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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

31 Comments

  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.

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