Debbie Knight

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

A Day in the Life: September 27, 2012

In A Day in the Life on September 27, 2012 at 2:59 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…” 

Yesterday we got word that our grant proposal did not get funded.

Sad news for us, especially since this was the second (and final) time the proposal was submitted.

But with current pay lines at something like the 6 percentile, most grant proposals do not get funded.

I think what stung the most was the proposal was not even scored.

This means that the two or three scientists who were assigned to thoroughly read and evaluate the proposal did not think it was worth further consideration by the other scientists in the panel. The panel is often called a study section.

While it is technically a collective decision, the assigned reviewers wield quite a bit of sway because they have read the proposal in more depth than the rest of the scientists in the study section. So if your proposal failed to razzle-dazzle the reviewers, you don’t make the cut.

So while we thought we had a great research idea, there were scientists out there who didn’t agree.

Such is the way of research.

So, for now, it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

And that about “covers” it

In research log on September 20, 2012 at 9:30 am

So yesterday, I posted the Photo of the Week of a lab chair enshrouded in black plastic and green labeling tape. A pragmatic way to address lab safety when working with biohazardous materials. Specifically, no fabric-covered chairs are allowed in a biosafety level 2 designated laboratory.

My lab had two chairs, used in a desk area, that were fabric covered. Something we finally had to address after a lab safety inspection.

The chairs in question were great lab chairs. We didn’t want to cover them in a black plastic trash bag secured with duct tape.

I considered clear plastic vinyl — you know, the stuff with which some people cover their sofas. But when I went to the fabric store, the fine print said that this was flammable. Not something that we would want in the lab where safety is a huge concern.

I did find some non-flammable black vinyl that I thought would work. I bought a yard for $16.99  which turned out to be just enough to cover the two lab chairs.

I should note here that this was only my second attempt at reupholstering and I didn’t do anything “fancy” here.

The learning curve was actually figuring out how to remove the seat forms from the chair. The rest was pretty easy.

First step was to remove the seat bottom and seat back from the lab chair.

The next step was to make a “pattern” to guide how I would cut the vinyl.

Next, I gently “stretched” the vinyl over the seat back form, using a staple gun to hold in place.

Then, I stapled the fabric all around the seat back form. This material wasn’t going anywhere when I was done. Not pretty, but no one will see it (well, except you).

The final product. I’m not entirely happy with the corners, but the vinyl reupholstery looks much better than a black plastic trash bag.

Two lab chairs, reupholstered for less than $20.

They may not look quite as nice as they did in their former fabric-covered selves, but at least they are safe to use anywhere in the lab now.

Photo of the Week

In photo log on September 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

I saw this rather sad-looking chair in a lab down the hall from me.

Why is it enshrouded in a very “fashionable” black trash bag embellished with bright green labeling tape?

Well, this is one way to make a cloth chair usable in a lab that works with biohazardous materials. In case some of the biohazardous material (like blood) is splashed on the chair, the plastic allows for easy cleaning and decontamination. If the biohazard would land on cloth, it would just soak into the fabric. Not a desirable situation in a research laboratory.

Although functional, I think I might have gone with a little more label tape. You know, to really make a statement. 🙂

Sometimes you have to get creative in the lab

In research log on September 12, 2012 at 9:30 am

Sometimes you have to find creative solutions when you do an experiment.

I was running a gel on a much larger format than I am used to. It felt like I was using a gel held between two glass plates that I imagined were made for the Jolly Green Giant.

I typically work with the smaller glass plate (between my thumb and index finger), but today I was working with the larger glass plate.

I usually run the gels in the smaller apparatus on the left, but on this day, I was using the ginormous apparatus on the right where I encountered several logistical issues.

Because I had never worked in this scale before, it meant I encountered several logistical issues as I conducted the experiment. Most I could solve pretty easily. For instance, I never run gels in this area of the lab, but I needed a steady stream of water to cool the buffer. I had to figure out where to safely put the power supply where it wouldn’t get wet should the setup spring a leak (think tubing popping off the connector and spraying water everywhere). Also, I had to figure out how to pry the gel from between the glass plates without tearing it. Little things like this.

But the biggest problem I encountered was how I would incubate the resulting membrane strips for the rest of the experiment.

I thought I could perhaps place them in this tray designed to hold thin strips of membranes. However, my strips were twice as wide as the slots in the tray.

The tray I thought I might be able to incubate strips of membrane for my experiment. The strips were too wide for the slots.

I dug through our cabinets and drawers and found four screwtop glass tubes that would work. The problem was there were only four — I needed 20.

Problem: I only had four screwtop glass tubes to work with — I needed 20 of them for the experiment.

It was a holiday. I couldn’t turn to my lab neighbors to see if they had any of these test tubes.

So, I had to get creative.

There was nothing in the lab that would work. So while the gel was running, I went to a couple of nearby retail stores. I kept an extremely open mind, but I didn’t find anything that would work.


I next tried a hardware store. Again, open minded. I finally found some PVC pipe and end caps that could work. The hardware guy didn’t bat an eye when I said I needed 20 six-inch pieces cut from a ten-foot pipe.

Twenty PVC “tubes” that the hardware employee had to cut from a ten-foot pipe.

So, I had my solution. It wasn’t ideal — you can’t exactly see through PVC pipe. And getting the caps off wasn’t easy. In fact, I didn’t have quite enough caps, so I had to use rubber stoppers for some of them — turned out the stoppers were much easier to remove when I had to add reagents to the “tube.” But it helped me get through the experiment.

The PVC pipe solution.

It should be noted that the PVC “tubes” cost about 50 cents a piece. The glass tubes from a lab supplier cost two dollars a piece.

Oh, I did end up using the tray — to keep the tubes in position while they rocked overnight.

To keep the “tubes” in a specific orientation, I used the immunoblot tray. The slots held everything in place pretty well.

In the research lab, it often takes some creative thinking beyond designing the experiment — sometimes you need it just to do the experiment.

I guess that’s why there’s the saying “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Danger, Will Robinson!

In observation on September 12, 2012 at 9:00 am


I posted a similar photo yesterday, not because it is a great photo, but because it reminded me of a former boyfriend.

He was a college student majoring in foreign language, specifically Russian. So he knew very little about scientific research.

He absolutely refused to step into the lab in which I worked because a sign like this one was posted on the door. He wouldn’t even knock on the door to let me know he was waiting in the hallway.

He was afraid that he would be contaminated by touching the door or crossing its threshold even though I explained to him it was okay as long as he didn’t touch anything I told him not to touch in the lab.

I couldn’t show him the cells I cultured. Or the microscope slides with pretty staining. Or any aspect of where I worked. No matter how much I reassured him he’d be okay.

So, I guess the sign did a good job.

Maybe a little too good of a job.

Don’t let them see you sweat!

In observation on September 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

There is a lab in my division that will become a new faculty member’s space. The lab door has a radioactive sign posted on it — a remnant from its former occupant.

The reason the lab door still displays this sign is that it takes a lot of work to decommission a lab for radioactivity. We (as in our division and the university safety officer) were waiting to see if the new faculty member would be using radioactivity in any of his experiments — if he did, we would keep the lab posted.

As it turns out, the new faculty member will not be working with radioactivity, so we had to decommission the lab. This isn’t simply a matter of removing the sign from the door. You have to assure that there is no radioactivity present in the lab, including all the working surfaces, cabinets, and equipment in the lab.

Each square foot area of the lab has to be tested for radioactivity. This involves a “wipe test” where a piece of absorbent paper is wiped along the surface and placed in a vial filled with a fluid (called scintillation fluid) that helps intensify the signal that is given off by a radioactive material picked up on the piece of paper. In a large lab, that’s quite a number of wipe tests that must be performed.

I emailed our safety officer to let him know that we needed to close out the lab. And knowing how intensive the process is, I wrote:  I know it’s not the most “fun” aspect of your job.

I was floored when he wrote back and said it actually was a fun part of his job.

No quotation marks around the word “fun.”

No sarcasm.

He seriously liked this part of his job.

Of course, that made me wonder what all his job entailed that having to do such intensive testing would be considered “fun.”

I didn’t have to wonder for long because while he was in our building, he went ahead and performed not only a radiation inspection in the lab to decommission but also in my lab.

Happy day for me:  a surprise inspection!

The inspection covered radiation safety (relatively easy since we haven’t worked with radioactivity in over a year). But the inspection also included biological and chemical safety — which included an extremely long checklist of questions to be answered.

Ah …  it was this part of his job he found not so much “fun.”

And I quickly realized it wasn’t so much “fun” for me either.

The checklist was l-o-n-g.

It took quite a bit of time for both of us.

And anticipating what the next item might be on his list and whether my lab is in compliance made me squirm. And fret. And, of course, sweat.

Yep, this is now officially not my favorite part of my job.

But it wasn’t without some benefit.  While we are careful to follow the safety rules and regulations in my lab, there is always something a good inspector will find that needs correction.

And, yes, this time was no different. We do have a couple of things we will need to address.

But, in the end, I know it will make our lab a safer place to work.

I suppose it’s a good thing these inspections are unscheduled, because I think I’d be tempted to call in “sick” next time. I think I could convince my boss I had come down with a serious case of 24-hour ebola! 🙂

Junk or treasure: the land of surplus

In observation on September 4, 2012 at 9:00 am

We needed a desk of a certain size for the lab. And none of the desks that were available in the hallways were the right dimensions.

So, I had to take a trip to a place called “university surplus.”

I imagined all sorts of junkie lab equipment (maybe even some we’ve sent over there), desks and file cabinets piled to the ceiling in some abandoned corner of a warehouse.

I was wrong. It was surprisingly well-organized. Everything was clustered — all the chairs were in one area, tables in another.

I never got to see the area where the lab equipment was kept since I was looking for a desk.

The stuff isn’t only available for redistribution back to the university. They are also open once a week to the general public where a desk like I picked up would cost $10. What a bargain!

Carbon-free label confusion

In observation on September 3, 2012 at 9:30 am

My husband and I were at the grocery store this weekend. We were in the baking section and I saw this label on a canister of sugar: “Certified: Carbon free.”

Neither of us had seen this product labeling before. And we each interpreted this label differently.

I thought: “Carbon free? Does this mean carbon (maybe charcoal)  is used in the production of granulated sugar?  Great. Something else I have to worry about in my food.

My husband thought: How do you make sugar carbon free? It’s a chemical with carbon in its structure.

Turns out this simple-yet- confusing label is really trying to convey that the product has a neutral carbon footprint. And that the company uses eco-friendly power that not only is used for the sugar factory but also powers residential homes. That last part is important — it offsets the carbon footprint that it took to ship that canister of  sugar to my grocer.

While I think it’s a great idea to label eco-friendly products, I think they need to use a less confusing label — especially for a scientist.