Debbie Knight

Double, double, toil and trouble

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Double, double, toil and trouble...

In honor of All Hallows Eve, I thought I’d cover a rather gruesome topic to those working in a research lab.

It can fill even an experienced researcher with dread. (Cue the sound of distant howling)

It can bring research to a screeching halt. (Cue the clinking chains and disembodied moaning)

It can drive a graduate student or a research associate to desperate measures. (Cue the maniacal laughter)

What could possibly be this “scary” in a research lab?  (Cue the creepy organ music)

The bane of the research scientist’s life — troubleshooting!

Take a beautifully-working protocol that suddenly won’t work anymore and the hours, days, weeks of troubleshooting that can follow can be quite a challenge. (One might even say horrific, at times).

It is especially troublesome to troubleshoot a time-consuming multiple-step protocol where any given step could be the source of the problem and it isn’t apparent there is a problem until the protocol is finished several days after it’s begun.

A reagent, a piece of equipment, a contaminant are but a few of the places a problem can arise.

If you want to truly appreciated how many things could go wrong at any point in an experimental protocol, just look at my post describing a protein analysis protocol called Western blot analysis.  Problems can occur at any of those steps described, from the isolation of proteins from cells through the detection of the protein on the blot.

Another lab technique that I’ve personally found vexing is nested polymerase chain reaction (nested PCR) which looks for specific genes or pieces of  DNA in a sample. This technique is so sensitive that the tiniest speck of contamination can give a positive result where there should be none. And result in hours and days of trying to figure out from where that contamination arose.

Determining just where the problem lies in an experimental protocol can be quite aggravating. It often requires a series of tightly-controlled experiments  to identify the source of the problem. And sometimes it just means starting completely over — making new reagents, opening new boxes of supplies, whatever else you might think of.

To be honest, there are times when getting a protocol to work again seems more “magic” than method.

If you’ve worked in a lab long enough, experience shows you that if you can get the protocol working again, whether you identified the specific problem or not, you accept that it’s back online and resume cranking out data. Don’t look back. Don’t ask questions. Just crank.

And the best part of this hair-raising tale: the scariest part is behind you — no more double, double, toil, and trouble. (Cue the birds chirping and sound of children at play)

At least until the next time. (Cue the dissonant note and return to melodic musical score)

  1. Scientists are trained troubleshooters. I like to call them Process Optimizers. This skill is transferrable to any job in any industry. The world will benefit from more scientists.

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