The Lab

“…ple coloured bin. While making sure you put the used tips into the bag.”

Lab inductions are a necessary evil, even if the majority of what is said can be summarised with “don’t be an idiot with things that could hurt you”. But then if you’re like me, you zone out at inopportune times, which means you may have to scrounge around for context clues to figure out which colour bin you should be putting those used tips in (the fact that you wouldn’t be touching the chemicals is irrelevant, though it may have contributed to the aforementioned zone outs).

To continue, I haven’t been trained to work in a proper microbiology lab. I knew vaguely of the procedures required from having done a course or two on microbiology (or was it molecular biology?). My undergrad experiments were primarily done in a greenhouse. There were rarely any hazardous chemicals and the level of precision required for the chemicals I did use were measured by the “capful” and “one more for good measure”. The safety paperwork involved drinking water and avoiding that slippery patch of algae between rows three and four.

Suffice to say, coming into lab with standard operating procedures for every conceivable thing was a culture shock.

(Dirty glasses on the bottom of the ORANGE trolley.)

I’d like to think I’m adaptable – which is why I found myself studying fungi perhaps, that or a deep seated sense of masochism – so I made sure I paid attention to the induction. Except when it ticks past 73 minutes, which is the extent of my attention span. Though as I scramble to refocus my attention, the lab safety person goes to the last slide. Looking down, I realised I had still managed to write down a page of notes. I figure I’m good enough to not set myself on fire.

The first time I entered the lab, I was met with the stark realisation that it really was just a small room (cramped to be honest) filled with expensive equipment and glassware. I pointed out the plentiful glassware as a stray observation and the person showing me around told me that there were never enough and that there is a store downstairs for more. My mind boggled. My legs followed.

In my first week working in the lab, I had learnt how to make my own agar media, how to autoclave said media without it blowing up, how to use three different kinds of fume/flow hoods and how to crack open a piece of decaying wood (though the last point was mainly through trial and error). Really, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It wasn’t a leaky greenhouse where I could (would) dance and sing loudly to whatever was playing on the radio that day, but I could see myself doing the work.

Based on my timeline, I should have pure cultures of my fungi in a few months, so I’ll be here plenty yet. And now at three weeks in, I’ve yet to set myself on fire despite working with 100% ethanol.

Which is of course when my supervisor sends around an email saying that one of the bins caught fire. He didn’t specify which colour it was.

I’m fairly certain I didn’t set something on fire.

An exercise in writing/distraction

My first (proper) meeting took place somewhere an hour and 45 minutes train ride away. I was dressed to impress in jeans and a button up while my supervisor was dressed casually in shorts with mismatched socks. At this point I was reminded that I had, in fact, chosen to pursue a life of tweed, elbow pads and socks with sandals.

It was always present somewhere at the back of my mind that I would do a PhD. Despite all the doomsayers and bleak prospects, I had still managed to miss the clue train and signed up for another three (let’s be honest, four) years of study. Some friends knew it all along and sighed their sympathies. Others would bawk a little, to which I replied that I was a glutton for punishment. But I always appreciated multiple perspectives, it stops me from becoming complacent with my own. Like this one student who shared a room with me while I was looking at leaf hairs of a beach daisy under a microscope. She hated her project and dissuaded me from doing a PhD as we did our small talk. Over the course of small talk my internal dialogue went as follows:

Firstly. You chose to work on snails that required the TLC of daily visitation.

Secondly. You’re putting vials of desiccated snail poop through a spectroscopy machine with a look of abject boredom on your face. Dig deep and remember what you’re doing.

Now I may be bright-eyed with naivete, and perhaps I’ll one day become so disillusioned with my own project, but the small talk taught me a few things. One, work on something that really excites you. Two, don’t work on moving, living things that need daily feeding and can die at any moment.

Which brings me back to my meeting.

It was probably absent-mindedness that made me forget that the further from the coastline you go, the hotter it gets. So as we pull up to the lab, I’m fidgeting a little, edging away from the solid slice of pre-noon sun filtering in through the car window.

The meeting with my other supervisor proceeds swimmingly though, with me dutifully taking notes and sharing ideas of what I could be doing, most of which were met with agreeing nods. A good start.

At some point, we take a small trip to the study site.

Now both my supervisors clearly had their wits about them, as they wore shorts and a short sleeve shirt, chatting amiably and pointing to the large ring structures that look out of place in the Eucalypt forests. Meanwhile I’m simmering a pace behind them.

At least I looked good.

Though my suede shoes were really not liking me.

The day finishes quite quickly after that. With a final skype meeting with a collaborator where I took notes for things I had no idea for. But it provided the necessary illusion.

Smoke and mirrors.

All I had left that day was to catch a train home. Another hour and 45 minutes. Of course my supervisor made every moment count and typed up a letter in that time. I slept, because the sun always makes me sleepy. And I figured that I’ve committed a few faux pas at that point with my dress, that one more one less wouldn’t hurt.

But before I dozed off in the warm carriage, I couldn’t help but to remember that my other supervisor wore sandals.

At least he wasn’t wearing socks with them.