In which they don’t make ’em like they used to

One of the annoying things about getting old is resenting change. So when you’re a scientist, it doesn’t help that the lab environment is one of the most mutable places on earth. New technology emerges all the time, and our brains have to cope — even when ‘improvements’ often seem, to well-greased neural pathways, as unwanted and cumbersome diversions.

Of course some changes are good: I’ve enjoyed swapping X-ray film for a fluorescent image analyzer, and I don’t miss grappling with large amounts of radioactivity one little bit. Cutting and pasting bits of DNA together ye olde fashioned way was certainly therapeutic, but I’m happier with the faster, new-fangled recombination methods that allow you to bypass ligations altogether. No, it’s the useless cosmetic changes that I find annoying: like Microsoft Word deciding to completely rearrange all of its hundreds of functions into entire new categories, so that simple tasks like counting words or changing the font size can take fifteen minutes of hunting through endless tabs and menus. (Dear God, why?, I heard one of my colleagues moaning just the other day as he tried to justify his margins.)

So, grumpy not-quite-as-young-as-I-used-to-be woman that I am, I was really cheesed off when I removed my shiny new electrophoresis boxes from their packing peanut nest and encountered these lime-green arrows on the side:


OK, so it’s a helpful little tip aimed at reminding the uninitiated that DNA is negatively charged and needs to migrate towards the positive pole. I get why they’ve done it. But it just seems… wrong. If you need an arrow to understand which way to load your samples, you probably shouldn’t be trusted with an experiment that mixes liquid and high voltage in the first place.

Plus, the designers who decided to add these helpful arrows probably never worked in a lab where the post-docs routinely swapped the red and black plugs on the power pack to make sure that the PhD students were paying attention.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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11 Responses to In which they don’t make ’em like they used to

  1. rpg says:

    “tried to justify his margins”–as he says, “Dear God, why?

  2. Some grant applications have really annoying formatting options!

  3. Bob says:

    “tried to justify his margins” on a grant application.

    Paper or profit? 🙂

  4. Sam Cook says:

    Use LaTeX (spot the Physics PhD).

    Surely the mild corrective shock is part of the charm of learning? I know when dealing with some of our equipment you rapidly learn to be wary even of the ground terminals in case theirs a potential…

  5. cromercrox says:

    If it were me I’d have welcomed that arrow. At my age I need all the help I can get.

  6. all it needs is a sign at the base of that arrow that says “i’m with stoopid”.

  7. That’s “Dr Stoopid” to you! 🙂

  8. Gordon J Milne says:

    Ah yes, the joys of aging, or just being a wee bit older than those around you. Try to avoid regaling younger colleagues with tales from pre-history when you didn’t get plugs to connect things up but just a pair of undifferentiated terminal posts that your screwed wires to. They will roll their eyes at the old guy/gal that is just so “out of it” these days.

    Isn’t reversing the colour of the power plugs a rite of passage for every PhD student? 🙂

  9. Accidental retrophoresis is an essential rite of passage for any lab member, surely (depending on the value of the samples).

    We had problems with the margins of a Word document recently: it was a template provided by a funding agency, in which THEIR TABLE (which I had not altered) was too wide for THEIR MARGINS, triggering an error on my own submission and several others that I heard about. Luckily I had enough time before the deadline, for once, to fix it. The clinical lead on the grant commented that this was quite ironic for a proposal that includes the aim of improving the guidelines concerning surgical margins when removing tumours.

  10. I wonder how they’d label a pulsed-field gel box?


  11. i like the hamster powered gel boxes. it is slightly inconvenient to run a gel overnight, but such things aren’t bothered by power outages and such.

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