Debbie Knight

Lesson for scientists? Don’t throw away any of your experimental samples!

In observation on July 28, 2011 at 6:02 am

This week I stumbled across a story on my Twitter feed about a scientist inheriting his mentor’s laboratory and finding a dusty old cardboard box containing experimental vials from 1958 which had never been analyzed. The contents of those vials, when analyzed, showed how volcanic activity may have helped spark life from the primordial soup on primitive Earth — clearly, an important find.

Now I imagine if I had found this dusty old cardboard box, filled with smelly vials from research conducted over 50 years ago, my first inclination would be to throw them out .. and quickly!  Surely they were analyzed and long forgotten, or so I would have thought.  I guess it’s a good thing that it wasn’t me tasked with clearing out this lab space or a valuable scientific finding would be forever lost!

Heck it happens in the lab I work in when I go into a cleaning frenzy and start throwing out samples that are not well-labelled or are a few years old. Now I’ll have to rethink my process – perhaps there is a landmark experiment just waiting to be discovered … by someone who will eventually inherit the lab. Hmmm, I like the thought of not having to clear out old samples to make room for the new ones. This could work!

(But I think the lab is going to need a new freezer)

So, what can scientists learn from this story? Don’t throw ANY of your experiments away — save them for someone else to (re)discover, after you die!

  1. Are there grants to apply for freezers to “store old samples, just in case the cure for cancer is in there and we don’t yet have the technology to discover it”?

    I’ve came across many freezers while I was a sales rep. Those 2 pictures above are BY FAR the most organized freezers I have ever seen. Well done Debbie! You should win an award. Researchers underestimate how lab organization affects efficiency and productivity.

    • Despite organization, it’s still sometimes difficult to find stuff. Sometimes you have to remember HOW you named something when you crammed it into a freezer box months or years ago.

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