In which we excavate the Tubes that Time Forgot

I’ve written before about “the churn”, which is a term established scientists tend to use when they want to make short-term lab contracts sound like a good thing – instead of the relentless waste of talent and reagents and constant reinventing of the wheel that they can actually be in real life. Freezers tend to epitomize this whole concept, harboring dark spaces where samples can accumulate over many years, being slowly buried alive by layers of frost in corners that are just too cold and occluded to spend a lot of time tending to. All it takes is one complete turnover of lab personnel (circa four to six years) to render expensive reagents and irreplaceable samples into so much meaningless junk.

The other day our aged minus-twenty freezer finally packed it in. This came as no surprise – for many months now we’ve had to vigorously kick open the internal plastic doors to gain access. No matter how hard you scraped, these flimsy barriers became coated with a thick patina of ice within minutes of closing the leaky main door and could only be liberated by force and a wild spray of glassy fragments all over the floor. Soon our tubes of chemicals dissolved in water were failing to freeze even after being stored overnight, so we knew it was time to evacuate everything to one of the two minus-eighties hulking nearby.

Except, probably rather predictably, there wasn’t any free space.

So I asked my lab to roll up their sleeves, get out their notebooks and spreadsheets and work out which boxes were important and which were unknown and, by definition, rubbish suitable for disposal. Our lab does clinical trials, so by law we have to store some samples for a very long time. Even taking these well-documented boxes into account, we were all a bit appalled by how much else was in those freezers – hundreds and hundreds of lost boxes, containing thousands of tubes. Boxes with no names, tubes with indecipherable handwriting, initials that no one recognized. Every once in a while we’d hit something familiar (“Oh yeah, that’s H‐‐‐‐‐. Remember him? He’s the medical student who used to fill up the urine samples so full that when you thawed them out you’d get sprayed with piss!”), but in the end, these were the minority.

Lab Freezer Clearout

It is sort of sad, thinking that each row of every one of these boxes was someone’s experiment. Someone thought it was important enough to spend back-breaking hours labelling each tube, filling it with something or other, no doubt with the full expectation that she’d return to them in future, or that someone else in the lab would carry the torch. So many plans, so many dreams – so many expensive tubes and reagents – all destined to end up in the Bucket of Shame.

Tubes that Time Forgot

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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6 Responses to In which we excavate the Tubes that Time Forgot

  1. Grant says:

    Another argument for a decent LIMS system, or at least paperwork relating the “codes” for tubes and a more complete description of their contents? Or is that impractical? (Or maybe labs ought to be equipped with a mini barcode label printer and a scanner?! The tech geek in me must be coming out…)

  2. These boxes were before my time. I’d love to implement a system like that for our stuff, but we just can’t afford it at the moment. And then there’s always the problem, you can link a tube to a description, but will the description be adequate? The entire lab needs an overhaul at the systems level.

  3. You favourite science publishing company now has a branch that does software for researchers, so of course we have a lab management offering:

    Although I left the lab a while ago now, I suspect my collection of transposon mutants is still at the bottom of a -80C freezer!

  4. Nico, thanks for that link. It’s interesting. I wonder how many real-live labs are actually giving it a go?

    I don’t see me being able to afford a lab-trashable iPad any time soon…you should see the state of my lab notebook. An iPad wouldn’t last very long in the rough and tumble.

  5. Erm, I had put in some #marketing# tags on that, but they were lost on posting. I have no idea how much take up there is for this type of software, and if I knew for ours I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to tell you. It does seem like a sensible thing to do though, have a little (or not so little if you have the £££) server with electronic lab notebooks and lab management software, so that every time a student leaves you do not start from scratch again, or have to decypher incomprehensible handwriting and abbreviations.

    IIRC LabGuru is “cloud”-type, so you skip the server step but give us money in exchange. To be honest it seems to be pretty cheap to me, although I am sure you know very well what the cloud caveats are.

    I understand there are free/open source/DIY solutions as well as very expensive, pharma-oriented ones, so there must be something that fits your lab somewhere in between. Personally I think a naked iPad is a bad idea in the lab, working with bacteria I would want something like the equipment they have in hospitals etc, so you can at least clean it with disinfectant, but I don’t think they do those for Apple products yet. Alternatively buy one of those waterproof pouches for use in the lab only?

  6. Ugh. LIMSes are horrid things to implement (although nice when running). We have four. I can strongly recommend against:

    1) buying one from a commercial vendor, they’re stupidly expensive to buy, maintain, and modify
    2) developing one yourself, they’re stupidly difficult and expensive to develop, maintain, and fix
    3) using an open-source/freeware one, they’re stupidly difficult and frustrating to customize, maintain… you get the idea.

    Doesn’t leave a whole lot of options does it?

    Regarding iPads, the best place to deploy a LIMS is on multiple networked workstations, for the reason you note – iPad, meet liquid nitrogen tank. 😛

    However… a simple FileMaker Pro (or similar) database might not be so hard to whip up, if you plan it well. This is the kind of thing a keen Computer Science undergrad (or even a high school student) might be able to do. Ideally, you’d couple it to a barcode reader – but as you know, those tend to also be stupidly expensive (etc.), at least for the ones capable of printing LN2-survivable labels.

    Sorry, that was awfully unhelpful wasn’t it?

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