Mishaps in the Lab: Biology faculty tell tales of experimental failure

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of experimental biology is its unpredictability. No matter how meticulously you design your procedure, check and quadruple-check every measurement and work with the utmost professionalism, things still manage to go awry. 

This time of year, Higley Hall bustles with exciting research: 50 different independent projects by introductory lab students in Biology 110, lab research on everything from plant and animal physiology to gene manipulation, the ongoing work of faculty and their student research groups, and seniors working tirelessly to finish their honors theses.

Today and every day, Higley Headlines and the biology faculty celebrate the wacky world of experimental biology and remind everyone that failure, no matter how embarrassing and frustrating, is a critical, not to mention hilarious part of the scientific process. It may not have been amusing when it ruined your entire data set and set back your research by six months, but as you’ll see, everything is funny in retrospect.

Poor Timing

“I once thought I’d be a good lab citizen and adjust the lab clock for Daylight Savings Time. I hadn’t realized it was held up with only a thumbtack! When I replaced it on the wall, it came crashing down – right onto the safety shower lever below and causing a flood of water from the shower above. I’m glad that the safety shower was in good working order, but I didn’t really need to be drenched just for adjusting the clock! I’ll never hang anything over the safety shower lever again (especially with thumbtacks).”

Dr. Sarah Petersen, Ashby Denoon Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

Praying for Mantises

One of the projects I started during grad school was some work on praying mantises and how they communicate chemically. I learned how to rear them from a lab at the University of Delaware, growing Drosophila, houseflies and crickets to feed the mantises as they grew up. What I found out was that it took a great deal of time to grow three different insects to rear a fourth, and that if I underfed the mantises, that they had no qualms about eating eachother. After a number of generations where I got one very fat mantis at the end instead of the 20-40 I needed for my experiments, I decided that I needed to find another PhD project.”

Dr. Harry Itagaki, Professor of Biology and Neurobiology 

Nature Strikes Back

“I spent weeks establishing tree seedlings in the Bishop’s Backbone forest and enclosing them in cages to keep deer from destroying my experiment. During a summer storm, an ancient oak collapsed on three of my ten study plots. Bye-bye data. Deer cages won’t keep out trees.”

-Dr. Drew Kerkhoff, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Biology

Acute Ophidiophobia

“As an undergraduate, I spent one summer as a research assistant in the lab of a reptilian physiologist. In part, this meant that I was in charge of keeping the research snakes happy; these same snakes were hyperthyroid and rather irritable. They took their irritation out on me all summer by launching themselves out of their cages when I would attempt to feed them. I never got used to an angry snake jumping towards my face and developed a proficient lexicon of profanity during that summer.”

Dr. Jennifer McMahon, Lead Instructor & Director of Introductory Labs in Biology

Molecular Mishaps

“This is more embarrassing than funny. As a post-doc I wanted to express a particular protein in a particular cell type. My PI gave me a plasmid containing the gene for the protein. After transfecting the plasmid into the cells, I could not detect the protein. It turns out that the plasmid did not have a promoter! I had to first subclone the gene into an expression plasmid. Bottom line: always know exactly what your plasmid is and if you’re not sure ask. Don’t make assumptions- I assumed I was originally given an expression plasmid and the PI assumed I knew that it wasn’t. Caused a few weeks of frustration.”

-Dr. Kathy Gillen, Assistant Professor of Biology

Is this your crab?

“I got an e-mail from someone in Chemistry with a picture of one of my Carcinus maenas crabs asking “is this your crab?” Probably. Pretty unlikely that it crawled from New Jersey, although how it got to Tomsich I also can’t imagine.”

Dr. Chris Gillen, Professor of Biology

Still Waiting on Mighty Mouse

“When I was a graduate student, I worked for a while with rats. Once, just after taking a blood sample, I dropped the syringe. My soccer player instincts took hold and I attempted a thigh trap on the bloody syringe, which of course drove deep into my quadriceps. I apparently suffered no ill consequences, though I sometimes wish I had whiskers to twitch.”

Dr. Chris Gillen, Professor of Biology

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