After about eight years in residence at the Royal Free Hospital, my itinerant scientific journey is about to embark on its next exciting leg.
In a few weeks’ time, my lab is uprooting itself and moving to a new home in the same department, from leafy Belsize Park to the thrumming centre of the university campus in Bloomsbury. I’m looking forward to it, but if you’ve ever moved labs before, you’ll know how overwhelming it can all seem. Most scientists are pack rats, and each trainee accumulates things – chemicals, reagents, plasticware, small pieces of kit – that are inevitably left behind for their successors. After a few such “generations”, the provenance of these items starts to get a bit blurry, especially when there is no one left who knew the original owners. Of course there is me, the sole constant, but even I struggle when confronted with the bold initials of a long-ago undergraduate project student who laid claim to a box, a rack, a bottle with a scribble of Sharpie, who came and went in a brief flurry of newbie zeal, ideally without blowing anything up.
In a communal lab space like the one we currently inhabit, the problem is compounded because there are multiple groups all leaving behind their stuff. The shadowy corners and recesses of less accessible benching – like that scary space behind the fume cupboard – are no-man’s lands of dusty piles of what is tactfully known in the business as “crap”. Broken gel electrophoresis electrodes, boxes of microscope slides smeared with decades-old dried purple goo, expired DNA extraction kits, pipette tips that are no longer compatible with the current sets of instruments, broken microwaves, rusty water baths that haven’t been filled for decades. Someone recently found a bottle of powdered chemical that had expired in 1972. And then there are the towers of reusable rainbow-coloured plastic boxes that fit a standard 10 by 10 grid of Eppendorf tubes, emptied of their contents but still marked territorially with their original owner’s name and purpose. IMPORTANT SAMPLES!, one declares. THE VERY LAST EXPERIMENT! promises another. Once these were prized treasure chests, carefully guarded – now they are spent empty shells, waiting for the next researcher to fill them with purpose.
So we’re using the opportunity to get rid of stuff that we no longer need, once and for all. It’s agonising, but as with most moves, we’re getting increasingly ruthless the further into the process we go. That little bottle of buffer from five years ago? It may still work, but do you really want to risk your experiment finding out? And so we recycle and donate what we can, and fill up the rubbish bags with the rest. Meanwhile, across town, members of my team have been clearing out the abandoned detritus occupying the space earmarked for us. I’m pleased to report it’s now empty and gleaming and ready for the onslaught of our crates.
If you ask us what we’re looking forward to the most, it’s probably having windows in the lab and office spaces. Yes, we’ve been enduring a fluorescent-lit cave for far too long. But University Street is lined with trees and sky and we’ll emerge into our next stage of the life cycle, blinking in the sunlight.
I am so looking forward to a fresh start – decluttered, scrubbed clean and optimistic. We have two new people joining the team soon, and so many grants outstanding that I’m confident of even more before long. I’ll be closer to key collaborators, and to the heart of university life. Endings and beginnings punctuate academic life, so let’s see what’s around the horizon. I’m ready.