The everyday horrors of life as a scientist

I was in the lab late last night, and got caught out – yet again – by the automatic lights that switch off to preserve energy. First of all, they flicker on and off in a rather unnerving way before turning off, and secondly, if you happen to have your double-gloved hands in a BL2+ hood at the time and are mid-pipetting, it can be rather inconvenient. I mention this to Katja and Narges over coffee. “Well, since we are in a new lab, we can be happy this is the creepiest thing we deal with here” Katja chuckles “My PhD lab was in this old building from the 19th century, and I swear it was haunted by the ghosts of all the sailors who used to be treated there (it was a marine hospital for the adjacent harbor back then)”. Narges joins in

“Yes, there is something extra creepy about old labs and old hospital buildings, especially when you are there late at night and there is nobody else around”.

spooky lab

We start telling our favourite lab spooky stories. Narges confesses that her worst fear is getting stuck in a cold room, which is why she always tries to run in and out before the door closes. Katja tells us how the irradiator in her PhD lab was not only a model that was the size of a car and looked like it came straight out of a Star Trek episode (the original ones, with the papier-mâché sets), but was also in the basement, which was a dark maze of corridors with a lot of rumors about rooms filled with glass jars with creatures and body parts preserved in formalin going around. “Going down there was always unnerving, and pressing the red button on that machine always made me worry it was going to explode and turn me into one of those ghosts, or possibly one of those deformed specimens preserved in formalin” Katja reminisces. “Working with radioactivity in general always creeped me out” I add.

“I used to hate being in the hot room and would regularly scan myself with the Geiger counter, just to be sure I wasn’t becoming radioactive or turning into spider-woman”. Narges and Katja giggle.

“One of the labs I worked in was also in an old building, one which was connected by tunnels to several other old lab and hospital buildings part of the university” I recount. “Apart from being dark and dirty, those tunnels also had that smell of catacomb and were home to many rather feisty cockroaches” I shudder thinking of those basements. Going to the -80 freezers was the worst. The entire institute’s -80 freezers used to be located in a basement corridor with no windows, which snaked around several corners and was filled with humming freezers and dusty shelves filled with random stuff. The only light switch was by the entrance door, and our particular freezer was around several bends at the end of this corridor-like room (maze is actually a better description). The place where – literally – nobody could hear you scream. I found this out when someone else entered the maze after me and – not realizing anyone else was there – SWITCHED THE LIGHTS OFF as they left, leaving me alone, in the dark, feeling my way along the walls, freezers and other unspeakable things back to the door. “My heart was in my throat, and I refused to go to the freezers alone for about 2 months afterwards. My lab mates made fun of me, so after a while I started going alone again, but always carrying a flash light, and I always sighed with relief when I got out of there again”. Katja and Narges are more sympathetic “That sounds terrible, I would have died”. Yup. Almost did. I swear something grabbed my shoulder at least once or twice…

Christine palmerAbout me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for myPhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here