And so begins

Fable one--the three little pigs

10/8/14 Laboratory Fables, aka, Lab Fab begins.

Hello CPIB! I have arrived! Actually I arrived last week, Sunday the third of August into the UK and Tuesday the 5th at the Uni. Who am I? What am I doing here? And why am I telling you all of this?

I am Tobias Baskin, a professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which is thousands of miles away. I guess 3,526 miles, but I have neither measured nor looked it up. Suffice to say, too far to walk, swim, or even drive. I obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union to do research at the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology (aka CPIB, the host of this blog site – shout out to CPIB!).

OK, that answers the first two questions; but again why am I telling you this? Let me turn that question around—why are you reading this? Perhaps you are a scientist yourself? Or someone curious about us white-coated geeks? It struck me that as I have parachuted into a new lab and a new project (two of them actually), I could recount more or less in real time the daily, or more realistically, the weekly happenings in the lab. There might be the odd moment of inspiration to recount but most likely it will be stories of obstacles, thrown up by nature or bureaucracy, and how I dream about their solution. I am writing this in hopes that there will indeed be people who read this. Only time will tell.

OK, well how about my first week on the job? Nothing particularly exciting here, but perfectly necessary. I signed on with HR. I met various people, although not surprisingly staff are quite depleted because of holidays. I set up my desk, got internet active for the office, learned the way to make a cuppa, and was shown my 5 feet of lab bench. Discussed my projects with Darren, the main researcher here who will be helping me. He even plated out some seeds for me because I got tied up in town sorting out internet for my flat. Thanks Darren! But for the most part I spent the week catching up on editing and e-mail responsibilities that had piled up during the week before when I was occupied by packing.

I call this blog “Laboratory Fables” in the hope that a chimera or at least a crow will wander in. Probably faint hopes, For this first post, I have a story about lab safety. It is a variant of the Three Little Pigs. The first little pig, as usual, built his house out of straw and the big bad wolf came along and blew the house down and ate up the pig. A few weeks later, when the wolf was hungry again, he came upon the second little pig, who hadn’t bothered to build a house at all and was sitting in the sty wearing a lab coat. “You cannot eat me Mr Wolf, I am safe! See my nice white lab coat.” And the wolf didn’t even have to hyperventilate before eating the hapless oinker. Of course, the third big used bricks for a house and lived happily ever after (although one wonders how they did the shopping).

The point of this story is that lab coats do not make a person safe. Instead, safety comes only with sound knowledge of laboratory practice. There are no short cuts. In my first day on the job over here, I was surprised to be told that entry into the laboratory proper requires a lab coat. In the years that I have been doing plant science (~20 years in my own lab, 5 years as a post doc, 6 years as a Ph.D student) I have needed a lab coat only once or twice. As an undergraduate, I remember watching in amazement as a few drops of sulfuric acid ate through my blue jeans but such a vivid demonstration is not needed to teach people about the strength of acids. Certainly, I threw on a lab coat that time a few years ago when I made the sulfuric-laden anthrone reagent for assaying hexose. But in a plant science lab, reaching for the concentrated acid is rare. Mostly what we handle are aqueous solutions with salts of various kinds. Fertilizer familiar to any gardener. Well, gardeners often wear aprons, but sometimes they have work clothes, togs they don’t mind getting stained or dirty. It is true that the typical plant scientist sometimes uses a chemical that is poisonous, but such chemicals are almost always used in tiny amounts and at low concentration (after dilution).

Yes, there are times when a lab coat is wise and staff should know when those times are and dress accordingly. To imply that staff are too lazy or ignorant to do this reliably is frankly an insult. And as that the second pig makes clear, instilling a false sense of security is a poor way to promote good laboratory practice. If wearing a lab coat makes the wearer uncomfortable, perhaps sweating excessively, then this will compromise their working ability and is likely to cause far more problems than the coat will solve. It is sad to see genuine laboratory safety undermined by the promulgation of a pointless rule.

OK, if you are the Uni Safety officer reading this, DON’T WORRY! I will abide by house rules and wear the lab coat. I grew up under the rubric of “Question Authority” and that is what I am doing here. I hope you have the grace to at least think about the points I am raising. That’s all I ask.

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