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Lab Rats

A sinister reality

A left-hander braves the right-handed lab

Stella Hill 19 August 2007

Left behind: it's not easy being in the minority

I will not even begin to discuss the scissor problem

The laboratory environment contains many potentially dangers and disasters waiting to happen. These hazards include not only the obvious culprits like radioactivity and chemicals such as chloroform or phenol, but also more low-key perils like burners and liquid nitrogen which, in the wrong situation, have been known to bite.

The burners and their potential for troublemaking are what struck me the other day when I was streaking my bacteria onto agar-filled Petri plates. As many scientists do, I had a gas flame burning close by in order to reduce the amount of potential contaminants diving into my plates, as the heat of the flame tends to create a rising current that carries microbes up and away.

So there I was streaking my plates, and as I moved my hand to grab one of the inoculation loops, I suddenly noticed a funny smell. When I looked at my hand I realized that my latex glove was changing from pale yellow to bright orange and emitting a foul smell. My hand, in actual fact, was on fire! I quickly recoiled and tore off the melting glove to examine the precious skin beneath. Thankfully there was no burn, but I had been lucky.

Now what on earth, I asked myself, could have caused me to put my hand straight into an open flame? When I repeated my actions, this time watching my hand instead of the agar plate, I noticed that the most direct route toward the pile of inoculation loops ran straight across the burner. Why, one might ask, did I place the loops on the other side of the burner in the first place? Well, it's simple: my lab bench is in the left-hand corner of the lab, the left side of which terminates in a wall. My Bunsen burner is located to the left as well because the rubber tube connecting the gas outlet to the burner is not long enough to allow me to move the burner to my right – where I would be perfectly happy to keep it, since I usually reserve precision operations for my left hand.

Yes, it's time to confess: I am left-handed. And this sort of thing happens all the time when you are a left-handed person sharing an environment with a majority of right-handers. You might think it's not such a big deal (especially if you're right handed!). But there are so many situations where we can get into trouble. Consider the sterile flow cabinet, commonly known as "the hood", which is a large box about a meter or so wide in which the air flow is designed to keep all micro-organisms out. Everyone in my lab shares one hood in turn, and all the manual accessories, such as the electric pipettor and the vacuum suction device, are located on the right. Yes, this is terribly convenient for everyone who is right-handed, but I dare say it's a little messy for everyone else – i.e., me. If you don't think this is a major problem, consider what it would be like if all the tools you needed were hooked up to electrical outlets on the left. I suspect you too would feel a tad annoyed, especially when you realize you need to either move everything twice (first to the place where you feel comfortable, then back to the place where everyone else feels comfortable) or – inevitably – just give up and muddle through using the 'wrong' hand.

As far as my lab bench and the misplaced Bunsen burner, I suppose most people would just tell me to hook up a longer rubber tube to my burner. But you know how it is: there never seems to be any longer ones to hand, and even if I wanted to there is no room on the right-hand side of the bench, which houses the communal centrifuge, whereas the middle section, which features the only available leg-room, is out of bounds because that's where people sit on the lab stool.

I could also go on at length about modern equipment, which so frequently needs a computer to control it. Because space is at a premium, the mouse is almost always as far to the right as humanly possible. I must admit that most of the left-handers I know have learned to use the mouse with their right hand, or memorized the bare minimum of keyboard commands needed to get by.

I will not even begin to discuss the scissor problem. (If you are interested, just go to your nearest left-handed friend and ask if you can borrow a pair of theirs. It's not as easy as you might think.) Or the fact that the podium at the front of seminar rooms is almost always located to the right, making it challenging to keep your hand from shaking when using the laser pointer with ‘wrong’ hand. Unless, of course, you fancy standing with your back to the audience, or strolling over to 'the other side' – if you can stand the stress of being out of reach of your keyboard and relying on someone else to advance the slides.

I understand that all these problems are just minor nuisances. Really, I should have gotten use to the fact that as a left-handed person in today’s society, I just have to adapt to the majority. Nevertheless, when you're tired, slaving away at your lab bench and you singe your hand, the tiniest problem seems large enough to warrant a call-to-arms.

So come on, all you left-handers in the lab – we don't have to suffer in silence!