A pinch of salt in the lab

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…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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17 Responses to A pinch of salt in the lab

  1. Grant says:

    deaf-defying feats

    Nice to know you still have hearing 😉

    Sorry, I just couldn’t resist… (Hey, it’s Friday evening over here!)

  2. cromercrox says:

    Did you find out what happened to the malordorous student? I wonder is she now works in HR.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    In the age of digital spying, an activity in which I have become highly accomplished, I noticed that the above-mentioned malodorous student bounced from lab to lab for a time until finding a home in the lab of a professor whose claim to fame was having been involved in the very highest profile and scandalous data fabrication case known at the university during that time–although to her limited credit, she was not involved. She was listed on a couple papers as a middle-author and then faded into obscurity.

    Yes, HR, law and politics come to mind as alternative careers. Possibly also a career as a nutritionist.

  4. Frank says:

    So, homeopathic buffers don’t work then?

    Re. people writing things down. I know my memory is poor and I absolutely need to write down processes if I want to remember what to do at a later time. I assume that other people need to do the same, but one or two people I have coached write nothing, saying they will just remember it all. I really struggle to believe that but I’m not sure if I am right to be sceptical of their claim.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Homeopathic buffers! I like that. But then I “willed” the experiment not to work. Perhaps if I had wanted it to work, the buffer would have been okay, even as diluted H2O.

      With regards to writing things down–I’m okay with someone who shows that they remember. But if they keep coming back to me to ask the same things again and again, then they either need a new hard drive or to write things down.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Good for you! There’s generally at least one person like this in every department, and I’m glad that some of them are getting caught at least.

    In my old postdoc lab there was no obvious reagent theft going on, but lots of instances of someone using the last of something and not replacing it. In that case I was 95% sure I knew who it was (someone with similar laziness and entitlement issues), but had zero proof, and had to resort to ranting at lab meetings.

    In the next-door lab during my PhD, people labelled their reagents “potion 1, potion 2”, or “coke, 7-up, Irn-Bru”, with a master list – kept somewhere very, very safe – to remind them which one was which, because of endemic reagent theft.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    There are ALWAYS those princes and princesses with entitlement issues, so for once it was nice to be able to nail it down and say “Q.E.D. — you’re busted!”

  7. Stuart says:

    My lab mentor when I was a summer student lab had several bottles on his shelf labeled with cryptic chinese-derived characters instead of names. When I asked him why, he said they were leftovers from a few years back when he had to hide the identity of his buffers from a fellow post-doc who found them a little too useful.

  8. Philip Skinner says:

    “Possibly also a career as a nutritionist” – have to call you on this one. There are a lot of kooks in the field peddling crackpot diets and products. But there are also a lot of very high caliber scientists doing very detailed scientific studies on food and human health. It is pretty similar to clinical science – the only difference that the ingested item is a food rather than a drug.

    So, a stereotype, but please don’t disparage legitimate, scientific fields. You wouldn’t do so for nuclear physicists and would expect the same respect for your own profession too.

  9. Neat! You could also have spiked your buffer with a radioactive tracer. Detection of this tracer in her flasks would have provided incontrovertible evidence of theft.

  10. Geoff S. says:

    When I was doing undergrad research, the grad students kept using my solvents, esp. the deuterated solvents for NMR. When I got near the end of one bottle, I added a witch’s brew of other non-deuterated solvents to the bottle.

    The next day, one of the grad students was trying to figure out why his spectrum was so complicated. Then he stopped short: “Wait… what’s in that bottle on your bench?”

    “Oh, benzene,dichloromethane, ether, ethyl acetate, THF, toluene… ”

    However all they had to do was rotovap their sample down. If I wanted to be evil I could have added an acid to the bottle.

  11. N/A says:

    I’m sure you do this to students you want to wash out. Except add salt & proteases to their buffers. I’ve known of post docs who have been fired for doing this to grad students. Make sure you have “the right kind of people” in your lab.

    He confessed to his labmates, was fired from his lab, got a recommendation letter from the PI, and the grad student was let go for not making “sufficient progress”. Science is just a taxpayer sanctioned country club.

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