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.
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.