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Rookie Researcher Disasters

Wide eyed and wet behind the ears, the rookie researcher steps into the lab for the first time. Armed with several years’ knowledge mined from text books, lectures and undergrad labs he feels ready to take his place amongst the worldwide legions of scientists who battle daily in the pursuit of knowledge. Little does he suspect the pitfalls that lie ahead, the classic mistakes and unknown dangers lie in his path.

Here are four rookie researcher disasters. All are true stories that I have witnessed (and one that I made myself – I’ll let you guess which). Each of you will likely have your own tales to tell, please share them in the comments section below and let this serve as a guide, helping rookie researchers of the future avoid the mistakes of others.

1. Pipette inferno. A pristine set of micro-pipettes hang in their holders above the bench. Tools of precision, and of considerable value. Filled with anticipation, the rookie is performing his first ever culture inoculation. Rightfully mindful of the importance of sterile technique he ignites his bunsen burner and begins the procedure, not yet noticing the smell of burning plastic beginning to permeate the air.

The rookie’s nose twitches, becoming aware of the scent. As the realization crystalizes in his mind, he lunges with growing horror to turn the gas tap off. But it’s too late. An unfortunate positioning of the bunsen burner under his pipettes was his undoing. His pristine micro-pipettes are no longer tools of precision or of considerable value but are now deformed icicles of plastic dripping onto the bench. His first report to his supervisor will not be a pleasant one.

2. Exploding agar. In war zones of the world, an exploding bomb of molten agar and glass would be considered a useful tool. In the confines of a laboratory, I would suggest they be avoided at all costs. This advice comes from bitter experience of being in the lab while a young friend of mine, while dutifully performing his technician duties, proceeded to make up a medium-agar solution in an ordinary (non-toughened) glass bottle. After autoclaving, the lid was tightened and the bottle placed on the shelf for future use, the bomb was primed.

One sunny day, he took the glass bottle and, as per protocol, used the microwave to melt the agar. Crucially however he forgot to loosen the lid and the resulting build-up of pressure caused the unsuitably fragile bottle to shatter, forcing open the door of the (cheap) microwave and spraying glass and molten agar around a 2 metre arc. Amazingly, despite the lab being half full, no-one was caught in the blast zone. This was especially lucky as the microwave was on a shelf at head height – molten agar and glass facial, anyone?

3. Culture flask massacre. An orbital shaker is not the place you would normally expect tragedy to occur. However, a communal orbital shaker using sticky stuff to hold the culture flasks in place… and a rookie with a heavy, over-filled 1 litre glass culture flask raises the potential for tragedy tremendously. The shaker was packed with flasks nurturing precious cultures from a number of different labs. Our rookie, puffed with the excitement of growing his first scaled-up culture of his first ever isolated clone strides toward the shaker, pushes the stop button, opens the door and places his flask onto the sticky stuff, making sure it is well stuck down.

The problem with that sticky stuff is that you can never be sure that anything is well stuck down, especially a heavy, overfilled flask and as the rookie left the room his flask was already working it’s way free of it’s anchor. Within minutes his flask had tipped over and his precious culture, which had once held so much promise, was ruined.

The other problem with that sticky stuff is that it loses its stickiness when it gets wet. As his culture medium poured across the shaker platform, it tragically loosened of all of the other culture flasks, condemning them to the doom that lay beneath and ruining the hard work of their owners. One mistake, 30 ruined experiments, 10 angry people.

4. Centrifuge destruction. Few single pieces ordinary lab equipment are more expensive, or more open to damage by those inexperienced in their use, than ultra-centrifuges. The big ones I mean. Confucius (or was it Yoda?) once said “Tubes in rotor spinning at 12,000 x g cannot be balanced by eye alone”. Unfortunately, a PhD rookie I once knew was not party to this undoubted wisdom. Happy that each of her glass centrifuge tubes were filled to “around the same level”, she cranked the machine up to 12,000 x g and went to have a relaxing coffee during the 30 minutes that the machine would do it’s job.

The machine did it’s job, dutifully forcing it’s motor toward the desired 12,000 x g. As the rotor speed increased, the destabilizing effect of the difference between the volumed in the tube became more and more significant. Normally these machines detect imbalances and stop before too much damage is done. For some reason, fate? murphy’s law? or maybe just that it was an old model?, the machine in question did not possess this ability and kept cranking up the revs until the force bent the axle, causing the rotor to destroy the inner drum of the centrifuge, creating a terrifying noise that alerted her lab colleagues to turn the machine off. Returning from her coffee break to continue her experiment, our PhD rookie was horrified by the sight that greeted her. The Force was obviously not strong in her.

Please save future rookies from fates such as these – remember to add your own tales of disaster in a comment below.

Photo: Sea Turtle


  1. Travis on July 18, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    While doing some inorganic chemistry with two friends the noise of a heat gun caused a bit of a lapse in comms. Ended up pouring the aqueous waste into the acid waste while was full of very strong nitric acid. No one got hurt since the fume hood did it’s job but the pipes were all uncoated copper.

  2. Wooly on June 26, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    During grad school, someone in my lab decided to save some $ by switching from poplypro tubes to polystyrene tubes. However, they stored them, unlabeled, in the same place as the rest of the tubes. I was doing ~10 leaf tissue DNA extractions at the time and just grabbed the 1st 15 mL tubes I saw. After adding chloroform at the appropriate step, I placed the tubes on a bench top shaker and left for coffee. When I returned, my lab mates were standing in the hall staring intently at me with eyes red and watering. The lab smelled very chloroform-y. To mark my shame, our lab manager placed the melted mass of tubes in the fume hood for a week and then mounted it on the newly created wall-of-shame.

  3. Slashthedragon on April 6, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    As a BMET I frequently need to work on equipment on the benches. As you all know there are many racks of fragile unstable tubes and slides in easy reach. I have developed a “the bull in a china shop” phobia causing me to clear a wide working space has become an obsession with me. Just Turning a centrifuge will make a power cord act as a surpine’s tail of destruction.

  4. Mynahbird on July 11, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Understand that when moving from yeast/bacteria to human cell cultures that cell pellets are not as tight.. do not decant supe, and do not attempt to aspirate that last drop of PBS on high vaccuum if you still want your transfected cells afterwards..

  5. Cippin on July 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I’ve done the microwave + agar one, although I had lossened the cap so that whilst the bottle exploded the microwave was unharmed – just covered in agar. My supervisor thought it was hilarious.
    I’ve also tried to wash out a beaker containing 20M HCl with water – forgot basic chemistry of what happens when a concentrated acid and water meet.
    And I had a friend who once ran his DNA gel with ladder in every sample rather than loading dye.

    • nanomy on July 23, 2013 at 10:29 am

      I think this one’s a classic and happened to me as well a few weeks ago.

    • nanomy on July 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

      I was referring to the DNA ladder.

  6. srhayton on June 8, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    One sleep deprived day, very early on in my lab experience, I was getting ready to transform E.coli. I had the tube with the DNA stock , and the tube with the competent E.coli cells. I was supposed to pipette 10ul of stock into the bacteria…I did it the other way around. I realized my mistake immediately. We pelleted the bacteria and I put 10ul of the contaminated DNA back into my competent cells. Fortunately, the subsequent transformation and DNA purification were successful, so we ended up with a fresh and pure stock for future use. When I told my boss what happened, he paused a moment and then said, “That’s a new one. I haven’t heard of that happening before. But I like it, it’s got STYLE.”
    Best. Boss. Ever.

  7. Sean Mury on June 29, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Was helping my PI with a grant and was miniprepping 12 different clones to prepare for sequencing. Was in a time crunch and only labeled the top of the tubes. We had an old centrifuge with just a plastic friction cover for the rotor. When I was on my last spin, eluting from the silica columns, the rotor cover came off and chewed every single top off the eppendorfs. I was left with 12 unlabeled minipreps and an irate PI. Needless to say I make sure to label the tops and sides of tubes and to only use centrifuges with a secure rotor cover!

    • Aurora on May 31, 2016 at 2:25 am

      I know I’m replying to this years later, but the exact same thing happened to me a few months ago! Glad to know I’m not the only one. Luckily our lab has a new centrifuge now with a more secure cover.

      • Michelle on April 20, 2018 at 11:54 am

        This happened to me this week! The rotor cover was a screw on (thought it was on ok but may not have been tight) and now destroyed, thread is completely gone, damaged the rotor and potentially have bent the drive shaft. I was mortified as it wasn’t making any weird noises so I walked away and left it for 7mins. Lucky it didn’t set on fire, there was black plastic fragments everywhere :/

  8. Todd O'Buckley on June 24, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Similar to @Kerrie’s story, I once switched the UV light on in a biosafety cabinet while making up media to feed cells. The room lights were bright enough that I didn’t notice the color of the light in the hood. When I finished, it took me a minute to figure out where the sunburn on my arms had come from…

  9. Kerrie Pierce on June 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    I think I have seen variations of all of the above over the years. One good one was by a very NOT rookie group leader (always a mistake when they try to get back on the horse after too much time at the desk)who cut out his DNA bands from his agarose gel on a UV transilluminator without a face mask. Luckily he wore glasses….he could pretend it was a ski tan.

  10. Mitch on April 12, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    I have three stories:

    1. In the first months of my first job I destroyed a bench-top centrifuge by turning it on 12K RPM w/o the internal lid. One of the microfuge tubes’ tops popped open and I heard the most horrifying noise as the lid bent up in the middle. I was sitting right in front of it and nearly had a heart attack.

    2. A lab mate of mine nearly blew a hole in his arm as he was turning on a mini compressed gas tank w/o a regulator. He had it hooked up to a thick rubber hose and a glass headspace vial – luckilly for him the tube ripped open and not the glass vial. His arm had a foot-long welt on it for a week.

    3. An intern at our company reused a disposable filter and the wrong vessel when she made some media for us. I don’t know exactly how it happened but she ended up contaminating $30,000 worth of bioractor material by trying to save $17 in filters.

  11. Evelyn on December 8, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Vacuum Pumps: Make sure you use rated glassware and even better perform vacuuming in a hood. Luckily no one was hurt, but it sure was a cool implossion!

  12. holly on November 17, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    This happened to a friend……the first time he ever used a pipettor he didn’t use a tip – just sucked the liquid right up into the barrel!!

    Another one, but this was on purpose and I am sure it’s been done over and over: some labmates filled a cup with dry ice and set it behind the computer monitor of one of our admin staff……she completely freaked out when she walked back into her office,thought the computer was on fire! It helps to have a crazy, neurotic admin staff member who can laugh at a good joke : )

  13. Seena on October 8, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Once my colleague who was running an SDS geldecided to take a break. Soon she realized her bands would run out and rushed to the scene.She was happy that she was on time and removed the gel(without switching the power pack off).As if that wasnt enough she carelessly left the two wires together which resulted in a spark and the powerpack was out for the next few weeks.

  14. Nick on September 25, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Thanks! Hope it didn’t ruin it for you too much

  15. stickler on September 25, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    “it’s” = “it is”, and “its” = possessive of “it”. “The machine did it’s job, dutifully forcing it’s motor toward the desired 12,000 x g” should have two instances of “its” and zero instances of “it’s.”

    Fun article, made annoying by these distracting typos.

  16. Abducted Alien on May 15, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    I once did something very beautiful, but not too smart in the lab. Someone had poured the dry-ice in the sink, and I decided not to worry about it, and started to wash the gear I had used. When you combine dry ice with water there is a nice reaction, as most of you know, but when you add standard dish-washing detergent into this, things escalate! The sink firmly froze, and no water could escape, obviously I did not notice this. The dry ice was bubbling under the water. Making bubbles, and more bubbles, and TONS OF BUBBLES! The bubbles started to pour over the edge of the sink, more and more! In a panick, I managed finally to dig away the ice and dry ice from the sink, and see how the mountain of bubbles did not grow anymore…. Completely wet, I started to clean the pre-PCR lab with bleach…

    It didn’t take too long, before I could start laughing at the whole incidece.

  17. still survive on March 27, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Didn’t insure the (table- top centrifuge) rotor cap while centrifuging under 13,000RPM…
    Was my 4th day of me new- first-ever-job..
    Literally the centry jumped off and danced with lousy sound in a quite-but full of-still- not- friendly- colleagues
    Totally ruined my DNA samples (was doing miniprep)
    ….Still can’t get rid of those horrible centrifuge jumping sound..

  18. arun on July 3, 2008 at 8:03 am

    wow!!!! just 2 weeks back i did the same thing with the microwave with glass from the bottle and door almost 8 ft around. it sounded like a huge bomb exploding, my supervisor was vry angry and now there is no more heating of medium through microwaves in the entire dept. and everybody are pissed at it. just found this blog when i was searching for a solution… cool to know there are many out there like me

  19. morgan on June 19, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    wow, i think i was in the lab when the microwave door blew off! seriously, the exact same exploding agar event happened in a lab i worked in – down to the head-height microwave and everything.

  20. Rookie tech on January 8, 2008 at 4:12 am

    I made agar medium with ampicillin but forgot to add agar and then poured plates ..and only realised my mistake when the plates didn’t set!

  21. CC on December 11, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Rightfully mindful of the importance of sterile technique he ignites his bunsen burner…

    All that “sterile technique” stuff, especially flaming bottle necks, is superstition. It accomplishes nothing and generates more contamination than you would get by just working quickly.

  22. joshua hall on November 15, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    A dynamic chemical reaction is not the same in formula form as it is in a true space time reality.
    As a senior scientist I’ve taken up a unique practice shown to me by a Auto Body Shop owner. Before interviewing a prospect to work with the team I lay a broom across the doorway. Most will notice it but simply step over it. Only a few will pick up the broom and put it in a safe place.(this test allows me to weed out rookie mistakes because the ones that pick up the broom have that ability to see the possibility of error and will take steps to avoid it.)

  23. Michael on November 15, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Not securing the rotor after exchanging it with another one. Oops.

  24. Anil on November 14, 2007 at 5:01 am

    Some of the disasters which I have done:
    1. While working under the laminar flow, using alcohol on your hands and then it catches fire. in order to stop the fire, another hand is used. Alas the other hand is also cleaned with alcohol. So think what will happen
    2. Using molecular ladder instead of blue juice in the PCR reaction.
    3. Using high melting point agarose instead of low melting point agarose for running gels.

  25. Mr. Gunn on November 13, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    See, if you use your pipette to do your innoculations like I do, that won’t happen. 😉

    A couple things I’ve seen are less dramatic, but funny. Someone made up their liter of medium wrong and then poured the whole liter down the sink, or tried to, anyways. Had to call the plumber out for that one, and ended up with a U-shaped piece of LB agar.

    Another guy poured out the dry ice packing his reagents into the sink, then tried to wash it down. Ended up breaking the trap beneath when it the water froze and expanded.

    Still a different guy was getting some frozen cells out of the LN2 tank, but hadn’t stored them in o-ring vials, so some LN2 leaked in during storage and caused the vials to blow up in his face about 30 seconds or so after taking them out of the tank. They were patient-derived samples, too.

    Then there was the crystal violet powder spill that they tried to clean up with wet paper towels…

  26. Ian on November 13, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    RCF != RPM.

    If you want 100,000 g in your ultracentrifuge, do not set it for 100,000 RPM. As with your #4, the overspeed disk in this case failed, and the rotor (rated for 41,000 RPM) blew at 48,000 RPM, making the 1000-pound ultracentrifuge merrily dance across the floor and converting the inside to iron filings.

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