13 June 2008

Blue tape and found objects

I am still in the lab on a Friday night. It's after 21:00; a dark and curious place when no-one is around. Fume hoods and laminar flow cabinets cast a ghostly ultraviolet glow. The -80°C freezers hum quietly, a tune in the language of machines. It's a working environment that often seems cold and sterile. Those who occupied bench space here before me have left traces of themselves: small, personal attempts at humanizing this lab, a place where the very essence of existence gets reduced to a few bands on a gel, strings of ACGTs...

At the bottom of an asparagus green filing cabinet I find a set of film negatives, neatly slotted into a sheet of yellowed wax paper. I take out a strip and hold it up to the light. It reveals images of a young woman sitting outside a log cabin in the mountains, smiling a black smile, her white pupils burning hot into the lens. The photographs appear to have been taken in the early nineties. The last three frames of the set are of experimental plants - wheat, or perhaps barley - with their illegible tags a white on black blur. Why were these left here? I turn them over in my hands and bits of brittle wax paper break off and fall to the floor. Even though our acids and organic solvents are safely kept in a chemical cabinet, pieces of paper tend to curl and yellow much more rapidly in the lab. Old Far Side cartoons stuck up with autoclave tape are stained brown, splashed with something that's presumably hazardous to your health.

I am the only person working in this particular lab this summer. New faces are scheduled to arrive in the fall, but until then it is just me. And the ghosts. Who were these people? Why were they stockpiling polypropylene weighing boats so excessively? Vials of formamide line the doors of the freezers in various states of consumption. Bottles of expired extraction buffers gather dust on the shelf above the pH meter. This is my inheritance. That and - oh, I don't know - let's say about 87,000 clones in a badly cross-referenced EST library. There are too many signs posted, too many notices. They remind me of something we used to say in the 4th grade: if you notice this notice you'll notice that this notice has nothing to notice. So I elect to take them down. I remove all the signs while waiting for the thermal cycler to finish my PCRs, take down every last remnant of tacky blue tape. Put up too many notices, and people stop paying them any attention: I know this to be true. So I print new signs in hot colours for the fume hood, the chemical cabinet and the radioactivity area. I opt for Franklin Gothic, the official typeface of the Museum of Modern Art. This shall now also be the typeface of the Crop Genomics Laboratory: fresh, bold. The user manuals for surplussed equipment are recycled, dust bunnies are extricated from behind the Corning Water Still, past personalities are exorcised. I choose new names for the five freezers. Auden, Byron, Chaucer, Dylan, Eliot. English poets from different ages to bring a new mnemonic to the cataloguing of their biotech contents. This new version of the lab will be my legacy, until my efforts are torn down by future inhabitants. Until then, I might as well make myself at home here.