any differently as a child, I may not have ended up the person I am today, and I am pretty satisfied with who I am.

I also like my current purpose in life, which is to be patient and help others. I often feel as though people are lacking in empathy and the ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes. I do wish people would think more about their actions and how they may affect others around them, but I am aware that everyone does not share the same values. As that is the case, it is important to be flexible while still recognising when to be resolute and say no.

One thing I know I should really work on personally is disciplining myself to wake up earlier in the morning and meditate. I have known for over 14 years already that I should meditate, but to this day I don't do so nearly enough.

One longtime dream I am finally planning on realising next year, however, is a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain — an opportunity to take some time off, recharge, put myself to the test in a different environment as well as see a lot of nature in Spain, where I have never been before.

More leisurely, social weekends

In contrast to my work, my weekend days are actually the most routine in nature. After waking up, I usually stay in bed and listen to music and read the news online. Once my hunger gets the best of me, I make something to eat and fix myself a cup of herbal tea, after which I clean up around the flat. Around midday I'll go to the grocery store, which I don't often have time to do during the workweek, as well as drop by the esoteric shop if the person I know is working. Afterward I usually go for a walk in town; I love seeing the progress on various projects under development and thinking about what the future may hold. At this point I'll usually grab a cup of coffee somewhere, but often end up running into someone I know and chatting with them for a bit.

In the evening it is so nice to come home to a clean apartment. A couple of days a week I do hair treatments, as I decided at one point that I wanted to start growing my hair out, and the occasional face mask as well. If I don't have any other plans for the evening, I'll watch some TV, read for a bit and then go to bed, but often not until I've listened to some music as well — sometimes something meditative, other times something more melancholy, and sometimes just some favourite songs.

Last Saturday night, however, I got together with friends from Stockholm, who were in town for the first time in over half a year. We sat in a pub in Tallinn's Old Town and caught up, which may not sound like anything special, but it was special for me because it really felt like no time had gone by whatsoever.

When we said our goodbyes at the end of the night, I really appreciated how good it was to spend time with them and realised I had missed social nights like that one.


Day in the Life is a new weekly series by ERR News telling the stories of everyday Estonians, their livelihoods, and their lives. If you know someone whose story you feel should be told, email us at [email protected].

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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