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Five Tiny Histology Pleasures

You know – the things which make your day in the histology lab just whiz by as you push forward the frontiers of science! Here’s my top five happy histology handiness;

1.    Molten wax

I guess we’ll start at the beginning of the life of a microscope slide and this usually starts with a paraffin wax block of embedded tissue. If you are lucky enough (or unlucky in this case) to have your histology lab prepare your blocks, then you’ll miss out on the first tiny treat- playing around with liquid wax and a pair of heated forceps! The joy as you manage to position your precious lump of tissue slap bang in the middle of the small metal tray and watch it submerge in a small stream of molten wax where it will hopefully remain for all of its histological life, much like a carbonite-encase Han Solo!

2.    Playing with knives

Now that you have a block ready to section, the next waxy treat comes when you have to trim your block before sectioning. In the histology labs where I have worked, the tools we used to trim the blocks were always old cut throat razors. Now I know that the razors are always old and blunt (unsurprisingly!) but flicking the knife from its handle always brought out the Sweeny Todd in me! Ah, the lovely feelings of paring off slivers of wax to watch them curl and crinkle as you prepare your tiny wax pyramid. I could spend many happy hours trimming wax blocks (I know, I need to get out more).

3.    Ribbons of pleasure!

Now comes the microtome. How many hours of my life have I spent hunched over these slicing machines?! Likewise, dear reader, you will no doubt spend hours, even whole days getting to know the quirks of each individual machine (and, perhaps like me, ending up with a favourite one. How on earth do you end up favouring one microtome over another?!). Top tip- get yourself an mp3 player or tune the lab radio to a station which everyone who uses the lab actually likes. So this next pleasure comes in the form of this- the rare days when the blade of the microtome cuts beautifully through your wax block. Those days when the ribbons of wax and tissue just keep flowing and the only limit is the length of your arm. A combination of your wax block at just the right temperature, the blade in the instrument at the perfect sharpness and you, the operator, in microtome ninja mode! That is until, someone walks past just a bit too fast and you watch your beautifully cut ribbon take off like the tail of a kite only to land on the laboratory floor and become a distant memory on the sole of someone’s shoe. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

4.    Floating

Just supposing you managed to transfer the lovely wax ribbon from above onto the floating out slide, well this has got to be my favourite part of the whole process- floating out and capturing the section on a slide. Now, this part of the process really is an art. It took me many, many hours of practice to get a handle on this technique. Crumpled sections. Sections with creases. Air bubbles under sections. Broken sections. Sections sticking to the edge of the slide. Sections which will just not move from the side of the floating out bath- you can aim all the tidal waves you want at them, they’re staying. However, when the moon is in the correct phase, when the planets are aligned and when the Gods Of Histology are smiling down, then magic happens in that little black water bath. Pulling a submerged slide back up through the water surface to capture the section- perfectly aligned and centred. Happy days.

5.    There’s a Nature cover in there somewhere

Finally, this may be the obsessive collector type in me, but my final histology pleasure comes when I take my racks of fresh slides out of the oven and into my slide boxes. Such a great sight to see rows and rows of un-stained slides nestling in boxes- the sum of days (if not months) of preparation. The potential clues which could be locked away in any of your sections laid out before you. Which one of these thin pieces of glass and tissue hold the answer to your research?

What makes you happy in histology?

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