Debbie Knight

Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Outside the lab, Santa’s elves were busy!

In Outside the lab on December 31, 2012 at 9:30 am

I realize this isn’t a post about life in the lab. But, as you might suspect, there is life outside the lab.

Here is what this “elf” has been up to: sculpting soapstone into a set of bookends for a Christmas present.

As far as stone goes, soapstone (also known as “steatite”) is fairly soft. Think of it as the “pine” of the wood family. Marble, a favorite of sculptors, would be more like mahogany or oak by comparison.

I like it because I can use wood carving tools like rasps and chisels without destroying the tools.
(Side note: I once carved a small piece of alabaster, a much harder stone. It was beautiful when all polished with its translucence and veins. But the darned thing destroyed all the tools I used to carve it.)

The soapstone I use is mostly composed of talc which gives it a “soapy” feel, hence the name.

There are slightly harder forms of soapstone which are used for lab benchtops and kitchen countertops. I’m not sure what the difference in composition is, but I tried to carve a chunk of an old lab bench — it was hard!

It’s been a few years since I’ve carved anything. So taking on a project that I needed to complete in a week was a challenge.

I’ve never made bookends before.

The challenge here was to make them match. So I used a single piece of stone that I cut in two pieces.


I cut it first to prevent chipping of the finished design. Soapstone has quite a few fissures (veins) which can cause unexpected chips and crumbles.


After cutting, I realized I had three flat surfaces that I could easily confuse, so I marked two of the surfaces with a Sharpie marker.

To ease myself back into the carving saddle, I started carving one of the smaller sides. Mostly smoothing and gently shaping the side.


The sculpture at the end of Day 1.

I should note when I carve, it’s more of a “doodle” in stone than something I plan out. Whatever happens, well, “happens.”

So at the end of Day 1, I wasn’t really happy with the way things were going.

The small hole I carved resembled an “eye” and the the sculpted portion looked like a duck bill to me. Decided this might be a good stopping point. The “duck” shape certainly wasn’t working for me and I hoped I hadn’t messed things up too badly.

The next day, I decided to work on another part of the stone. I wasn’t ready to deal with the “duck side” just yet.


The sculpture at the end of Day 2.

I was much happier with the way things were shaping up (pardon the pun).

There were a couple of days I took off — had other things to do in the evenings when I could sculpt. Even though I wasn’t sculpting, I was looking at the sculpture and thinking about what to do next.

My husband’s band was practicing the following night, so I decided to haul the stone and my tools there. I could sculpt while listening to some tunes. Perhaps the music would influence the sculpting mojo.

I turned the “eye” that had bothered me so much into a swirl. I was much happier with that — though not completely happy.

The sculpture at the end of Day 3 of sculpting.

The sculpture at the end of Day 3 of sculpting.

By the end of band practice (and day 3), I was pretty much done with the sculpting phase.

I wanted to leave one side completely untouched so that the recipients of the final product had the choice of presenting the flat side or the sculpted side on the bookshelf. I didn’t want to presume my design would appeal to them.

The next phase was to polish the stone with a series of sand paper — from coarse to fine. I use wet-dry sand paper for this and polish the stone while wet. I find this gets the stone the smoothest. I had forgotten how much work (er, I mean “fun”) this step was.

The sculpture after sanding.

The sculpture after sanding.

The final step was applying boiled linseed oil to the stone, followed by buffing and polishing the stone. My favorite part because the stone’s colors really “pop” and the detail really stands out.

The sculpture after applying linseed oil.

The sculpture after applying linseed oil.

The final sculpture, though abstract, kind of gives an “organic” feel.


I find it interesting that even though I went to great lengths to make the two carved halves fit together when standing side by side, when separated by books, the eye wants to connect the “lines” across books in a different way than I intended. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future bookend sculptures.

The final product!

The sculpted side.

And the flip side.

And the flip side.


Annual lab safety training not taken lightly in my lab

In lab safety on December 21, 2012 at 11:00 am

safety training

Every year the labs at my university are required to review laboratory safety.

Not a bad idea.

Sometimes we need a reminder just what we should (and shouldn’t be) doing in the lab to be safe.

For example, someone on campus placed a shelf in a metal cabinet specially designed for chemical storage. The shelf seemed to fit but because it was from a different manufacture, it actually didn’t. The shelf fell onto the shelf below. Glass bottles broke. And chemicals mixed that shouldn’t have mixed.

The result? A lab fire.

Here’s a photo that Environmental Health and Safety posted in its newsletter.

lab fire aftermath

Not a pretty sight.

That’s why reviewing lab safety is so important — to prevent such devastating lab accidents.

In my lab, the training duties fall on me.

Happy, happy, joy, joy for me.

We cover general lab safety such as where the fire extinguishers and eye wash stations are located (it’s not like they’ve moved since last year, but it’s a good reminder).

We cover chemical safety as well as biological safety.

And, because we sometimes work with radioactive materials, we review how to safely handle radioactivity.

Every year I pull out the folder with the handouts and quizzes.

And every year I’ve considered paring them down. Cutting corners.

But when I start to look for what I could whittle out, I find that everything covered in these handouts is pretty important and should stay.

In addition to the handouts, there’s a presentation – something I hate giving, even though it’s informal.

One of my office mates said he just gives his lab a brief handout and a short quiz. No presentation. If his lab returns their quiz, they get automatically get a 100%. He doesn’t even look at their answers. Zip-zop, it’s done.

I don’t subscribe to this method of training.

There’s no guarantee the handout is read thoroughly.

I find that people tend to scan the handout for the quiz answers, leaving the rest unread. (And yes, I have been guilty of this as well).

The handout gets chucked into a dark desk corner never to be looked at again.

Yes, I’m a safety nut (you would know this especially if you read my other lab safety posts).

I run a pretty tight ship when it comes to safety.

I certainly don’t want any accidents happening on my watch — especially if it is due to simple negligence.

It would reflect poorly on me, the lab safety officer, as well as my boss.

But it’s not all drudgery.

There is a silver lining.

The training coincides with the lab’s holiday lunch!

A great way to take the “ugh!” out of the training.

And a great incentive to finish the open-note quiz quickly.  🙂

Photo of the Week

In photo log on December 11, 2012 at 9:30 am


This is a sign I put on the office door (and a few other hallway doors) last week.

Some of my office mates (and their bosses) were forgetting to remove their lab gloves before touching the keypad and door handle.

This is a big no-no with regard to lab (and workplace) safety. At least at my institution.

Lab gloves should not be worn in public spaces.

Why? Any surface touched in the lab could have chemical, biological or radioactive residue that can transfer to lab gloves. That residue can then transfer to surfaces like keypads and door knobs that people touch with bare hands.

Sure the person might have just pulled on a pair of gloves, but there are no assurances that those gloves are goober-free.

So, a gentle reminder to those office mates.

Perhaps I should have rigged the door to deliver a mild electric shock.

Though I might secretly enjoy seeing that, I thought it more humane to start with words.

The hardest exam a Ph.D. will ever take

In observation on December 3, 2012 at 11:10 am

candidacy exam

You would think that the hardest exam a Ph.D. graduate student in biological sciences would ever take would be to the dissertation defense.

But it’s not.

It’s the candidacy exam (aka the general exam).

This exam probes the depth of the student’s knowledge, pushes the boundaries of that knowledge, and forces the student to create something new out of that knowledge. Something that she has never thought of before. Right there, on the spot, in front of a group of highly intelligent professors.

Today, the graduate student in my lab is taking this exam.

She’s nervous. Understandably so.

Did she study enough? Will she remember it all? Did she study the right stuff?

Lots of second guessing.

She knows that if you took all the final exams  from every biology class she has ever taken, pool it into one huge mother-of-all-exams, that she might approach how challenging this exam is.

The candidacy exam at my university consists of a written as well as an oral portion.

There are a few variations on this exam. At least the written portion.

There’s the “traditional” format where each day you get a set of written questions from one of your committee members. You have the entire day to answer those essay questions. Your brain is the only resource you are allowed, so you can imagine how much information you need to have at your proverbial finger tips. And after you’ve finished for the day, you have another set of questions from another committee members to anticipate. This portion of the exam continues until you have answered questions from every committee member, typically four or five members.

Another style of the written exam is “grant proposal” format. Here the student writes an National Institutes of Health (NIH)-style grant proposal.  Depending on what the student’s committee decides, you could write a grant proposal:

  • that has absolutely nothing to do with the research you are currently doing. This exercise gives the student practical experience in how to write a grant proposal — something that you will need to do in your research career whether you are in an academic, industrial, or governmental position. The drawback here is that you spends a great deal of time reading tons of journal articles on a topic that probably will not help them with your actual research project.
  • that focuses on your research topic but is unrelated to what you are doing in the lab. This style is a little more practical because you are reading journal articles that related in some way to what you are already learning in the lab. This exposes you to things beyond your research project, perhaps helps you see the bigger picture.
  • that focuses directly on your research but goes beyond what you are doing in the lab — perhaps these are future directions for your research. This is the most practical of the written exam formats. Not only are you writing a grant proposal that you could actually submit to the NIH, you are thinking about where your research project is going.

I think this is an “easier” format. It tends to focus the questions during the oral portion of the exam a little. It certainly serves as a jumping off point for the question-answer session.

Her committee chose the latter format.

She wrote her proposal weeks ago. And she has been studying furiously for the oral portion. Scientific journal articles stand in neat stacks on her desk.

Today she will be tested. Today is the oral portion of her exam.

This part is a little like hazing.

And it will go something like this. (This is a composite of what really happens on both sides of the door)

You, the student, will enter the room. Your fear is palpable.

The committee members will ask difficult questions, pushing until you are nearly in tears.

Two or so hours later, you will then be sent you out of the room while they discuss your performance and whether they think you have what it takes to finish your Ph.D. research.

This can take as little as five minutes to decide.

The committee will then sit around and shooting the sh*t for 10 or 15 minutes while you pace the hallway, sweating. On the verge of tears. Dreading the committee’s decision. Second-guessing your answers.

Your labmates will pass by and ask how you thought you did.

You’ll lie.

You’ll say that you did okay. But that’s not what you’re thinking.

What you’re thinking is that you failed miserably because you had to admit several times you just didn’t know the answer.

Those minutes standing in the hall will feel like hours. Maybe even days.

Will they ever come to a decision?

You will hear laughter.

Oh, oh. That’s not good. Is it?

More waiting.

You think about alternative career paths.

You think about moving back home with your parents.

You think about a lot as the minute hand sweeps across the hallway clock face.

Finally, the conference room door pops open.

A hand will wave an invitation to come in.

Unceremoniously, they’ll tell you that you passed.

It’s over.

Huge relief.

And then …

It’ll be a bit of let down because all those months of dread and worry, all those hours of stress, comes down to a simple “you passed.”

While it seems like an end, it’s really just a beginning of a new chapter. No more classes, just research experiments.

You’ll have your share of “woo-hoos!” as well as “what the heck?s”

You’ll look back on your research days with some fondness.

By the time you finish your research project, you will be the expert.

You will know your data inside and out because you lived it. Defending your dissertation, while it sounds daunting, is relatively easy. At least compared to your candidacy exam.