chaos in the lab

They Make Me So Proud

You may recall that I’ve been at pains to train the students to put their microscopes away in amusing ways after they’re finished with them.

The human female’s prep staff has been going through all the lab rooms, making sure everything is all tidy for the upcoming start of labs this semester.  Imagine my pride and pleasure when they found this in one of the cupboards:

scope taking a nap

Sniff!  So, so proud.

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A Most Unhappy Rodent

Someone brought the human male a computer mouse that isn’t working.  That can be anything from a dead battery to a wonky button to an unauthorized swim in a puddle of coffee.  I recognize this as some of my handiwork, though, so the tale is bound to be something more creative.  I’ve tampered with so many of them in the Department, though, set them up for imminent failure, that I don’t quite recall what the problem is going to be with this particular one.   Let’s have a look, shall we?

mangled mouse1

Hmm.  No obvious signs of coffee or jam, and the little scrolly-wheel thingy spins properly.

This stretch of cord looks all right.

mangled mouse2

Oh, yeah.

mangled mouse3

This was the one I set up for mouse-cord-meets-pull-out keyboard-tray…

Well done, me!

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I Have Taught Them Well

The human female’s Prep Staff and the Teaching Assistants spend an inordinate amount of time trying to train the students to take proper care of the expensive equipment the labs are stocked with.  I spend a not inconsiderable amount of my time going around behind them and teaching them all my bad habits.

Pipettors, now.  Those are practically my stock and trade these days.  I haven’t actually counted how many the students have manhandled out of alignment or flat out broken. They absolutely do keep trying to abrogate the laws of physics and put 1800 microliters in a pipettor that holds 200 to 1,000.

And behold the fine job they have done with this one:


They’ve discombobulated this one so thoroughly that the numbers no longer align!  That little beauty is going to have to have a little vacation and a nice trip back to the manufacturer to see if it can’t be cured of its dialular scoliosis. There’s another few that have been over-dialed so much that the piston-plunger has come right out and the pipettor is in two pieces.  I’d show you the photos because I love them dearly and shall treasure them always, but they’re just too gruesome. This is a marginally family-friendly blog, after all.

And then there are the microscopes.  Expensive, heavy, AND delicate, the trifecta of accidents waiting to happen.  The students insist on stealing eyepieces, using the coarse focus with the higher magnifications and ramming the objectives into the slides, smearing the focusing oil all over the lab when using the 1,000x magnification, tying the cords in knots, and putting them back oh, so improperly.

How should a microscope be put away?  The checklist goes something like this: Remove the slide.  Rotate the nosepiece so that the low power objective (the shortest one) is in position. Raise the stage, fold the cord neatly and tuck it between the stage and the light, and then lower the stage. Cover the scope and then put it into the cabinet front-first and hand-hold facing out so that when the cabinet doors are shut they don’t slam into the eyepieces.

Now, all that sounds much more complicated than it actually is.  A toddler, if he could somehow heft one of the heavy things, could do it.  I’ve convinced the college students, however, that it’s just too much trouble, so the human female and her staff are confronted with scenes like this:


That is stunning.  I’m not even sure how they got that in there!  The cord’s under the stage, all right, but this uncovered mess has one of the long objectives still rotated into place.  And then there’s the placement!  Whoever put this away transcended backwards and opted for sideways and SLANTY!  I sort of want to track this person down and shake their feckless little hand.

And wait–there’s more! There’s a bonus! My new favorite person has left the last-viewed slide in place.


Well done, anonymous student! Well done.

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Beware! The Human Female is About to be Handy! The Outcome

You may recall that the human female was going to cut a bunch of pegs with a band saw attempt to build some racks to hold petri plates at a slant.  I was keeping book, and the odds were 4 to 1 against her finishing the project with all of her phalanges attached.

I lost money on that one, drat her.  (Do you see why I persist in trying to make her life a living Hel?  I’m just returning the favor.)

She has completed cutting all the pegs and assembling all of the racks.

arabidopsis racks2

The assembly was accomplished with much whacking, as the pegs are an exact fit for the holes drilled by her accomplice.  I nudged her a bit, hoping that hammer would meet thumb with hilarious results, but apparently someone has been sucking up to Thor, because, aside from a liberal coating of glue, she has emerged unscathed.

There are a LOT of racks!


They have been helpfully labeled, one for each lab section.  All that whacking, and no mashed digits!  I really do feel cheated!

Oh, well.  When the course has approximately DOUBLE the enrollment in the fall, she and her minions are going to have to build about forty-five more racks, so I will have further opportunities to alter the shape of her hands.

The students are going to be working with a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, which has the advantages of growing from seed to flowering very quickly, being very small, and producing what Midgardians scientifically term a “metric butt-load” of itty, bitty seeds.

This is the seed from thirty-six plants.

arabidopsis seed1

Each brown dot is a seed, so there are approximately eleventy billion in this tube.  The human female harvested each one with her own still-ten-fingered hands, sifting out the chaff as she did so.  It has taken her most of the afternoon.  It was the sort of repetitive, mindless work to which her feeble intellect is most suited.

Now we are ready for the really fun part.  In order for all of the seeds to sprout at the same time, they have to have a four-day moist nap in the fridge.  Once they come out, the human female and one of her minions are going to have to try to put more-or-less twenty seeds in each of these little tubes.

arabidopsis seed2

Labeling the tubes was its own kind of tedium.  Aliquotting the seeds is going to be even more time-consuming.  (Keeps her off the streets.)  She’s thinking that if she mixes the seeds with a quantity of sterile water, she can swirl the tube and draw off a small amount of seed and water from the vortex and dispense it neatly into a tube.

Hmmm.  Human female plus micropipettor plus counting.  Yeah, that’s going to go well.  I will keep you posted.

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Remember the Respirometers? Part II: I Called It

Did you think the stoppers were the only bits of the respirometers I worked my mischief on?  Pfft!  It’s like you don’t even know me!


As I predicted, it was a fiasco.  Admittedly, the prediction doesn’t count, because I contributed to the fiasco, but that does not diminish the fun I had watching the human female and her minions scurry, struggle and curse.

First the cantankerous instruments got filled with a small amount of bluish-purple indicator fluid–a simple mix of glycerol and dye.  Never mind the fussy business of getting it equal in all the various tubes, I saw to it that it kept making air bubbles (which interferes with getting a reading) and that the students let their reactions go too long, letting the fluid go up and over into the dry beans or the live, respiring beans.  The Prep Staff was kept hopping, replacing wasted fluid in all the rooms all the time.

And the fluid was wet enough to wake the dry beans up and start respiring, which played merry Hel with the results.

Then there were the test tubes.  They were filled with a bit of cotton, a plastic platform (just visible in the left of the picture below), and then either dry beans or soaked, living beans.


I had a hand in choosing the platforms for the respirometers.  I made sure that they weren’t all exactly alike.  Some were just a smidge larger in diameter.  Prep staff broke four tubes just loading the platforms in.  The students broke a further five by pressing too hard, trying to jam the rubber stoppers in.  Prep staff spent all week cannibalizing spare units for parts.

Then there were the bits of tubing.  The rigid ones turned out to be plastic,  not glass, but you know what?  They break just as easily!


*Tink!*  Just like that.  We went through a lot of those.

Unfortunately, the human female put on her Science Thinking Cap and there may be work-arounds for next semester.


A plastic 50-milliliter graduated cylinder is going to fit as a replacement for the test tubes.  The rig is even more stable afterwards, as the cylinders have big “feet.”  Prep Staff will probably have to cut them all off below the spout so the stoppers will fit, though.

And the breaky little graduated tubes?  Close inspection shows that they are cut from 1-milliliter plastic serological pipettes.


The human female discovered a five-kilo box of the things in a storage cupboard in one of the prep rooms.  They’ll have to cut those to fit, too.

In short, they can actually improve the basic apparatus!

Am I discouraged?  Disheartened?  Hel, no!  They’ll probably try to use a Dremel motorized cutting tool to do both modifications, and no one ever uses one of those without a mishap or three.  It’ll be broken cutting wheels, sharp edges, slips, sparks, and that annoying, high-pitched “nnnnnyeh, nnnnyeh, nnnnnnyeh” noise that’ll give everyone a screaming headache.

I can work with that.

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Remember the Respirometers? Part I: My Mischief is Unstopp(er)able

Remember the respirometers?  The ones that arrived largely broken or incomplete?  Recently the students did the lab exercise that uses them.   Making things break wasn’t the only fun I had with the respirometers.  Pfft!  I am much more multimischievous than that!

First, the human female and her Prep Staff had to assemble them for use.


A word of explanation:  The respiration experiment measures the gases given off by the germinating beans in one tube, compared to the not-doing-anything that goes on in the tube with the dry beans.  For it all to work, all the components must be air-tight.


When the instruments came from the manufacturer, they had no stoppers at all.  That little goof was immediately obvious, so the professor whose project this experiment is demanded that some be sent.

I helped the manufacturer pick out the stoppers to include, so they sent nice, white ones.  Which all proved to be too small to actually seal the test tubes.  Not only that, but they were made of some weird substance that left chalky dust all over everything.

The professor caught this mistake soon after the white stoppers arrived and demanded that the manufacturer supply stoppers that would actually work.

So the black ones arrived.

Which was all well and good, except that they didn’t have any holes.  Holes are a bit critical for this application, but a pain in the neck to drill, so the professor shipped them all back, saying, “I’m not doing this, YOU do it.”

Let us examine the stoppers which were ultimately received and which the science nerds are using today.

Sturdy.  They appear to be made out of the appropriate type of rubber.


Odd, though.  Every other black rubber stopper she’s ever seen has the size number on the top.  It’s on the bottom of these, so the human female is automatically suspicious.

Not to mention the little stray fringey bits around the edges.  All in all, a substandard molding job.

Thor’s bitty ball-peen!  They are not all the same size, either!


Nor are the holes!  In assembling the respirometers for use, some bits of tubing are going in neatly and sweetly, while some are so hard to insert that the human female and her minions are getting cramped and bruised fingers from trying to jam them all the way in.  Slicking stopper holes up with glycerin isn’t entirely solving the problem–it just makes everything slippery and hard to grip.  Eehehehe!  Sometimes I’m so naughty I crack myself up!

They are partway through the assembly and the human female has just discovered that….TA DA! 


Not all of them are completely drilled!!

See?!  Little pucks of rubber that have to be poked out with a probe or small paintbrush handle.


Uh, oh!  I am laughing so hard I think I may have hurt myself, and Prep Staff is starting to mutter about “acetone” again.

I think I shall beat a strategic retreat.

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Five Rooms of Fun

The good news is that someone coughed up the money for new laptops for five of the human female’s laboratory classrooms.  Six laptops per room.  Yes, indeed, thirty brand new laptops!


Sleek and black.   Are they not beautiful?


It’s a shame, though, that whoever applied the logo couldn’t get all the letters on straight.


Still, these are very nice computers.  Someone might want to steal one!  The human female plans to lock them all up securely during the weeks they are out and in use.  The lock is meant to go right here, into this little square hole.


It’s just too bad that all sixty locks on the floor have rectangular ends…


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Where Expensive Equipment Goes to Die

It’s a sad fact of science that equipment breaks, especially with undergrads around.  It’s a sadder fact of life with me around that the likelihood of a piece of apparatus malfunctioning is directly proportional to its usefulness and is proportional to the square of its price.

The human female and her Prep Staff have thoughtfully provided Broken Equipment Forms in every room, whereupon the teaching assistants note what item is broken, a detailed yet concise description of what the problem is, what they were doing to it when it gave up the ghost, and what feeble attempts they might have made to repair it.  They then leave the form and the equipment in a prominent place in the lab room where Prep Staff can find them.

That’s the theory, anyway.   As often as not, I see to it that the TAs are busy teaching when something fails to function, and Prep Staff just finds a lonely thingamajig sitting out later with a cryptic note next to it (or not.)

Today I’m visiting room 317.  This is where all the spare bits like bulbs and cords and batteries are kept.  It’s also the Broken Equipment Graveyard, where all the dead things go.  Also the things that are only mostly dead.  Prep Staff will take a look and do what they can for each patient.  Whatever they can’t fix gets sent to the Instrument Shop.  When the Shop can’t resurrect something, this is where solemn, respectful final rites are held before the deceased is cannibalized for parts.

Let’s take a look around.  Odin’s Eyepatch!  It’s like an mechanical leper colony in here!

This is the kind of thoughtful, detailed note Prep Staff gets, carefully penned on the appropriate form.


Obviously, the difficulty was that the 40x and 100x objectives on this compound microscope were not giving a clear image.  Just as obviously, when the scope was examined, the problem failed to manifest.

Here’s another:


I think I see the problem.  The problem is room 322.

Whoever left this one at least tried to point out where the problem is.


I love this next one.  Short. Terse.


Completely lacking any indication of what bone-headed maneuver produced the damage.   Because, of course, nothing is ever anyone’s fault.

Ah, here’s a broken equipment form truly after my own heart.  Behold.


Here are a couple more.  What room are they from?  What’s wrong?  Who knows!


Uh, oh.  The dreaded Left Ocular Broken.


Tsk, tsk.  Oculars.  For something that the students aren’t really supposed to mess with, they seem to break a lot.  The lenses inside come loose, and when they do, there really isn’t a way to fix them.  (Fun Fact:  most adhesives that would fix a lens in place give off gases that instantly and permanently cloud glass.)

Thus the human female ends up trying to buy replacements.  They look like this:


Looks like something that should be a few dollars, max, right?

Uh, no.  Turns out that precision optics don’t come cheap, when the human female can even find them.  I’ve seen to it that about half of the microscopes on the floor are discontinued models, so the manufacturer won’t sell her replacement parts.  The poor woman has been forced to descend into the world of after-market surplus and refurbished parts.  She knows a guy who knows a guy…

She’s located someone who’s willing to sell her something that is “100% guaranteed to fit your model.”  Of course, they won’t work with the original equipment, so they must be installed in pairs.

And bought singly:

ocular price

Ouch.  (Ehehehehe)

But she has gritted her teeth and submitted the PO.  It has been approved and sent to the vendor.  Except, just for funsies (love that Midgardian word.  “Funsies”–heh!) it never arrived.  The vendor has not set eyes upon it.  It’s as if it has just evaporated into the ether.  Dear me, where could it be?

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Mr. Sherman Makes a Very Good Trap

The Prep Staff where the human female works have been thinking they smell a mouse in one of the prep rooms.  Sigyn thinks mice are “cute,” but we all know they’re beady-eyed, pestiferous, disease-riddled, thieving little demons.  Being soft-hearted wimps, the human female and her staff have borrowed some live-catch Sherman traps to try to catch the beast without killing it.

The human female has carefully baited the traps with a dab of peanut butter, which she swears has worked for her in the past.  (Why does it not surprise me that she has experience with domicilar vermin infestation?)

She has placed the traps variously about the workplace–two in the room with the funny smell and the suspicious droppings (?) and one in the break room, where one might reasonably assume a rodent would like to scurry about, leaving a trail of pestilence and poops.


Time to check the traps!  Did we catch anything?  Has the murine miscreant been compassionately corralled?

Here’s the one in the break room.  It’s snuggled up next to the fridge.


Place your wagers…

I shall now turn it around…


Nary a footprint!  The peanut butter is entirely intact.

Moving on!  This is the one near the door in the funny-smell room.  This is where the droppings have been seen.


Amazing. Do you see that?  No mousie, but the peanut butter is completely gone!  Every last particle!  (My money is on “enormous cockroach,” but that’s a story for another day.)

Here’s the last trap, which has been under the sink in the funny-smell room.  It’s been sprung, and I can hear something small and light scrabbling around inside!


Holding myself ready to grab the little dickens (without being bitten!), I shall nudge the trap open with Gungnir.


Here goes!


Sigyn, I think we need to have a little talk about your peanut butter addiction.

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