Members of the editorial board answer questions about life in the lab, research, and everything in between. Have a question about research and that you would like answered? Ask us here!
Jassi: I once sneezed while measuring out an unknown purple powder, besprinkling myself and the lab bench. I then proceeded to try and wipe it clean with a wet towel – bad idea. Turns out the stuff turned to a powerful dye when mixed with water. I bought a new lab coat, but alas, nothing could be done for the once-pristine counter tops. And who knew you could actually stain tile flooring? (Note: I still work there!)
Deborah: This one is more of an embarrassing mistake than a mess. I was doing two labs at once – one where I was synthesizing an imine and one where I was making an iron complex. Now, “Fer” (“Iron” in French for the uninitiated) sounds quite yellow to me and “Imine” sounds light green. Both my products precipitated out of solution at around the same time – a yellow crystal and a pale green powder. Want to take a guess as to whether my colour-associations actually matched the products? Hint: I spent a very long time wondering why an imine complex that was supposed to melt at around 80C was still happily crystallized at the top end of the melting point apparatus’s range. Needless to say, I did not do too well in that particular lab session. I did, however, learn some important lessons regarding the downsides of borderline-synesthesia.
Shannon: Anytime I do any cooking of any kind it is a total disaster in terms of clean-up factor. That fact made studying physics (and steering clear of chem) a pretty obvious choice. It’s worked out fairly well. I’ve caught a couple things on fire; sometimes I get eraser shavings all over the place; but nothing that takes much more than a sharp exhale to clean up.
Anonymous math student: I generally use the ‘think very hard, then write the solution down’ approach, so the worst I can say is ‘One time I sat there so long I left an imprint on the seat.’
Ariana: I was doing research on the mutagenic effects of sunless tanning products (spray tans) and we had to get the concentrated form of the main tanning reagent to carry out the experiments. The chemical comes in a white powder and it’s really, really concentrated. Anyway, I had to weigh the chemical for some assays, and some of the chemical got onto the table and the measuring scale. When my mentor came to close up the lab, he saw that there was some white powder and started to wipe the area down with his hand. The next morning, he wakes up and sees these huge brown spots on his hand and freaks out and goes to the hospital thinking he has melanoma.
Brian: The biggest mess I made was in a one of my previous labs that shall go unnamed. I didn’t realize smaller-sized eppendorfs would explode in a high-speed cycle of a minicentrifuge. I stood there trying to look unphased as I fished out shards of plastic with tweezers from the machine, having lost many precious samples. I left the liquid mess in the bottom hoping nobody noticed.
Yuhao: Broke a tube of chloroform inside a centrifuge once … We had to carry the entire centrifuge into the fumehood — thank heavens it fit!