Debbie Knight

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Lab pranks not always safe

In research log on August 29, 2011 at 12:23 pm


The other day, I received some lab supplies shipped in dry ice. And in the above video, you can see just what I did with that dry ice.

This brought back memories of some pranks a former labmate used to pull in the lab.

My labmate, usually a serious guy in the lab setting, would take a plastic microcentrifuge tube (such as the one in the video above), put a little dry ice in it, and place it somewhere near one of his labmates (such as me). By the time the little dry ice “bomb” went off, he was long gone. Hearing his laughter from the other room was the only clue he was the prankster. I was just glad I didn’t have a heart attack when the tube exploded. Or that I wasn’t beaned by the projectile tube as the lid flew in one direction and the tube flew in the other.

A colleagues told me he once put dry ice in a larger tube (like the one above) and placed it lid-side down on the bench. When this dry ice bomb went off, it shot off like a rocket, punching a hole in the ceiling tile as it soared into the space above the ceiling tiles. He showed me the tile, it was impressive (but always the safety officer, I thought of a million ways that something could have gone wrong)

Yes, scientists are people who sometimes like to have fun when they do science. Sometimes the “experiment” just happens to involve doing something that might not be very safe.

For example, in a friend’s lab, her graduate student pulled a prank on her. He walked by her bench, squirted some alcohol on her lab bench and ignited it with the bunsen burner. The flames burned out quickly (kind of like a dish served flambe in a restaurant). But what concerned me was that the prankster hadn’t considered the papers that were also laying on the bench — which could easily have caught on fire.

Pranks are fun … until someone gets hurt.

I’m sure that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would have something to say about the lack of safety in performing such an “experiment” like the one shown in the video. Although you can’t see the videographer, I can tell you she wasn’t wearing protective eyewear (unless the camera counts), gloves, or labcoat. Nor was she wearing a bullet-proof vest when this “experiment” was performed.

Tsk, tsk. You’d think the lab safety officer would know better!


Radiation safety tales, part 4: Survey meters & gorilla suits

In observation on August 22, 2011 at 10:48 am

Ah, the survey meter (also known as a Geiger counter).

For scientists who use radioactive materials in their research, this portable instrument is very important in assuring lab safety. It can be used during the experiment to determine if you successfully radioactively labeled a protein or DNA or RNA. It can ensure that the protective latex gloves you are wearing haven’t been contaminated while you were handling the radioactive material. And it can help you locate an area (a “hot” spot) where radioactivity may have been accidentally spilled (even a single droplet).

It’s also important to have this meter calibrated on a yearly basis.

Our survey meter was calibrated and it was as easy as handing it to our friendly radiation safety officer. He took it back to his secret (or not-so-secret lair) and calibrated it. The meter was then returned to us the next day.

This was not always the case.

A number of years ago, it was the research lab’s responsibility to have the survey meter calibrated. This meant schlepping it across campus to the Office of Radiation Safety.

I remember the first time I took the meter over to radiation safety, as I was walking across campus mall people were intentionally avoiding me by giving me a rather wide berth. I didn’t think much of it at first until I realized they weren’t avoiding me per se, but they were avoiding the strange contraption I was carrying.  Had I been wearing a gorilla suit or sporting a big biohazard emblem on my forehead, I might have had the same reaction. I must admit I would have felt less self-conscious had I been wearing the gorilla suit.

I’m certainly glad this has all been neatly tucked into the past and that our friendly radiation safety officer now saves me from such psychological “trauma.”

I do often wonder if people nowadays would even notice I was carrying a survey meter across campus. And if they did, would they even question it? Probably not.

I’m pretty confident they wouldn’t question a person wearing a gorilla suit either.

A day in the life: August 17, 2011

In research log on August 17, 2011 at 1:37 pm


From time to time, I will give a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of a research associate and talk about what I’m doing in the lab on a particular day. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…” 

Safety chick!

One of my various roles in the lab is as a “Safety Chick.”

Okay, officially the title is “radiation safety officer,” but I’m also the chemical safety queen as well. Basically, I make sure the safety rules are followed, whether those rules are for working with radioactive materials, biohazardous materials or chemicals.

Today, another lab was in a bind – they needed to harvest a radioactive experiment and their harvesting device was broken. They asked my boss if they could use the harvester in our lab.

No problem, what are lab neighbors for?

However, what my boss did not think about is that in order for someone to use our radioactive equipment, they need to be approved to use it in our lab by the University Radiation Safety. And these lab neighbors had not been.

My boss knew the rule, but just somehow didn’t think about it in this context.

So, after they were already in our lab using the equipment, my boss mentions in passing that these folks doing just that.


We quickly remedied the situation by having my boss take over the harvesting task for them.

I feel like we dodged a bullet — we’re due for an unannounced inspection from Radiation Safety any time now, and we could have gotten into some serious trouble.

Another crisis averted by “Safety Chick.” (Cue the wind blowing through the superhero cape). Good thing I take my job seriously when it comes to lab safety!

Taking it to the streets

In research issue(s) on August 17, 2011 at 8:00 am

Full-page ad in today's The Columbus Dispatch -- back page of Section A

This full-page ad, calling for the public’s help for research funding, was in this morning’s newspaper.

The words (in case you can’t read them) from the Cancer Action Network:

“Federal funding is helping researchers at cancer centers like The James Cancer Center discover new treatments. But if Congress cuts funding and research stops promising new treatments may never reach patients. With 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, we can’t afford to have our investments go to waste.

Text RESEARCH to 30644 to join us in urging Congress to protect our cancer research funding and save lives.”

Although this ad is clearly aimed at gaining support for cancer research, it will be interesting to see if this prompt will prod the general public into action. Scientific researchers — of any kind, not just of the cancer variety —  needs everyone’s help to keep research going!

Radiation safety tales, part 3: Hot shoes, cold feet

In observation on August 15, 2011 at 9:27 am

Ah, there’s nothing like a favorite pair of tennies. Comfortable. Well broken in.

And “hot.” Literally.

A few years ago, our graduate student was running a gel during a radioactive experiment. When you run a gel, it is submerged in a large volume of liquid called “running buffer.” Well, somehow this liquid, which may have had low levels of radioactivity, spilled all over the floor and onto the graduate student’s favorite pair of sneakers.

I also believe he had to change out of his clothes into some hospital scrubs because he had gotten some droplets of liquid on the cuffs of his jeans.

The spill was properly cleaned up. The floor tiles were decontaminated. And, for safe measure, the student’s shoes were stored in a bag in a cabinet until the radioisotope had undergone ten half-lives (the amount of time for half of the radioactivity to diminish).

In this case, he was working with P-32 and, with a half life of 14 days, he didn’t get to wear his favorite shoes again for nearly five months.

Plenty of time for him to find a new pair of “favorite” tennies. But he was glad to get his old favorites back.

A day in the life: August 12, 2011 (This is only a test … )

In research log on August 12, 2011 at 8:26 am

From time to time, I will give a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of a research associate and talk about what I’m doing in the lab on a particular day. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…” 

The samples of fetal bovine serum I am testing.

It’s hard to please picky eaters.

And it’s also true with some cells that I culture in the lab. These cells I isolated from the lining of blood vessels in the umbilical cord – they’re called endothelial cells or EC for short.

The cells are on a strictly liquid diet – in the lab we call their food “media.”

EC are quite particular about one component in that media: a thing called “fetal bovine serum.” The serum is a component of blood (the part without red and white blood cells). Believe it or not, not all fetal bovine serum are created the same and these cells can tell you which ones “taste” good and which ones do not. So, we can’t just buy whatever is on sale at the serum store, we have to request some samples and test them before we buy from a supplier.

So last week I called up a couple of trusted suppliers to request some serum samples as well as how much this liquid gold costs these days.

Fetal bovine serum is one of the most expensive media components. The price varies depending on the market value. My lab has paid as much as $189 per 500-milliliter bottle. The going rate right now seems to be about $130 per bottle. That’s “reasonable.” We’ll be buying at least a dozen bottles, so that’ll cost us ~$1600 or so once shipping costs are folded in.

I should note that this will probably last a year or more before we have to test more serum.

So what’s involved in testing a serum sample?

This means making several bottles of media which differ only in the serum added to each bottle. The media are tested on the endothelial cells and monitored for how well they grow in the media.

The flasks of cells used in the serum sample testing, lined up in the incubator.

When the cells completely cover the growing surface of the flask, I then transfer a portion of those cells into a new flask with fresh media and again monitor their progress. I will do this for a few cycles until I am confident that I can select at least one serum sample in which the cells grow well.

I just started the process this week and so far several serum samples are strong candidates – the cells are actually growing better in the new serum samples than the serum allotment I have been using for a while now (one no longer available from the supplier).

I won’t know who the winner or winners are for a couple of weeks, but I am confident at least one of these serum samples will work well.

I will say that my least favorite part about testing serum is not the testing itself. It’s the phone calls I will be getting from the suppliers asking me if I’m ready to place an order. And it’s the phone calls I’ll be getting a few months later asking me if the lab needs more serum. But I guess that’s just the “price” of buying fetal bovine serum.

But for now, this is only a test…

Radiation safety tales, part 2: Shrimp tails and banana peels

In observation on August 10, 2011 at 10:36 am

The janitorial staff who work in university research buildings are given special training on what laboratory waste is safe to take and what is not. For example, a gray bin with no labels on it — okay to empty. But a box bearing a biohazard or radioactive symbol  is not.

A few years ago, we had a very new janitor.

After he had come through our lab and emptied our trash cans, I noticed that our half-full box of radioactive waste (to which we were still adding waste, so it wasn’t sealed) was suddenly empty.


By the time we figured out what happened, the janitor had gone to dinner. We had no idea where the radioactive waste material might have gone – was it in the dumpster? Was it still in his wheeled cart? Was it in the pile of sealed trash bags outside the janitorial closet? Yikes!

While it was only a few minutes the janitor was gone, it felt like hours as we fretted over the fate of the radioactive waste.

It turned out it was in his wheeled collection bin — which we only figured out after my boss (yes, I said my boss) rummaged through shrimp tails and banana peels to find something he recognized from our radioactive experiments.

We, upon the advice from the radiation safety officer, placed the entire contents of the bin in our  radioactive waste box and sealed it. We of course performed inspections of the janitor’s wheeled bin, a few door knobs, etc. which came up free from contamination. Shew!

Now with some radioisotopes you can allow the radioactive material to lose it’s radioactivity over time in the lab. But other isotopes, such as tritium (which this particular radioactive waste was) you have to pay for Radiation Safety to come and take the box away so that it can be stored in special location for years and years. At the time, the going rate was $650 for the radioactive waste container to be hauled away, which was mostly regular (non-radioactive) trash.

I was glad that they took the container soon thereafter — I couldn’t imagine how badly those shrimp tails and banana peels would smell in a few days.

Radiation safety tales, Part 1: Invasion of the bunny suits

In observation on August 8, 2011 at 10:17 am

The last thing you want to become is an example – especially an example of what not to do. But that’s exactly what our lab became.

Before there was online training for general radiation safety, you had to sit in a classroom for a few hours listening to health physicist tell you about radioactivity and how to safely handle it. You would also hear stories about mishaps in the laboratory setting. One mishap in our lab was recounted numerous times over the years.

Our lab had a spotless record for many years before the arrival of a post-doctoral researcher we’ll call Dr. Moon (not her real name). She went through all the required training and began using the radioisotope S-35 in her experiments. S-35 is not a very powerful radioisotope, it’s hard to pick up with the Geiger counter (or survey meter – a handheld portable instrument used to detect radioactive materials). She swore up and down that she knew how to handle radioactivity safely.

(Of course you can see where this is headed …)

During a routine radioactive inspection of the lab, which has to be done on a weekly basis if there have been any radioactive experiments carried out in the lab, I discovered that the door know to our lab was “hot.” Since this was unexpected, I repeated the inspection of the door knob. It really was contaminated with radioactivity.

This situation had never come up before.


We called our radiation safety officer for his advice on how to proceed. Obviously decontaminating the door knob was a priority, but we weren’t sure how far-reaching the contamination went since it was found on a door knob everyone had access to, including the cleaning staff.

Now to put this in perspective, the amount of radioactivity on the door knob was tiny (about 0.01 mCi or less) compared with the amount of radioactive iodine that is used to treat patients with hyperthyroidism (about 150 mCi). But any radioactivity in a laboratory above a certain threshold, and especially on something touched by everyone like the door knob, is a concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It needs to be decontaminated and the extent of the contamination assessed.

Before we knew it, several radiation safety personnel arrived in “bunny suits” (disposable overalls), shoe protectors, survey meters, and face shields. It looked like we were being invaded by a top-secret military force or a special task force from the CDC trying to contain an Ebola outbreak.

Bunny suits worn during an Ebola outbreak similar to the bunny suits worn by the radiation safety personnel who inspected our lab.

These bunny-suited people surveyed the hallway, the restrooms, the departmental office, the building doors, and even followed us out to our cars! And to the dismay of Dr. Moon, we (including our boss) had to provide a urine specimen (here’s a cup, give us a sample)! She was mortified!

As it turned out, they detected a tiny amount of radioactive contamination on a main building door (much less than what was on our lab door), so it was a good thing they came to investigate.

Thank goodness for routine inspections (though I must say that they are often inconvenient to perform, I feel better knowing working surfaces are safe to work on).

Yes, this story was told many times over to future radioactive users. We would hear a trainee say “Hey, I heard about a lab who…” and we would know that, once again, our lab was used as an example.

To our credit, we handled the situation properly. We did our routine inspection, discovered a problem, and reported that problem to university officials. And Dr. Moon was no longer allowed to use radioactivity in our lab.

Going with the flow …

In observation on August 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm

One of the upsides (or downsides, depending on your point of view) of working for a professor who teaches is that sometimes I get asked to help. Sometimes it’s to help design a Powerpoint slide for his class presentation. But now that he’s more proficient using the program, those requests have become extremely rare.

I miss the good ol’ days when he was more of a cyberdope (his word, not mine).

Sometimes I’m recruited to help teach the first-year graduate students in his class.

This week, I got the privilege of teaching them the “mysterious” ways of flow cytometry — including how to “go with the flow.”

Here are two students watching the results come in as the sample runs through the flow cytometer

For those who are unfamiliar with flow cytometry: it is a rather complex “black box” instrument that sends cells in single file through a laser beam. And when the laser light hits the cell, several things can happen.

  • First, that light can pass pretty much straight through the cell to a detector that will relay information about the size of the cell (is it large? Is it small?) to the computer.
  • Second, the light can enter the cell, bounce off little packets within the cell called granules and hit another detector that tells the computer whether the cells has a few or a lot of those granules inside it.
  • The researcher may also be interested in whether the cell has a specific molecule on its surface or inside it and do so using special tags are placed on that molecule. Often an antibody (a protein) carrying the tag is used and that antibody then sticks to the specific molecule in or on the cell. In this case, the laser beam hits the tag, excites certain electrons in this tag, and the tag will “glow” (fluoresce, give off light). There are specific detectors that, well, detect that particular “glow” and relay the information to the computer.

Viola! Samples go into the "black box" and data comes out on the computer screen

As far as teaching the students goes, it is more of an introduction to flow cytometry than a detailed how-to. They tag a few different molecules on the outside of the cell. The “exciting” part, pardon the pun, is when they run the cells through the instrument.

The part I find most amazing is that within a few seconds, the instrument has looked at over 5,000 cells and told them quite a bit of information about each and every one of those cells. If they had to look at 5,000 cells under the microscope, count them, determine if the cell has a tag on it or not (and how much of the tag), it would take them much longer than the fifteen seconds the flow cytometer does it.

The flow cytometer can show the size and granularity of the cells, how much of a fluorescent tag is present on the cells, and much more. Here, 5,000 cells were examined in 15 seconds!

I cover this in a bit more detail with the students — including showing them what’s inside the “black box” — but I think this gives you the idea.

The first day of teaching, the software on the instrument we were supposed to use disappeared. This meant we had to come up with a plan B — i.e., find another flow cytometer. We scrambled, but managed to find one we could use for the morning.  We had less than 30 minutes  to rebuild the template and tweak the detectors before the students started coming. Yikes!

I thought to myself THIS must be what they mean by “going with flow.”

Despite the initial technical difficulties, the students seemed genuinely interested in learning the “mysterious” ways of flow cytometry. And as I was able to answer most of their questions., I felt I had dispelled some of that mystery.But maybe that’s just me, learning to “go with the flow.”