Ever see those amazing
deaf-defying (thank you, Grant!) death-defying feats and the announcer at the end says: “Do not attempt to do this at home?”
Well, do not attempt to do this in your lab.
I don’t know why I recalled the following little anecdotal story from my student days. Perhaps watching and enjoying the way people in my own lab interact and help one another stirred some dormant memories. Perhaps my upcoming jury duty scheduled for next (more on this at a later date).
I was the first student to graduate with a Ph.D. from my mentor/supervisor’s laboratory. But I was not the first to start a Ph.D. in the lab, and there were several additional candidates who didn’t make it through.
Now this is not a reflection on my former mentor; she is an excellent scientist, great mentor and motivator, and a very good friend to this day. But she had her standards for performance and behavior, and many a student didn’t make the cut.
One such new student was attached to me to shadow me and learn the tricks of the trade when I was roughly halfway through my stint in the lab. She apparently smoked, had a moderate case of halitosis, and had an irritating habit of continually touching my arm when talking to me. But I was polite (for awhile), grinding my teeth and soldiering on.
My mentor frequently checked in with me to see how our new student was doing. In the beginning, wanting to give her a chance, I was non-committal, but my adviser’s sensors were perceptive enough to see that I wasn’t pleased.
It wasn’t just the irritating touching or smoky lab coat (although that didn’t help)–I began to sense an underlying laziness–a trait for which I have little patience.
It started when I realized that after showing her the same procedures 3 or 4 times, she still hadn’t bothered to write out the protocol in anticipation of doing it on her own the next time. There was little attempt to write down where the key reagents were in the refrigerator or freezer, so I would inevitably be called 10 times a day to show her again and again where to look.
This was only the beginning. When she was unable to get her immunoblots working on her own, my mentor asked me to give her my own stocks of reagents to help troubleshoot. Those reagents included the “homemade” Enhanced Chemiluminescence reagents that I had carefully spent a few weeks calibrating so that our lab could save hundreds of dollars and not have to pay for the commercial kit.
Of course I obliged, and was happy that my own reagents solved the problem. But our new student, let’s call her N, seemed to think that this was the perfect permanent solution–to have Steve as her personal solution maker.
I asked once, twice and thrice. Finally I told her to make her own reagents. She agreed (thoughtful, wasn’t she?). But over the next few weeks I noticed that my reagents were dwindling at a very rapid rate. I asked her if she was still using my reagents–still politely–and “No” was the answer. But again and again, I seemed to notice that my stocks were being rapidly depleted.
One evening, when I left the lab, she was the only one still working. I slid out to the hallway fridge and made a very small dot to mark on the bottle of one of my buffers exactly what volume remained. I knew that she would need that buffer (hers or mine) for her experiment. The next morning I had incontrovertible evidence that someone was pinching my buffer. I had no doubt who it was, but I had no proof.
What to do? My adviser by now knew that I did not have a very high opinion of this student, and she usually took my advice on such matters. But I did not have conclusive-beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt proof.
Then I had one of those brilliant ideas (*claps self on back)–one that if converted to chess, would be equivalent to a back-rank mate. Or in European football, a goal scored by the keeper. I decided-to——-replace the key buffer that I suspected her of pinching with that remarkable clear liquid known as H2O. Can you see it coming? Yes–if she were to steal my buffer (pH 8.5) with plain old agua (pH 6.5), there was no way that her enhanced chemiluminescence would work. The ultimate result would be a perfectly blank film coming out of the developer.
The outcome? 24 hours later, N was packing her belongings and looking for another lab.
Now, my adviser–despite taking very fast action to depose a student caught lying numerous times at a very early stage of her career–was not thrilled with my brilliance. She was upset that I had ruined a potentially important experiment (which I offered to do to compensate). But when I asked her “How else could I prove that she had been taking my reagents again and again,” she had no answer. And when I continued and said, “Imagine if she lied about little things like salt buffers what kind of data she might have fabricated later on,” she began to appreciate my strategy.
But you have been warned: Don’t attempt this in your own labs…