Blurring the lines between home and lab

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Sounds impossible, right? That anyone would get confused about whether they were at home or in a scientific laboratory? Well …

OK. I’m just kidding. I don’t really get confused about the two. But I have noticed two interesting trends: 1) There is a lot of my “home” in the lab. 2) There is a lot of “lab” in my home.

Let me explain.

First: If you entered the E420 lab where I work, you would see all kinds of foreign-looking equipment that has virtually no place except in science. Test tubes, pipettes, fume hoods, microscopes, crazy chemicals. But mixed in with the foreign is a good bit of the familiar. And when I say “familiar” I mean “household.” As in, tin foil (used to cover beakers and test tubes), plastic wrap (used to cover gel when taking it to the dark room to photograph), masking tape (for labels). There are also – I kid you not – regular, everyday, conventional freezers (the upright kind), refrigerators, and microwaves. I used the latter just today to make agarose gel for gel electrophoresis. (I would NOT recommend using this microwave to also warm up your coffee. Just a thought.)

Second: Working in the lab becomes a mindset. It begins to pervade your thinking in a way that you can’t simply shut off when you flip the lab’s lightswitch at the end of the day. For instance, I was at Starbucks the other day getting coffee. I went over to the little condiment stand to “dress” my coffee with sugar and cream. I was about to set my lid down on the countertop when a red warning light went off in my brain: CONTAMINATION ALERT! Rather than just set the lid down, I quickly picked up a clean napkin and set the lid on that. Whew. Crisis averted. In a similar vein, I was at home filling a water bottle. I unscrewed the lid and was about to put it next to the sink, thread side down, when that same warning went off in my head: CONTAMINATION ALERT! I quickly turned the lid so that it was the top of the lid that touched the countertop, not the bottom – thus avoiding possible (or in my house, probable) countertop contamination.

Crazy, I know. But when you’re working with very fussy fibroblasts and epithelial cells that whine and scream (translation: DIE) when you put the lid down the wrong way, or brush your fingers up against the top edge of the container, or pass your (gloved) hand over the open container (obviously, dropping skin cells and other yucky things into the culture dish that the cells won’t like), you become a little paranoid about contamination. When touching *ANYTHING* with a sterile pipette tip means it’s no longer sterile and you must throw it away, you start to look at “inappropriate contact” of objects as a serious problem. And this mindset, as I said, is very difficult to quiet, because it is necessary to keep it at full blast all day long. Relax for a minute, and you risk ruining a reaction (or several).

Does this mean, at the least, that I’ll become a better housekeeper?