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Lab Rats

Time after time

When the experiments come first

Stella Hill 20 May 2007

All dressed up: one scientist's priorities

I get shocked faces from my (non-scientist) friends when duty calls at odd hours

Most people, when hearing the expression ‘time point’, will picture a simple moment in time. But to a scientist, the same expression conjures up a world of associations, not all of them pleasant.

Often, a biological experiment will require that you be in lab at precisely regular intervals (perhaps minutes, perhaps hours) to measure a particular something that you are studying. In my case, I deal with time points frequently because I work with bacteria, and my experiments can sometimes span several weeks, during which regular measurements are required. Because one complete experiment has to be compared directly to the next, it is crucial that I take these measurements at identical intervals each time.

Now to me, this doesn’t seem too strange. After all a time point is a point in time, and if you measure something enough times, in due course you will have enough points to draw a line through on a graph and hopefully, a smart conclusion while you’re at it. Although this might seem obvious to me, I still get surprised and shocked faces from my (non-scientist) friends when duty calls at odd hours: “Yes, I am fully aware that it is 11 PM on a Saturday,” I have to explain, “but I need to go in and check on my experiment”. (Funnily enough, these same friends consider it perfectly normal to get to their own places of employment by 6 AM! But that’s another story.)

I guess I should add that, at this particular moment, I was heavily dressed up in a rather risqué costume (after all, when 11 PM drew near I happened to be in the middle of masquerade party) with more make-up on than usual, neither of which helped convince my friends of the normality of the situation. Ignoring their protests, I drove to work and made my way to the lab to take photos of my glowing bacteria at the appointed time point. Now, my bacteria live in the so-called BL2 facility (i.e. biosafety level two, which indicates the presence of mildly biohazardous organisms on a scale of one to four, with four being nasty stuff like Ebola virus). So that meant donning protective gear before entering the big doors leading to the quarantine zone. The gear takes a bit of time to struggle into: all of it’s a nice light blue plastic papery color and consists of shoe protection booties, a hair net, a mask, gloves and a semi-transparent, knee-length gown with small ties to do up in the front. All disposable and ready to burn when exiting the area, before washing up and leaving.

Everything was going well, collecting data and measurements for the 11 PM time point, until a fellow post-doc put his head into the room, attracted by the infrared glow bathing the room. It happens a lot in the BL2 lab: if you have protective gear on it is not worth taking it all off between time points if they are pretty close together, so people tend to socialize during the wait, especially at night. Though it’s a fairly dramatic setting with the red light, rather like being in a zombie movie I’ve always thought. Anyway, the other post-doc’s jaw dropped a little when he looked at me, though at that moment I didn’t realize why, and then he laughed briefly and said, “Your bacteria are lucky to get the beauty treatment. Have a good one!” I smiled back as he turned around and left the room, not that he could have seen the smile underneath the mask, which really just makes you sweat and feel like you need more air. And then I forgot all about it.

Until I walked out to the quarantine zone to strip off the protective gear off and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I looked positively weird with all that light blue plastic, combined with sheer black stockings and a pair of high heels and theatrical make-up. I stripped off the protective gear and drove off to rejoin my friends. And then had to put up with their teasing about the red line in the middle of my forehead left by the hair net.

Just another normal night in the lab!