Debbie Knight

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Day in the Life: August 30, 2012

In A Day in the Life, research log on August 30, 2012 at 9:30 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. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…” 

We have a film processor in our lab. We use it to develop plastic films that have been exposed to small amounts of light produced by a chemical reaction to help us look at proteins in our samples.

The film processor uses three solutions: a developer, a fixer, and water.

Usually our developer and fixer solutions are delivered by our service guy in a carboy.

However, we ran out of developer and they shipped us a bunch of smaller bottles. I thought it was a little weird that there were two different sized bottles in the box. It wasn’t until I read the directions on the back of one of those bottles that I realized that some assembly was required.

This was a first for me!

One bottle of solution “A” and one of “B” and an equal amount of water.

Sounds easy enough.

And it was pretty easy, but I think I prefer the service guy bringing it already made. Less time, less mess.


What do you mean it doesn’t fit?!

In observation on August 29, 2012 at 9:30 am

This is a biosafety cabinet or as we call it in the lab a “hood.” This particular one was slotted to be moved from the fourth floor to the basement.

But before we could have it moved, we had to have it decontaminated since some of the things that were cultured in the hood were possibly infectious to humans. This involved calling in a company to fill the inner chamber with formaldehyde to essentially “fix” (or kill) anything that might be harmful to any humans that might come in contact with the biosafety cabinet. Once completed, they stuck a sign on it.

So the movers came. No way we could move this behemoth ourselves. Biosafety cabinets, especially this one,  are built like tanks — they’re pretty substantial. But this particular one is not only extremely heavy, it is tall. Some hoods have retractable legs, but not this one. What you see is what you get. And as I recall, the movers had a heck of a time moving the hood into the lab many years ago.

The movers were rather resourceful. None of their typical dollies would work — they made the hood too tall to pass through the doorway. So, the movers used a pair of gloves and some cardboard to act as “sliders” to squeeze the hood out of the lab.

They then put the hood on “cup dollies” and scooted it down the hall — seemingly with ease.

They loaded it into the freight elevator and rolled it down the basement hallway.

All was going well, so of course there had to be a “catch.”

The “catch” in this case was: the basement doorways are slightly shorter than those in the rest of the building.

Who knew?!

Never-to-say-the-least, no matter how hard the movers tried, the hood was not going to go into the basement lab.


The movers had to load the hood back on the freight elevator and haul it back to the fourth floor.

The hood now sits in the hallway, facing the wall like a child in time out, until we figure out another place to store it.

So, lesson learned: basement doorways tend to be shorter than other doorways — at least in vintage university buildings.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on August 28, 2012 at 9:00 am

I mentioned last week that a newly-hired professor shipped 15 packages overnight on dry ice. Many of the packages contained boxes of irreplaceable biological samples.

I found it amusing that one box in particular was labeled “Useful one!”

Does this mean the rest of the samples he shipped were not?  


A Day in the Life: August 23, 2012

In A Day in the Life, research log on August 23, 2012 at 4:50 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. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…” 

The past two days I’ve been busy wearing a “catcher’s mitt.”

A newly-hired faculty member shipped his irreplaceable research specimens from California to me. He shipped them in two overnight shipments on dry ice. The dry ice was to keep the samples frozen during their journey.

He sent the samples in all 15 styrofoam boxes shown in the photo. This kept me busy as I had to unpack and transfer everything in these boxes to the -80C freezer — without getting frost bite, I might add.

While everything arrived in great condition and the packages could easily be tracked on the Internet, he still worried about them. I received phone calls and emails from him before and after the packages arrived. First to give me a head’s up the samples were on their way. And then, after the packages arrived,  asking if the samples were okay and reminding me yet again where to store them.

I guess I can’t fault him. The samples are, after all, irreplaceable. I suppose I would have done the same if the roles were reversed.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on August 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

This is a photo of the side of our lab freezer.

The white board allows lab members to keep track of what needs to be ordered, what solutions need to be made, and what tasks need to be done. It allows us to communicate.

And the clutter of signs that surround this white board? All of it is lab safety information.

Information we have to display, according to our lab safety inspector.

I think all these posted signs are a little overwhelming. And the important information they each carry gets lost. It’s like trying to read a really long paragraph in a newspaper or magazine article. The reader becomes exhausted just looking at the  paragraph — not from the content, but from the visual size of it.

I would so love to consolidate the messages into a single sheet of paper. Or maybe, at the most, two sheets of paper. Maybe even make them visually interesting so they are more easily noticed.

I think then the messages would communicate effectively.

For example, here is how a lab door going into our autoclave room looked before:

and after I consolidated the messages:

Simplification can mean better communication (at least in my humble opinion).

Time flies when you’re having fun … in the lab

In observation on August 15, 2012 at 9:30 am

Twenty-two years ago this week, I started working at The Ohio State University.

Back then I lived my life in one-year allotments, probably a result of signing a string of one-year apartment leases.  (I moved around a lot).

And I remember how difficult and scary it was for me to commit to two years for my first job here. Two years seemed like a lifetime commitment to my younger self.

But the two years soon became eight and a half years. The years with this boss flew by. I guess I was having too much fun. (Well most of the time).

Never did I imagine myself working in one place for that long.

My first two weeks on the job were a crazy, stressful blur. I had to learn everything there was to know about growing human cells, culturing virus, staining cells, etc. in those brief 14 days before the student left for dental school.

I was totally out of my element. I had only worked with bacteria and never viruses.  In my former job I wanted bacteria to grow, but in my new job the bacteria were the enemy. And while I had a pretty good set of laboratory skills, I had never done anything like what I was learning to do in my new job.

It was a crash course, but I caught on. Anna taught me well.

I even outdid her when it came to putting coverslips on slides.  (This “Grasshopper” certainly snatched that pebble from her master’s hand.)

Here’s a photo about eight or nine years later … and I was still smiling.

And now? I’m still having fun most days. I won’t kid you. There are days when nothing goes right or the experiment goes up in glorious blazing flames (figuratively, not literally). That’s okay because there are just as many (if not more) days where things go well, when an “aha” moment happens or I break out into a happy dance (think Snoopy’s happy dance from the Peanuts comic strip).

Photo of the Week

In photo log on August 14, 2012 at 12:09 pm

A professor had his lab equipment and supplies moved from Michigan to a lab down the hall from me. This is his stuff crammed into the lab. I’m not sure it will all fit, especially when everything is unpacked. Yikes!


The first day to becoming great doctors — welcome medical school class of 2016!

In observation on August 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Today, apparently, is the first day of medical school for many students at my university.

I’ve seen countless people running around the first floor and outside my building in short white coats that come down to the middle of their hips. (The long white coats are reserved for those who have already earned their medical degree)

Soon their pockets will be bulging (and I do mean bulging to the point of ripping) with stethoscopes, otoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, pens and scores of sheets of paper. They will look even more like medical students.

Some of them stride confidently and proudly down the hall while others scurry with a hint of anxiety flickering in their eyes.

I can’t help but look at them in awe: here are some of the brightest people I will ever set eyes upon, full of potential. And possibly, some day, my physician.

Will they all make it?

Many will.

Will they become the kind of doctor they hope to become?

To this I answer “I hope not.”

I hope they are better!

I hope they become the most compassionate and genuinely caring physicians they can be. Ones who take the time to listen (really listen) to their patients. Ones that take time with each patient rather than worrying about staying on an overbooked schedule.

I hope, rather than becoming good doctors,  they become great doctors.

Good luck class of Medical School Class of 2016! Be the best you can be!

Day in the Life: August 10, 2012

In A Day in the Life, research log on August 10, 2012 at 9:00 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…” 

My division has hired two new neuropathologists. One will arrive in September and the other in October. There has been quite a bit to do in preparation of their arrival. Politics, “luck,” or whatever you’d like to call it, I’ve had the honor of doing some of the prep work.

One task I had to do: clean out a freezer that belonged to a researcher turned administrator who has since passed away.

My job was made easier when I discovered that the minus eighty degree Celsius freezer had warmed to a balmy minus four degrees Celsius. Not great for the stuff in the freezer — in fact what alerted me to the problem was that some samples were liquid when they should be frozen solid.  But is was great for my fingers which were no longer in danger of getting frost bitten.

This is what the freezer looked like before I really started. A “good” example of how not to store stuff in a freezer, with boxes of stuff stashed all willy-nilly.

And this was after the clean out.

In many of the boxes, cultured cells were stored. Not the best storage conditions for cells. Ideally, cells should be stored in liquid nitrogen or a -140 freezer. The cultured cells I had to treat as if they were biohazardous material. So I had to put them in the appropriate waste container.

As I was dumping the vials of cells out of the cardboard boxes, I thought about all the time, effort and money that had gone into growing the cells  and freezing them. And how much time was taken just labeling the darn vials. Let alone the work, sweat and tears that went into the many experiments and experimental reagents also stored in this freezer.

It was sad to see a lifetime of research efforts going into the waste bins and boxes.

And labels on boxes show the many people that worked on those experiments. Take one box, clearly important to research by what Ms. Boardman wrote on it: “Do not use. All pCB original clones. Original DNA from which all other preps have been propagated.”

Of course, some boxes, though labeled, were not as informative. One box was labeled “Unknowns.”  This was box “A” implying there were more unknown samples lurking in the freezer.  I  did not find this label very reassuring. I’m not sure why one would keep samples that were an unknown entity. Perplexed, I placed in the biohazard box just to be sure.

In addition to biological specimens, there were bottles of chemicals that I had to set aside for proper disposal by the university’s Environmental Health and Safety personnel.

There were volumetric flasks full of unknown solvents. This lab was known for its work in brain lipids — difficult to work with and to extract. These were also set aside for the EHS people to determine proper disposal.

The oldest documented chemical in the freezer? It was an enzyme from 1988, based on this paperwork I found with the vial.

Although I did find a really old canister of cholesterol that might have been older. But with no date on the label and no documentation to back it up, I couldn’t really say.

There were some reagents from familiar suppliers but with unfamiliar labels (meaning the chemicals were pretty old).  The DH5-alpha cells in the photo below are still sold by Life Technologies, but I certainly don’t remember Bethesda Research Laboratories.

And, in all this excavation I did happen to find the weirdest thing I have ever found in a freezer, though it shouldn’t surprise me since this was a neuropathologist’s freezer.

A slice of human brain in a box.

It was a little freezer burned, as you can see.

I’m sure the person’s last thoughts had not been: “I wonder if someone will find a slice of my brain in a freezer some day …”

So I will end my archaeological forays into the frozen tundra of a researcher’s freezer here.

But I will ask the question to the researchers out there: What is the weirdest thing you have found in a laboratory freezer?

A Day in the Life: August 9, 2012

In A Day in the Life, research log on August 9, 2012 at 9:00 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…”

One of the benefits to working at my university it that I can take classes for free. In fact, that’s how I earned my master’s degree several years ago.

I am currently working toward a journalism degree on a part-time basis. The goal is to become a science writer in some shape or form.

As I advance through the curriculum, the courses are more demanding and time-consuming. It has become a major undertaking to balance my research performance with my coursework. And there are times when I’ve had to put my coursework on hold while I push to complete experiments needed for grant proposal and/or manuscript submissions.

I am at such a cross roads for the fall semester.

The grant funding we have will run out the middle of next year. Because my job depends on grant money, if we are not able to get more grant funding (something that is increasingly difficult to get these days), I will have to leave the lab in which I work.

This thought makes my stomach turn a little queasy.

The grant funding depends on submitting a grant proposal (or two) that is scored in the upper atmosphere of scores. It has to be that good. Olympic games good. And to get it to be that good, it requires great ideas with great data to back it. And a whole lot of luck.

So my quandary: taking the class would keep me on track and put me in a good position to switch my career from working in the lab (which I love) to working in some form of science communication at the university (something I think I would love, but have yet to test). But cranking on data could buy me more time in the lab setting and more time to take classes later.

I’ve made a pros and cons list. And things are coming out pretty evenly.

It seems a gamble either way.

I’m not sure what I’ll choose. But I suspect I’ll place an “all in”  bet on research.