In which I sort it out

All of my professional life, I’ve worked in affluent labs – in academic groups bolstered by multiple sources of grant money, or in a biotech setting flush with investor capital. More recently, I’ve enjoyed a generous personal consumables budget courtesy of my Wellcome Trust Fellowship.

The new lab, alive with potential

The fridges and freezers in these work spaces have been crammed full of reagents accumulated over many years. Old chemicals are often perfectly serviceable, which increases the value of such well-stocked treasure troves. In my previous lab, for example, I inherited a scruffy, foil-wrapped 15 mL Falcon tube of ethidium bromide solution from the previous inhabitants in Alan Hall’s group, circa 2004; I dipped into this tube for my entire 4.5 year stint – it worked beautifully – and left it behind for the next lucky user to enjoy. Another bequeath chez Hall were three full boxes of alphabetically arranged restriction enzymes from Aat1I to ZraI, most with expiry dates in the early- to mid-1990s. Despite this, the majority still managed to cut DNA with some degree of efficiency. In karmaic payback mode, I made sure to leave behind most of the unfinished chemicals that I’d purchased.

The upshot of working in a wealthy lab is that you can often think of an experiment and then start it a few minutes later. If you don’t have a particular reagent, there is usually an entire building of colleagues from which you can borrow – or an entire campus if you can be arsed to brave the cold. In my first novel Experimental Heart, I describe the detailed etiquette of this “scrounge culture”, illustrating the importance of your neighbors – and the contents of their freezers – in keeping the engines of science running.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been settling into my new home here in one of the satellite campuses of the main university. The lab I’m charged with starting up mostly from scratch is enormous – 7 entire bays and five side-rooms – but it is also almost empty (aside from great piles of junk that we’re in the process of clearing out, including some amazing historical glassware that is probably worth a few bob – but that’s another story). As a remote site, the campus is a cobbled-together mixture of orphan disciplines that struck out on their own sometime in the distant past, probably as overspill. As a result, there is plenty of room, but the trade-off is that individual groups are divorced from the rest of their departments. Our building, for example, is an eclectic mix of people who don’t have much in common – and that includes the material we work with. In fact, my lab will be the only biomedical research facility on the entire site.

All this means that there will be no popping across the corridor for a quick scrounge; instead, appointments must be made, journeys on the London Underground undertaken. Yet with give-and-take being so crucial for the scrounge culture, I foresee a problem: I may borrow from colleagues on the main site, but no one is going to travel up here to borrow something from me in turn. Hence, any scrounges will become increasingly one-sided, and therefore psychologically unsustainable. I fear we will have to get used to going it alone – and preparing well in advance for any contingency.

So here I am, getting to grips with things. The lab has tissue culture hoods but no CO2 mains or liquid nitrogen. Historically a clinical microbiology lab, we’re strong on Gram’s iodine, agar plates, haemocytometers and specimen jars, but entirely lacking in basic items like enzymes, the means to assess DNA and protein, and advanced imaging apparati. So we’re busy ringing up companies, getting quotes, sketching floorplans, liaising with the site manager.

It’s exciting to face this blank canvas, roll up my sleeves and start making something vibrant and exciting out of it. In fact, it’s made me realize that throughout my career in both research and publishing, the appointments which have proved most stimulating and successful have been those in which the culture or infrastructure needed sorting out, shaking up, reinvention.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Doctor is In.

She’s only wishing she’d brought along that scruffy Falcon tube.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Nostalgia, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to In which I sort it out

  1. Eva says:

    When my old lab moved buildings (2006), we found things in the freezer that were older than the lab itself. I think the oldest label said 1979…

  2. I’m defniitely going to blog about the old glassware. It’s really lovely. God knows what it was used for, though.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Super post. Your notes about glassware struck a chord – it reminded me of when I was at a school that wasn’t big on science, and the chemistry labs looked like something straight out of Hogwarts. The walls were lined with wooden, glass-fronted cabinets populated by glassware of unknown purpose and in various stages of disarticulation and decay. Once I got to university I was at an advantage with respect to my more pampered colleagues, as, unlike them, I didn’t have any technicians and often had to make the apparatus I required before using it.

  4. Thanks Henry! You know, I really admire people who can make their own kit. I’d like to try to do more of that sort of thing. We have decided not to buy a new water bath lid to replace the one that’s missing, and it would give me great pleasure to find a solution more elegant than aluminum foil and gaffer tape.

  5. cromercrox says:

    There is no solution more elegant than aluminum foil and gaffer tape, unless it also involves electricians’ cable ties.

  6. Austin says:

    Jenny, what you need is a retired departmental/lab/hospital workshop guy, who bought the old lathe when they shut down the workshop and retired him, and now has them in his garden shed to do hobby projects.

    I reckon every large UK Univ has ‘spun out’ (as in ‘downsized’) a bunch of these people in the last decade. Ask around your older academic colleagues, is my advice.

  7. cromercrox says:

    Funny you should mention the ‘workshop guy’, DrAust – my friend Professor Trellis of North Wales wrote a story about that selfsame chap.

  8. It’s a good idea. There is also a rather mysterious lab of engineers upstairs with all sorts of lathes and apparati and I don’t know what all strange goings-on.

  9. Jo says:

    When we moved into a new lab during my PhD we also found a collection of retro glassware. We put a few selected pieces on display on the windowsill in the office. Some of it can also be used as vases for flowers… Apparently our department’s basement was so full of old equipment (including a full skeleton or so I heard) that it looked like a museum.

  10. I definitely don’t want to chuck the glassware. I like the idea of an artistic display! Might be good for my office if they’re not emitting slow-release toxic fumes.

  11. Congratulations, Jenny. That is one honkin’ big huge lab you’ve got there.

    Those folks upstairs with the lathes are your new best friends. I suggest plying them with tea, cakes, and possibly beer. As for the waterbath lid, I believe the standard solution is a big chunk of styrofoam from a refrigerated packing box, isn’t it? Probably best if covered with tinfoil that is secured in place with gaffer tape, of course.

    I would also not discount exploring surplus stores and the like – you might be able to find all kinds of useful things (scissors, forceps, other fiddly things) that cost pennies compared with the equivalent item from the VWR/Fisher/whoever catalogue.

    Finally, your EtBR story reminded me of a summer student in my PhD lab, who made up stock but got the dilution wrong by a factor of 100 or so. We ended up with many litre bottles full of the stuff. Which, as you know, is used five or ten microlitres at a time…

  12. Go and raid Stephen’s lab as he moves 🙂

    When my postdoc lab moved we found all kinds of treasures in the fridges, freezers and cupboards – we were always trying to get hold of DNA and RNA from as many species as possible, so there were bits and pieces of snake skin and beluga blood donated by the aquarium, and a small, shriveled lump of tissue labeled “Kibble’s spleen” (Kibble was the PI’s cat, and was included in the acknowledgments section of any paper that used the DNA extracted from her surgically removed spleen). The old bits and pieces of discarded glassware, vintage dissection kits, and other equipment were great too! We had tons of fun going through all the old stuff – but really enjoyed setting up the new lab with a clean slate in the new building!

    Re: making lab equipment: I once managed to break two of our lab’s agarose gel trays within a month, and was astounded at how expensive the replacements would be. I therefore brought a surviving example home to my husband, who managed to recreate a couple of perfectly functional replacements on his lunchbreak at work. He’s acknowledged in my final first-author paper from that lab for “assistance with laboratory equipment”. If you interpret the rules of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon a little generously, this gives me a Bacon Number of 3 – Hubby (BN2) is in the acknowledgements of a paper I authored, and in the credits for X-Men II, along with Hugh Jackman (BN1), who had a cameo in X-Men – First Class, which starred Kevin Bacon (BN0). I realise this doesn’t help you much, but there it is.

  13. Frank says:

    For tips on doing biology on the cheap read Biopunk, by Marcus Wohlsen. It describes the garage biology phenomenon in the USA; I don’t think it has come here yet.

  14. cool! I am in the same boat, well in the sense I am building a new lab, but not with that kind of money or space … if you want to give the glassware away, i am always happy for hand outs – I probably could use it. This is cool, good luck!

  15. Steve Caplan says:

    As a I grad student in Israel, I found an old bottle of ethanol with the following label: “Palestine Frutarom Company”–which obviously predated the state of Israel in 1948–and perhaps, optimistically thinking, would foreshadow two peaceful countries living side by side. Well, not so far…..

  16. Heather says:

    I loved reading this. I hope you have startup means. I never had an empty room but thrice have had to insert a wedge at a bench and expand from there. Right now I share a lab with another team and because of the whole scourge culture thing, brought waterbaths and incubators in exchange for fridges on site, and so on. Likewise, I’ve inherited handmade wooden frames in which to hold chicken eggs horizontal and hand- labelled bottles of histological reagents in German that I estimate go back to the 30s. The ones from the 60s and 70s still get some use. Hematoxylin and fuchsin don’t appear to budge. We also make up perfectly serviceable paraformaldehyde from 1kg bottles from the 90s with no measurable problem, though I remember learning the lore from back then as to it not being a good idea. Perhaps it isn’t for all applications.

    Startup is fun for a while until you get bored with cleaning and ordering and unpacking. Then it isn’t, &you just want to get back to the bench from which you’ve been so long absent that you feel like a stranger. Making buffers at that point is therapeutic.

    At an old institute I was at, there was a guy-with-a-lathe who was a whiz with plexiglass. So we had all handmade migration apparati and sink guards and radioactivity barriers and clever systems for holding electrodes and the like. Never missed him more than the first time I tried to repair a lid to an electrophoresis tank. For future reference, Superglue is not useful.

  17. All this talk of electrophoresis tanks is reminding me of fixing them with some nasty organic solvent… acetonitrile? No. Di-something-thingummy? Er… help me out here people. It was perfect for melting plexi just enough to make it adhere back together again.

    Are we off-topic yet?

  18. John the Plumber says:

    What about wind chime mobiles with the glassware – now your off topic.

  19. John the Plumber says:

    ” More recently, I’ve enjoyed a generous personal consumables budget courtesy of my Wellcome Trust Fellowship.” – That accounts for your beautiful beaming smile Jenny.

    There we are – straight back the start of the topic.

  20. Eva says:

    I took “mini glassware” form the lab when I left. A reaaaaally tiny beaker and an equally minimal erlenmeyer flask. People used them before Falcon tubes were commonplace, and nobody had used them at all in the 6 years I was in the lab, so I got to keep them. They’re adorable! Like dollhouse glassware, if dollhouses had labs.

  21. The Overseas Collaborator says:

    I’ve got some tricks for new lab start-up if you’d like to chat about them. This will be my fourth. I was just visiting my new department today. I learned that there may be money for sending students abroad to do research over the summer, so maybe in 2013…

    How does your schedule look for seminar trips next fall?

  22. My schedule is looking good! We should definitely talk tactics. I am getting into the cheap vibe now…we have our own beautiful kitchen, completely with dishwasher and autoclave, in one of the lab siderooms, so I’m wondering if I should order reusable glass pipettes?

  23. Pretty sure this isn’t what we used, but methylene chloride seems to be the stuff (sorry, going back a few comments there).

    Jenny – in your spare time (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA!) you could even build your own electrophoresis box:

    Yeah, I know. 😉

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