Given enough time, even the worst rookie research disasters seem amusing. It’s a comedy of errors that test our wit and our patience, but ultimately leave a lifelong impression on how to try experimentation a little bit differently the second time around.

With that said, here are 5 brief stories of amusing things I’ve witnessed in the lab, including the lessons we learned along the way.

Concentrate: Your Guess is as Good as Mine

Fresh out of college, my colleague was explaining how to help steward expensive reagents by aliquoting an entire bottle into pre-measured tubes. Only one set of hands had to worry about large hazards, spillage and contamination with the stock bottle, which left everyone else to grab the small amount they needed and go immediately to the bench.

Preparing a working solution was trivial, but the scientist sped through, neglecting to take into account the size of the tube (500µl – with 250µl reagent in it) and the volume they quickly added into it (1ml).

Liquid shot into the tube, turned right around and shot out over their gloves and onto the floor. They eyeballed what was left over and remarked, “The concentration now is about a third, I did the math in my head!” before proceeding to use the remainder in their experiment – which ultimately produced no usable data.

This unfortunate example taught us to compute twice, pipette once, bring a big enough container to hold it all, and when we don’t know the exact concentration of our reagent to make it again! That’s a less expensive “oops” compared to the time it takes to rerun a project.

Wait a Minute, That’s Not Coffee!

With a mug in one hand and a publication in the other, scientists scurry from place to place, leaving a splash of coffee dots in their wake.

But what does it mean when those floor dots are blue and make a beeline straight to the benchtop? In this case a colleague borrowed the slide staining equipment, slung it under their arm at an angle, and tried to march away, dripping staining solution with every step.

The reminder with this was to “look before you leap” and empty the reservoirs before moving any equipment. That way any liquids – hazardous or not – transport safely from our lab to yours.

E.T., Phone Home

While to passersby it looked like out of this world artwork of old blinds and sheets of aluminum foil plastered to the windows, it was the only solace from the blinding rays of the sun when performing fluorescence microscopy.

Lab inspectors chuckled at the sight, asking about our makeshift TV antenna. Sometimes labs make do with what they have available, but in the end we were pointed toward research administration to see who could help with darkening the lab in a more organization-friendly way. Sure enough, there are friends in high places. Ask for help and you shall receive it!

DIY Troubleshooting

The most amusing thing to me was when anyone at the microscope uttered the words “this isn’t working right, I’m going to try and fix it.” Instead of asking for help, the solution was to toggle knobs, adjust settings, and in one extreme instance, find a screwdriver and attempt to dismantle the microscope piece by piece to look inside.

It didn’t help that the user was a collaborative scientist using the microscope for the first time.

It would have been a simple fix as the microscope was configured to view the specimen only through the computer. The solution to this spectacular event was to train every user on how to use the equipment the lab’s way. All while impressing upon them that if something doesn’t seem like it’s working right, stop and ask one of us to check it out to make sure.

What’s in a Name?

All in all, scientists do have a sense of humor. Take immunohistochemistry, for the final story. Preparing slides of brain slices in anatomical order is difficult enough unless you find a way to make it your own by associating major landmarks with common, everyday objects. That’s right: look for the banana, the bell, the coral reef, the Batman, and the face, nose and eyes. Flip through the atlas and see what else you can find!

What are some of the funny things you’ve seen in the lab – and what was the take-home message to pass on to future scientists? Tell us in the comments below.

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