Debbie Knight

Working with “hot” stuff

In observation on January 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm

So tomorrow I will be working with radioactivity (or “hot” stuff, as we like to call it in our lab).   One of my lab mates is doing an experiment with an extended time course (over days) with some time points taken around the clock.  I get the afternoon shift.

The experiment will look for potential proteins expressed during an HIV infection that could be targeted by antiviral drugs.  And as awesome as that sounds, we will be working with quite a bit of radioactivity to track those proteins.

By the way, the symbol above is what we use in the research labs to designate that radioactive materials may be in the room and that certain rules must be followed while in that room.

When I first started doing research (many, many moons ago), there were few alternatives to using radioactivity.  But today, there are a plethora of substitutes that give a signal nearly as good as radioactivity does.  And this is true of this particular experiment, but my boss and his collaborator feel using radioactivity will give the best results — so, that’s what we’ll do.

I’m not opposed to using radioactivity in an experiment — and in some cases, there’s just no better way to get data.  It’s just that I prefer not to use it if alternatives are available.

If one works with radioactivity in a safe manner, there is little danger of harmful exposure.  And many safeguards should be in place, such as using the appropriate shielding (which in some cases is a thin piece of plexiglas).  Latex gloves, lab coats, and safety goggles are also safety precautions that should be used.

The key to working with radioactivity is understanding not only the safety rules  (like how to handle material safely and how to prevent a spill), but understanding the particular radioisotope you are using (like what shielding you will need and  how you detect it) are important as well.

So, do I get nervous working with the stuff — sure I do.  With radioactivity,  I need to be extra, extra careful and that can be a little tense at times.

The “fun” part comes at the end of the experiment, when you have to do surveys to ensure that there is no radioactivity in your working area, or on the floor, or on the lab door knobs.  This can take some time to do, but it’s necessary. You don’t want any radioactivity “walking” around the lab.

And that has happened — not to me, but to a lab mate a few years ago.  He got radioactivity on his shoe, which he discovered when using a survey meter doing a routine survey.  He had to put his favorite sneakers in a bag until the activity (in the radioactivity) had gone away — which took about five months.

Hopefully nothing like that will happen tomorrow.  So far I’ve worked with radioactivity without major incident.  But all the same, wish me luck!


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