Debbie Knight

Holiday cookies and the research lab

In observation on December 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Since many (including myself) are baking holiday goodies this time of year, I couldn’t help think about some of the similarities of working in the lab and working in the kitchen – and there are quite a few.

Having the right equipment is essential.
In the kitchen: When making cookie batter, it’s really helpful to have an electric beater. Yes, there were cookies before the electric beater, but I can’t help but think how hard that must’ve been, stirring the batter by hand. It’s not really so different in the lab.

In the lab: Sure you can swirl a flask of chemicals you want to go into solution by hand, but it’s so much easier with an electric stir plate and a magnetic stir bar (the stir bar goes inside the flask to stir its contents).

In the kitchen: Having a properly-functioning oven to bake an apple pie to perfection is important. If it runs too warm, the crust gets singed before the apple filling is warm and bubbly. If too cool, it takes forever for the pie to finish baking.

In the lab: The same can be said about the steam sterilizer that labs use to kill any bacteria on some lab equipment or in liquids that will be used to culture animal cells. The sterilizer (also called an autoclave), which looks a little like an oven, uses steam to get the things inside it to the ideal temperature and pressure to kill bacteria. And like the oven, if it runs too warm, it can melt the plastic equipment (like pipet tips and tip boxes) into some interesting shapes I like to call “autoclave art.” If it runs too cool, any bacteria that weren’t successfully killed will grow in the liquids you don’t want them to grow.

Recipes are followed.
In the kitchen: You might have measurements in ounces or cups or teaspoons.

In the lab: The measurements are made in grams and liters. The idea is that if you mix things in the right proportions, using those measurements, you will get a consistent product at the end.

In the kitchen: You might get cookies instead of soufflé (okay, so this is a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea).

In the lab: If the liquid media is not made exactly right, the cells you want to grow simply won’t grow because the conditions are not exactly right.

In the kitchen: You have a little “slop” when you follow a recipe. If you add a mounded teaspoon instead of a leveled teaspoon, the cookies will probably still come out okay.

In the lab: If you add more of chemical A than you intended, it can absolutely ruin the experiment.

One lab director takes this analogy to heart.

When I interviewed for a job in his lab, he asked if I was a good cook. That’s a great screening question. If the person is a lousy cook, they might not be able to follow a laboratory protocol (another kind of “recipe” in the lab) – especially a complicated one such as a multi-stepped Western blot analysis protocol used to analyze proteins in a sample.

I’m a pretty good cook – I follow the recipe to the “t” a few times to get the hang of it. And then, like a scientist, I start experimenting by adding a touch of something not in the original recipe.  Sometimes that works out great … and sometimes the dogs get the honor of eating the failed experiment.

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Happy Holidays, Everyone!
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