A Blog Around The Clock

Obsolete Lab Skills

You may remember a few days ago I posted a link to the list of Obsolete skills (the links were to this post, this wiki and this wiki). The growing list is certainly fun to read and check off your own skills against it. Archy adds some more.

But, what I really liked, especially since this is a science blog, was this comment by Barn Owl, suggesting we list our science-related and laboratory skills that are either useless outside of the lab or now obsolete even in a science lab.

For instance, Anna has developed strength in in the muscles used in vial opening as well as the ability to eye-ball minute volumes of liquid.

Well, I can use, if you wake me up in the middle of the night, the 1982 program called Circadia. It is to this day the best software for analysis of circadian data, but the latest Mac OS’s cannot run it as it is so old. It is Open Source now and I would love to see someone do an upgrade on it and make it more modern.

I hope I never have to do an RPA (RNase Protection Assay) again – it takes back-breaking 3-5 days to do three of those in parallel for just a few data-points. There are better techniques these days.

The way IACUCs are going these days, I doubt I will ever again be allowed to put my surgical skills to use – if you want your quail’s ovaries or pineals removed, optic nerves severed, or radiotransmitters implanted, I can do it, but only if you get the IACUC approval for it first.

Some of the old melatonin radioimmunoassays are a pain in the behind. I hope someone’s developed something simpler and more reliable lately.

Catching a runaway quail in a pitch-dark isolation room using sound only.

Changing food, water and paper in complete darkness.

Giving i/m injections into the birds’ breastmeat in complete darkness.

Taking blood samples from miniature wing-veins of quail using military infrared goggles.

OK, your turn: what are some of the lab skills that are either useless outside of the lab or so outdated to be useless in the lab today?


  1. #1 justawriter
    February 25, 2008

    I played around with a story idea once upon a time that had a scene where a med tech wonders why he had to learn dozens of different titrations in school in order to be certified for a position where he squirts pee into a machine and staples the resulting printouts to a chart.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    February 25, 2008

    Oh, titrations! All those things we do in teaching labs that no working lab has used in decades!?

  3. #3 Hank Roberts
    February 25, 2008

    Slide rule.
    Photography, chemical

  4. #4 Juan Pablo
    February 25, 2008

    I was an expert at making sequencing gels between two glasses, slowly pouring the acrilamide mixture. They even called me from other labs inside the institute to help them. To think that all I need to do now is to send the sample to the sequencing service.

  5. #5 Mike
    February 25, 2008

    Not sure about Anna’s examples. Surely the ability to finely judge volumes of liquid by eye alone could be applied to make most excellent cocktails?

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    February 25, 2008

    Second on the sequencing gels. I poured thousands of them as a graduate student, and performed radioactive dideoxy sequencing reactions using S35 radioative isotope and the “Sequenase” brand of DNA polymerase. I don’t even know if they sell Sequenase anymore.

  7. #7 Barn Owl
    February 25, 2008

    My list from the earlier thread:

    Process, embed, and section tissues on a microtome
    Run sections through any one of several standard histological staining procedures
    Pour, load, and run a sequencing gel
    Cesium chloride gradient centrifugation
    Correctly load a slide carousel
    Find an old journal article in a bound volume in the library
    Window a fertilized chicken egg
    Maintain several different strains of mice, flies, or fish using phenotype (no PCR genotyping)
    Isolate growth factors from slaughterhouse tissues, using biochemical techniques
    Take photomicrographs with a 35mm film camera (and correctly load and unload the film)
    Make microsurgical instruments (e.g. sharpened tungsten needles) and repair/sharpen damaged surgical instruments (e.g. watchmaker’s forceps)

    To which I’ll add:

    – Making specialty glassware (beyond pulling and otherwise modifying pipettes, I can’t do this, but my father claims he made lots of glassware in grad school)
    – To sterilize the aforementioned tungsten needles, I use a small alcohol lamp, the operation of and wick-making for which mystify grad students
    – Maintain humidity and adjust temperature for old-fashioned egg incubators
    – Foster a litter of mouse or rat pups to a new dam, without a resulting rodent horror movie scene
    – Incise a very shallow 5×5 grid on the bottom of a 35mm tissue culture dish, to monitor survival of individual neurons

    I’m not so sure about progress in melatonin radioimmunoassays, Coturnix….at least the lab across the hall from mine seems to do them the old-fashioned way. 😉

  8. #8 Matt Platte
    February 25, 2008

    A programmer with 40 years’ worth of useless skills says, “Tell me more about the ancient ‘Circadia’ program; a quick Google didn’t provide much. Perhaps it would be fun to re-write it in a modern dialect.”

  9. #9 Sandra Porter
    February 25, 2008

    Those are great! I used to do RNAse protection assays, too! And, lots and lots of Sanger sequencing.

    I disagree with you on titrations, though. I mean, we don’t use buirets and titrate solutions, but the whole concept of titrations is important. When people develop assays or diagnostic tests, they do titrate the different amounts of enzyme or reagents. So, I think titrations are still an important thing for students to do.

    Plus, there’s nothing quite as dramatic as seeing the end point of a phenolphthalein titration.

  10. #10 Coturnix
    February 25, 2008

    Well, I was imprecise – I meant “using buirets” which I have mot seen since 1985 or so, since I took the biochem lab last time.

  11. #11 Julie Stahlhut
    February 25, 2008

    Mine: Phenol-chloroform-isoamyl alcohol DNA isolations. In fact, only about 25 microliters of phenol earned me my “injured yourself in the lab” Science Scout badge, circa 1995.

    Also did a bit of starch-gel electrophoresis around that time, more for cultural reasons than anything else. Wow — remember doing population studies with allozymes!

  12. #12 Coturnix
    February 25, 2008

    Mike, I don’t want my cocktails measured in microliters, if it can be avoided. But the pouring skills are still essential.

  13. #13 Roland
    February 25, 2008

    Well, my first foray into science was as a biology undergrad in the 1970’s, and you all have me befuddled with this talk of new fangled things like sequencing gels…on the other hand, I would match my skills at drosophila wrangling with anyone….

    And yes, finding articles in bound journals…I have vague, fever-dream memories of trying to work through the old citation abstract indices…large books that required something like the Rosetta stone…

    Fortunately I dropped out of science for 20 years and by the time I came back, almost everything could done using these weird televisions with typewriters attached…

  14. #14 such.ire
    February 25, 2008

    Huh. I just read a paper the other day (published in 2007!) that used an RNase protection assay…looks like someone never learned to RT-PCR…

    I don’t think phenol extractions are obsolete. They’re still the best way to purify nucleic acids.

  15. #15 Elisabeth
    February 26, 2008

    Oh, oh, I want to play!

    Things that I learned to do as a technician that I have not had to do as a graduate student:

    –process a hundred slides for immunohistochemistry in one day.

    –section paraffin-embedded tissue

    –pour SDS-PAGE gradient gels (or any protein gels, for that matter–we buy them all pre-cast)

    –Immunoprecipitation using 35S labeled cells

    –make sucrose gradients and collect fractions

    I won’t even start the list of things I am learning now that will not be of any use to me after grad school. Since I plan on leaving research, that would be a very long list!

  16. #16 Mohammad Qadir
    February 26, 2008

    Northern, Northern and Northern 🙂

  17. #17 Barb
    February 26, 2008

    Obsolete skills:
    -Making competent bacteria for transformation; now you just buy them.
    -Purifying restriction enzymes; now you just buy them.
    -Liquid scintillation counting of gel slices containing radiolabeled DNA digests for constructing restriction enzyme maps. Now you just sequence and let the computer find the sites, if you even need enzyme sites.
    -Thin-layer chromatography

  18. #18 Aldo Tiburcio
    February 26, 2008

    Hey men! (& women): Do not throw away your skills!!! Come to the under developed world and use them!!!
    We still pour large acrilamide gels (and silver stain them, make our own competent cells, produce our own Taq (do not let Roche finds out!)and isolate DNA & RNA without commercial kits!
    Find your opportunity in the Southern hemisphere, where grants are small and lab supplies expensive!
    Everybody is Welcome!! (we still eat meat & drink wine at reasonable prices)

  19. #19 kirstin
    February 26, 2008

    what a trip down memory lane!

    ….kids today want everything in a freakin’ kit! ask them to make solutions or reagents “from scratch” and they look at you like you’re nutso…

    i share many of these, but what i’ve done that i haven’t seen here yet:
    * making packaging extracts for phage libraries
    * nuclear extracts for mobility shifts
    * primer extensions
    * ALMP minipreps

    “back when i was young….” in my best grandma voice!

  20. #20 Mark
    February 28, 2008

    Ah, a trip down memory lane…

    Yes indeed, pouring sequencing gels, and let’s not forget those silanized plates to reduce bubble formation.

    Sucrose gradient ultracentrifugation, plus poking a hole in the bottom of the tube and collecting the drops by hand into eppie tubes.

    Homogenizing calf thymus with buffer plus mercaptoethanol, thereby making the cold room off limits for the rest of the day due to the smell.

    A little before my time, but who nowadays would make his/her own 32P labelled ATP by exchange reaction with radioactive phosphate? Remember the radiation room with curies of material at a time…

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