In which we are unlucky: on lab superstitions

I was thinking the other day that if academia were a mental illness, it would be bipolar.

One day it treats me well: a student shows me an experiment that shows great promise. I have a spirited chat with a like-minded collaborator about the great work we’d like to do together, and emerge from it buzzing with plans and ideas. I preside over a classroom of students who seem switched on, excited, eager to know more. I help one of the BSc project students focus the microscope, or decide how to analyze an experiment, or plan the next small lab question to explore. I have a productive chat in the espresso queue with a colleague about some data we’re gathering for a committee. I may not have time to eat all of my lunch, but I reach the end of the day having crossed most of the things off my list, and I have a sense of my years at this university stretching out in happy productivity.

The next day, it all goes wrong. An initially exciting experiment reveals subtle striations that might well be fatal structural errors in the whole edifice. A grant – three months of concentrated effort – is casually rejected. Students fail to turn up to tutorials, or seem bored and unimpressed by a plan that took hours to perfect. I send repeated emails to get someone to file a contribution that was due weeks ago. Somehow it’s already time to catch my train, but there have been so many new demands on my time that not a single item is crossed off my morning list. Meanwhile, rumors circulate about instability, about jobs being perhaps not as secure as they once were, and I find myself scouring job adverts – not seriously, but as almost a talisman against the darkness.

I can go a whole week slamming wildly between these two sorts of extremes. Is it just me?

When things get particularly bleak, I try to see the funny side of things. We recently had a very strange turn in the tissue culture room. Our primary human bladder cells are by far the finickiest cells we’ve ever grown, but something was killing them off even more frequently than normal. Scientists can often be superstitious, perhaps because failure is so frequent that you can easily correlate incidents with regular events: full moons, Tuesdays, the wearing of stripey underpants. So it was not long before we noticed that everything on the second shelf seemed to be doomed.

Unlucky Shelf 2

Proclaiming haughtily that luck was not a quality that any right-minded scientist should believe in, one of the undergraduates brazenly put his entire set of experiments on Shelf 2 – which were promptly obliterated.

As I inspected the floating shriveled corpses, I thought to myself: it was just newbie sloppiness, right? The steel shelves were perforated with many holes that would make the environment equal no matter where the plates happened to sit. Moreover, the entire incubator is wired up to report even the minutest alterations in temperature and carbon dioxide concentration. What happened on Shelf 2 would not stay on Shelf 2: it would happen on all other shelves – and according to the overnight logs, exactly nothing had happened.

Our feelings about Unlucky Shelf 2 were solidified when one of the PhD students grimly thawed out a new set of cells and split into two identical plates, placing one on the top shelf and the other on the second. Sure enough, the next morning the top-shelf plate was fighting fit, the cells spread and gleaming, while the Shelf of Doom had produced its usual sad crop of raisin-like casualties. It was pretty much then that we all stopped putting our dishes there, no matter how irrational.

You’d do the same.


About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Academia, Careers, Research, Scientific thinking, Silliness, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to In which we are unlucky: on lab superstitions

  1. Argh.

    Reminds me of the days when PCR was a new thing. You could fastidiously work up conditions that were perfect, then communicate them to somebody else in another lab – and they wouldn’t work at all. Same reagents, same type of thermocycler, even someone on the same floor of the same building. Nothing. No products at all.

    This, in part, is why I haven’t lifted a pipette in over 15 years…

  2. Actually, that hasn’t changed!

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    You say that your human bladder cells are the most difficult to grow; have you tried putting cells that are easy to grow on the second shelf? If they die off then there might be a real cause.

  4. Jen Burns says:

    Agreed, we need further experimentation on the second shelf.

  5. I sense a publication in the Journal of Irreproducible Results. 🙂

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