In which we endure

Baby, it’s cold outside.

And inside too, as it happens.

Over the past month or two, London has been in the grip of some of the coldest weather I ever remember having experienced here. For most London workers, the chill is something you only notice on your commutes. But not so in the aged Victorian building that houses my lab, resplendent in the blonde-colored, ivy-sprawled, pointy-gabled brickwork of this provincial university satellite campus. Neither the lab nor my office has central heating of any kind, and the graceful, single-glazed windows suck out whatever animal heat scientists tend to give off.

All of which rather challenges the idea of doing an experiment at “room temperature”. (It is of little consolation that in the summer, as sun pours through those same beautiful windows, the temperatures will often exceed 40 – there isn’t any air-conditioning either, needless to say.) At the nadir of the big freeze, I measured the lab at 14 degrees Centigrade, and asked everyone to let their reactions run fifteen minutes longer than what the protocols called for, just in case. All the students soldiered onward in overcoats and wooley hats, bopping along to music and seemingly unconcerned. When our health and safety officer scolded them, I sent an email telling her to back off – if uropathogenic bacteria can’t penetrate a lab coat, they certainly won’t get through fur-lined polar fleece.

In my office, I’ve been working with my door shut with an electric space heater on full blast a few inches from my desk. It takes the edge off, but I find it scientifically curious how working in a cold room blunts the intellect. Unlike the music and chatter of the students drifting under the door, or the suspiciously pungent incense floating up from our ground-floor neighbors, the Asanté Academy of Chinese Medicine, the cold is something I cannot screen out. It prickles at the periphery of my senses, telling me that all is not well, that I should be shutting down all but essential functions. (Apparently writing a grant application is not one of them. Funny, that.)

But the cold is not all bad. For the first time in months we’ve been able to shut the windows in the room housing our mammoth, ancient minus-eighty freezers, which overheat at every other time of year. Which means that we don’t have to bribe the undergraduates to chase the pigeons out of the lab. And when the lovely man from BOC arrives with our liquid nitrogen refill, we don’t have to worry about our samples thawing out when we wheel our tank down to the pavement outside the main entrance.

My research assistant, Harry, keeping an eye out

And there are signs, too, that spring is coming at last:






I, for one, am ready.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Health and safety gone mad, Students, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to In which we endure

  1. cromercrox says:

    Bloody cold here in Cromer, too. Each morning Mrs Crox and I have to knock icicles off the chickens.

  2. This blog brought back some memories, but a sultry 14 degrees? I’ve worked in labs that regularly fell into single digits first thing on cold winter mornings and have heard of water baths freezing overnight. I also had the joy of being in the lab on my own when a frozen water pipe in the external wall burst, flooding the lab in 2 inches of water and wrecking the flooring. The joys of working in old buildings built for a purpose they can no longer fulfil. Never got to 40deg in the Summer though, most was about 32deg (the only problem being I was trying to record measurements at 25deg).

  3. Breaking a morning skin of ice off the water bath – that definitely beats my story!

  4. rpg says:

    We’ve been struggling with erratic heating in the (new) office all winter. To think in summer we laughed at the guys downstairs, sat next to the rendering nodes…

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I work in a modern building with terrible temperature control problems. Our head of department’s office is FREEZING, to the extent that she and the person who works immediately outside her (usually open) door are sometimes seen wearing jackets and gloves, while the rest of us find it mostly too warm. Meanwhile, the office immediately adjacent to the freezing one gets ridiculously hot – like, 27-28C sometimes. My boss shares that office with another person, and when I go in there I regularly ask him how on earth he can stand it. It’s quite something to see our team wearing a clothing a spectrum stretching from jackets and gloves to tank tops in the middle of winter, all within a few square metres of each other…

    Since our building tour a couple of weeks ago, we are naturally now blaming the resident ghost for this anomaly.

    Personally, I’d always rather be too cold than too hot – I find it much easier to warm up when I’m cold (more clothes, lots of hot drinks) than I do to cool down when I’m too hot. Mind you, I do appreciate that too cold for too long is really nasty, too; my student flat in Glasgow had no heating other than a frankly terrifying gas heater, plus huge gaps around some of the windows. In winter I slept in a sleeping bag under a duvet, wearing fleece pajamas, gloves, and a hat… not fun!

  6. You might think that your occupational health and safety bods would be more concerned about poor working conditions (14C in winter? 40C in summer) than wooly hats and gloves. But that would make sense of course, and as we all know, Occ H&S rarely does.

    You might also get them working on screens for the windows – really to keep the pigeons out, but you can use the reasoning that it will prevent graduate students from falling to their deaths, or undergraduates from spilling dangerous chemicals onto bystanders below. Unfortunately, they’ll probably just come back with the argument that the windows shouldn’t open at all, and weld them shut.

  7. I did my PhD in a lab (at UCL, on the main site) that worked on muscle metabolism in frog muscle, so I recall the boss dissecting frog muscles out in a 4oC cold room.

    There was an older paper from the same lab (from the very early 70s) featuring measurements of metabolic changes in muscle across a range of temperatures from 0 deg C to 30 deg C. I was told that the person who did the zero deg C work was an American visitor (later a well-known Professor) who did the experiments over a cold Christmas holiday when all the heating in the college was switched off for a fortnight. The story was that he set the lab’s small temperature-controlled room to 24 deg C (instead of its usual 4-15 deg for frog muscle) and set up the muscle experiments on the bench in the main lab (c. zero degrees C). Then he sat in the temperature-controlled room reading, emerging periodically to tend to the experiments.

  8. I am also reminded of two related things:

    1) One lab I worked in was warm enough that another (senior, wisecracking) student used to say “37 degrees. Body temperature, nice and comfortable.”

    2) At a mouse genetics conference I once attended, one of the speakers noted that the animals he used in his experiments were well cared for, with regulated and predictable temperature and humidity, plentiful food and clean water, filtered clean air, and predictable light and dark cycles – none of which were features of his own office.

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