Over the past couple weeks, the lab has gone through a significant overhaul. It had been near gutted top to bottom, with many of the problematic areas (for one reason or another) removed and resolved. What kind of problem areas, might you ask? Imagine the following…

A chemical hood, filled entirely with bottles…half of them are filled with hazardous waste, the labels slowly peeling off and wearing away; the other half a collection of media bottles, varying degrees of orange to black, filled with contaminating organisms of some sort or another, with spritzes of bleach in an attempt to contain them…
Two sinks and two dish drainers…the drying racks above the sinks filled to their limit with rinsed bottles, left there for weeks with no one to return them to their rightful location…both dish drainers overflowing with cleaned dishes, some never having returned to their rightful homes for months…and the sinks themselves, lacking for usable spaces with forgotten beakers growing layers of sludge, half-washed flasks of media that have since started regrowing their old bugs…
A radioactivity workspace overburdened with scintillation vials of (5) years past, all containing unknown quantities of trace radiation, counting on the order of a couple thousand vials…and an adjacent workspace where old acrylamide gels were cast, crusty with the residue of unpolymerized acrylamide, long since dried into stalagmite-like structures that you fear for neurotoxic injury upon…

With that degree of disaster, the lab was sorely in need of a cleaning. In addition to that, it was becoming blatantly clear that many lab responsibilities were going by the wayside. Our water purification system was doing its typical six month reminder for a cartridge change (or recommended filter purge). After weeks of this warning message going unheeded by the person responsible for its maintenance, I put it through it the purge cycle on a Friday. Upon using the water system again the following Tuesday, I found the system registering a lack of resistivity in the water, indicative of a failure of the filters. These filters were designed to last over a year with proper maintenance. The last set of filters we owned (under primarily my management, as I went unassisted in that endeavor) held out for a year1. There should have been no way that those current filters expired so quickly. Upon inspecting the peroxide stock (a component of the sanitization solution), it was quite apparent hardly any had been used. As such, it became evident that the maintainer was obviously not maintaining, despite his statements otherwise.

The cleaning took days. It began with damage control of solely the problem areas, and slowly spread to an entire lab redesign. Shelves were gutted and reallocated. Drawers were stripped of common material stocks and repurposed to each individual lab member’s usage. Upon that knowledge, it was then made apparent that each person was now becoming responsibility of their own autoclaved reagents; no more shared responsibility of pipet tips and media…the two most problematic shared resources in the lab. I’ve been threatening to go this route for nearly a year now, but have held back at my mentor’s behest. He repeatedly assured me that this would be dealt with, as it was essential to the practical operation of the lab.

I can only assume that his frustration at witnessing the deconstruction of his lab over the past year eventually brought about this resolution. Time and time again, he’s chided people for unwashed items in the sink, and repeatedly derided a lab member or two for their ridiculous degree of messiness in an order to clean up said mess2. In any case, his frustration became obvious, and he is hellbent on making liability obvious and embarrassing in the future.

Other responsibilities that cannot be adequately doled out on an individual basis are now being forced into a rotation of weekly responsibilities. Unfortunately, I feel that many of these shared responsibilities could be abrogated simply by common sense and simple, proactive premeditation, but even that is too much to ask of the others in the lab, currently. Dishes are expected to be returned to their respective storage spaces, or wrapped promptly and made ready for sterilization by autoclaving. Autoclaving needs to be relegated to a regular, weekly occurrence, especially for waste disposal. Radiation surveys will be rotated on a monthly basis. Freezers will be brushed of seal-leaking frost weekly3, with quarterly defrosting of the upright -20˚C freezers and yearly defrosting of our -80˚C freezers. The water system (and other maintenance-requiring equipment) will be on a rotating maintenance weekly.

How are we doing so far?

  • The sinks have stayed relatively clear so far. The new grad students are getting properly chided for leaving containers in the sink and just running water over them nigh indefinitely (read: greater than 15 minutes). It takes 15-30 seconds to rinse/clean out glassware that has just been used. You waste your own time, others time, and excessive amounts of water leaving it to rinse for an indefinite period of time.
  • Dishes are accumulating in the dish drainers just like before. I have been removed my rinsed/cleaned dishes the following day (as I often do in the past), so terms will have to be established regarding that come the weekly cleanup day. If no one is putting dishes away until that day, neither shall I. But I refuse to be the weak link in this organizational restructuring.
  • I spent four years doing radiation surveys, only to find the new recipient is getting out of it after only a year, and finding myself back in a rotation for doing it. I’m very unhappy with this resolution, but I’ll deal with it if the rest of the lab can seriously be maintained as hoped.
  • I fear for the freezer defrostings. I see those events going highly biased when they come about, but we shall see.
  • The water system is a moot point until we receive new filters; sanitization of the existing filters will (likely) not bring them back to any sort of operational status. Once they are replaced, hopefully we shall get some real life out of them again.

All of this new order and structure is really dependent on assuming responsibility at each step of the rotating positions. It’s sad to see that not everyone can bear responsibility for their assigned jobs, and that it is coming down to obvious “calling out” of people who slack through this new rotation scheme. I never had to bear these problems the year that I worked at CNSE prior to graduate school. I didn’t think that my peers would honestly be like this, either. Speaking with others has me less convinced that this is an independent occurrence, and may instead be a result of those among that age range/generation4. Perhaps I’m just a bit too mature for my age? It’s hard to tell sometimes…

Ultimately, I pray this means that there will be some order and rationale restored to the lab. Too many a day have I suffered through fuming frustration at the inability of others to take responsibility for their own messes/experiments/jobs, only to want to snap and lash out at those responsible. I hope those days are gone, and I can return to a low-stress experience of experimentation without being forced to dance around contaminated glassware and petri plate avalanches.

1I religiously maintained those filters weekly (as planned) for the first six months. This was supposed to be a shared duty among lab members, however, and I became extremely frustrated by the lack of additional help in this regard, so I left the system to wait until another individual sanitized it. It went six months like that, untouched, much to my chagrin, subsequently failing from neglect.
2Usually this just earned my boss sardonic laughter, some joking, a resigned attempt to clean said workspace, only to reclaim the space with disaster a few days later.
3Something I only recently established for our upright -80˚C freezer, since I was finally able to keep the inner insulating doors closed by keeping their hinges and latches brushed free of frost. This fell into my hands, as it was my lab responsibility to defrost each freezer on a yearly (or bi-yearly) basis as necessary, and oversee proper archival of our strains and oligonucleotides in the computer databases.
4They really are not so much younger that they hail from another generation, but half a decade seems to be enough. Conversation with others I know of my approximate age suggest that we are really at the cusp of the Gen X/Gen Y generations, so we breakdown often into one or the other. Our general conclusion from this was that we were often exuding the Gen X traits, while many others just a year or two younger than us are bearing strong Gen Y traits.

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