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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.

19 comments:

SleekPelt said...

This post is some really good business, Teoh! Perhaps some of your readers will decide they'd like spread the good business and follow the trail. You rule.

arcadia said...

dis seker vreemd, maar ek vind hierdie post baie comforting.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

sleekpelt: my favourite is the sticker of yours I stuck on the hazard sign by the door - it's so crowded, I doubt anyone's noticed yet!

arcadia: I have decided to take ownership of the lab during my tenure here. The obsessive-compulsiveness is working in my favour, it seems.

Shimmerrings said...

Very cool... I really like the names of the freezers :O ... it only takes one good turn to deserve another :) and how creative you are!

Shimmerrings said...

and pssst... like the new pick of ya

Lisa said...

It's nice to know that science and art are not mutually exclusive worlds. I worked for the government for a very long time and found myself cleaning out artifacts from long departed employees many times. Sometimes there were meticulous files that I could tell someone had spent a great deal of time organizing for those of us who came along later, but sort of like in "About Schmidt", they were rarely useful and almost always tossed out. The little personal items that were stuck underneath furniture and in the backs of drawers were always more interesting...

Vesper de Vil said...

i really like this. it's cool to read what you're up to in the lab.

also, you're very poetic and sensitive, as you know. :)

Claire said...

Gee, I'm feeling very nostalgic for the old path lab. Oh, the back of the refrigerator shelf and the long forgotten-barely used immunohistochemical stain kits ordered by some pathologist trying desperately to differentiate the source of a neoplasm. And those freezers! -chock full of tumors, mostly breast, each logged into its specific box. I loved working alone in the lab where I was free to multitask DNA preps, immuno stains, computer analysis and reports. I do miss those days. Art and science, indeed, yes I love it.

singleton said...

Ahhh, make yourself at home, Electric, and then years from now, dusty fingerprints, scribbles, books stacked just so, will be pyramids to the summer soul left alone in the lab....
to wonder.....

Aine said...

This reminded me of my college days, working in the biology "prep room". Why is it that labs tend to get so cluttered? I've always thought it was a symptom of some personality characteristic that all "science types" share.

Jason and I visited that prep room 16 years later. There were still photos of me and my peers on the bulletin board amid the Far Side cartoons, and signs that Jason had made were still posted on the autoclave.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

shimmerings: thanks! In my previous lab, we had many more freezers - so we named them after all the Batman villains. It was a lot of fun.

lisa: All that effort in vain; isn't that just the way? Stuck under furniture?

vesper: sensitive? Erm... okay.

claire: you sound like a true lab creature. Freezers full of human tissue? No thank you.

singleton: "pyramids to the summer soul"... I like that.

aine: amazing that your photos are still there. What annoys me most is the layers and layers of autoclave tape that accumulate on the Schott bottles. Why not remove the old piece before sticking on the new one?

jason evans said...

Thanks for the tour and the introduction to the ghosts, EOH. I imagine you felt the virtual eyes of your readers with you and prepared this post that night.

ChrisEldin said...

What's inside the refrigerators? Food, or lab stuff?
;-)

Good thing to make it your home while you're there!

morbidneko said...

obsessive organiser? compulsive neat freak? ^_^

Erm, it's probably good for SOMEONE to organise the hazardous chemicals and label them properly.

Awesome names for the fridges. Those names may enrich some curious individual's life one day.

Or, "Chaucer is dead! Did someone uplug him? Or, is it the acid i left in him last week??"

Wendy said...

Guess what I finally did...

*dalyn said...

gasp!... sigh..... you make it all seem so romantic... kinda makes me want to be there... i feel inspired... *d

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

jason: eyes of the readers, no. Eyes of past lab rats, yes. Glowing in the dark corners.

chriseldin: food?! Would you like to die horribly? Our lab is a strict comestible no-go zone. :)

morbidneko: haha! I'm glad you like the names. Now if only I can get people not to pronounce it as 'Chowser', that would be just great.

wendy: alert the authorities! Wendy's on a rampage!

*dalyn: I'm glad you find inspiration in my lab - I so often don't. Incidentally, I have several dust bunnies looking for a home. Would you like one - they're very fluffy. Not cute, but fluffy.

Josephine Damian said...

Hello from one (former) orchid grower to another! Came here from Chris Eldin's blog.

I've been tempted to start an orchid blog myself, but my plate's pretty full with grad school. I see you already know how that goes!

Good luck with school and your growing!

Lisa said...

I have an award for you at my place.