An Interview with Dr. McMahon

It’s late August, and a butterfly flits among the prairie flowers, unaware that it is taking its last sip of nectar. Armed with poison, nets and little plastic baggies, a pack of intro biology students are on the prowl. The student’s winged victims will be the subject of a series of labs, starting with morphological taxonomy and ending with DNA barcoding. Ultimately, the butterfly will join victims of years past in an ongoing diversity assessment of the Brown Family Environmental Center. The mastermind behind this annual slaughter of lepidoptera? Professor McMahon, lead director of introductory biology labs at Kenyon. I’ve come to ask her a few questions.

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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

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