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Lab Rats

Iphigenia in the laboratory

What would you sacrifice for a result?

Julia Richards 1 July 2012

Blue: failure takes its toll

Scientists can be as superstitious as anyone else, particularly when they need an experiment to work

I looked up toward the ceiling of my windowless, cheerless lab and said, “God, if this experiment starts working again, I will sacrifice my first-born child.”

Four hours and one polyacrylamide gel later, I was in a very awkward position.

At the time, I had been working fruitlessly on a research project for a year. It was the second one that I had worked on since joining the lab. My first had ended, after one torturous year, in absolutely nothing, not even enough for a paragraph in my thesis.

Unfortunately, this new project required me to transcribe messenger RNA in vitro to use in my assays. Any experiments using RNA are a pain because they require the lab to be clean and free of RNases that will degrade it. Our lab hadn’t been cleaned out properly when my advisor moved in, and it was filthy. We were always finding leftovers from the previous research group, like two kilos of cyanogen bromide or a jar with an old pickle apparently from the famous glowing pickle demo.

Another problem was that our lab consisted of ten people working on diverse projects ranging from high-powered lasers to organic synthesis to protein expression. We organized our small area of space and sparse equipment by calling dibs and fiercely protecting our own bits of territory. I managed to tape off a two-foot section of lab bench to be “RNase free”, but as we only had one set of pipettors to share, the effort meant very little.

The result of all this was that my experimental results were very inconsistent. At the beginning of the project, I had gotten one good gel very quickly, which showed our compound was able to block translation of the mRNA. That one iota of hope led me to repeat the experiment over and over, hoping to test different conditions. I was convinced our compound was working, but the gels were so bad, I couldn’t draw any conclusions. Hence, my bargain with God.

And even though I am 1) childless and 2) an atheist, I couldn’t help but be spooked when it worked. I had offered up my future offspring, and immediately, I had gotten what I wanted. Scientists can be as superstitious as anyone else, particularly when they need an experiment to work.

“Ok,” I said to myself, “I just won’t ever have children. I didn’t really want them anyway. Problem solved!”

And so I continued on with beautiful gels and data that made sense again. Unfortunately, all the grace I had received appeared to be used up after a few weeks. I had simply been trying to further optimize the assay conditions when everything stopped working entirely. My experiments sucked again, but those few glorious weeks of great results left me unable to abandon the project.

After another year of making miniscule amounts of progress, I thought to myself that I just needed a few more experiments done and repeated and I would have enough for a paper. It wouldn’t be a good paper in a good journal; it just needed to be finished. I would forget grand ideas of testing the compounds in cells and targeting more mRNA sequences.

So once again, I looked up at the ceiling and said, “God, if this experiment starts working again, I will sacrifice my second-born child.” And despite the well-known frequency of unanswered prayers, my assay started working again the very same day. After two years of agony, I could write a paper, at only the cost of the lives of two of my future unborn children.

When it was accepted, I decided to start putting all my faith in myself and come up with all my own ideas for research projects. I stopped offering up sacrifices for experimental success and still managed to graduate within another few years.

Although the state of the job market has tempted me recently...