Debbie Knight

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?

  1. Great article. I’m currently a student taking an experimental design and analysis class and would someday like to work in the lab setting.
    Here’s the weird question I have for you. Did you keep the brain slice, and if so, would you be willing to sell it? I enjoy collecting oddities, having recently purchased a human skull. I have been unable to find a human brain slice in clear plastic, but found your freezer find to be interesting and something I would like to purchase.
    Thanks for your time.

    • Thanks, Jennifer! Good luck with your endeavors!
      Regarding the brain slice, it was disposed in biohazardous waste. Sorry.

  2. Thanks for yor reply. Well, that’s a shame about the brain. A good mind should never go to waste!
    Hopefully for you, someone else will assume the task of cleaning out the freezer in another 20 years. I think you fulfilled your lifetime responsibility in that department. Good luck!

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