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I wrote earlier about videos of lab protocols and the benefit these could bring to people who are trying to learn new techniques or perhaps troubleshoot their own. Unfortunately, I suspect that the people who would benefit the most from movies of others doing lab procedures correctly are those who are already pretty observant.

Nevertheless, I have some ideas for improvements to these kinds of movies, ala acting and editing, that could benefit the truly-technically-impaired.

We need lab movies of people doing things wrong.

Last night we watched the episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where the gynecologists play soccer against the Long John Silvers. Not only was it hysterically funny, the pirates showed, albeit in an exaggerated way, the very thing that drives soccer coaches crazy: players standing around. Sure, they only had one good leg! What kind of excuse is that?

I thought, “Wouldn’t if be fun if movies of lab procedures did the same kind of thing? Of course we would need narrators who sound like Eric Idle or John Cleese

Mistake in the lab

The music begins, probably something classical.

Scene one: The tubes

Narrator (who sounds like John Cleese):

There he goes into the lab, carrying a rack of microfuge tubes in one hand and some pipettes in another. What will he be doing today?

The camera zooms in on a pair of hands.


Where are his gloves? Ah, he must have chosen to go the distance and work sans gloves. And here is the really critical part of the operation, opening the tubes without touching the inside of the cap

Lab worker sits at bench and sets down materials. He picks up a microfuge tube, opens it and sets in the rack.


Look at that ladies and gentleman! Did you see the way he opened the tube and managed to stick his thumb completely over the inside of the cap! Ooooh, I hope he doesn’t plan to work with RNA.

An close-up still image appears, showing the thumb in direct contact with the inside of the cap and a large arrow pointing to the cap.

(It’s bad to touch the inside of a tube because the enzymes on your skin can digest DNA and RNA).

Scene 2: The sneeze

Another lab tech enters the room. She sets some petri plates on the bench. The plates appear to have bacterial colonies on the surface of the agar. She lifts up the lid and holds it in the air with one hand.

The camera zooms in on her nose, which appears to be itching.

Our Eric Idle-sound-alike announcer says:

Oh, it looks like we’re in trouble now! It appears that Suzy’s gloves are a bit too large and are hampering her ability to hold the pipette and the plates at the same time. What’s this?!! It’s appears to be an earthquake!

The camera focuses on the lid of the petri plate in slow motion flying up in the air and tumbling about over and over again as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from “2001: A Space Odyssey” plays in the background.

Let’s watch that again, in slow motion, shall we?

You get the idea. I think some short funny clips that exaggerate the things people do wrong – like touching the insides of their tubes, failing to flame loops, sneezing on their experiments, adding the wrong volumes (and not looking at volume markings), could be really useful. Pointing out the common mistakes in a funny way, could make them more memorable. At least students could remember what not to do.

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  1. #1 JF, scientist
    November 6, 2006

    When I was in high school, the safety video included a clip of someone sticking a glass pipette through his hand (and it filling up with fake blood.) It was extremely memorable; that was a LONG time ago!

    A college prof kept in our lab what he called the “Dumbass of the Year 1986 award”: an RB flask that had melted and imploded- with embedded molecular sieves- under the influence of an overly enthusiastic heating mantle and high vacuum.

    I wish I had taped the time a colleague and I were cleaning a fritted glass filter with aqua regia and acetone, and we added too much acetone. Cue the violent bubbling, hasty fume hood closures, and ominous red mist reaching out to rust through everything metal…

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    November 10, 2006

    “When I was in high school, the safety video included a clip of someone sticking a glass pipette through his hand (and it filling up with fake blood.)”

    When I was in eighth grade, I watched as a fellow student attempted to insert one stem of a glass U-tube through the hole in a rubber stopper by pushing down with his palm on the bottom of the U. The U broke and the broken end stabbed deeply into his palm. I remember the blood, but I don’t recall whether the tube went all the way through his hand.

    This same kid also cut off nearly a centimeter-long piece of the tip of his thumb with an exacto knife while cutting chromatography paper. For what it’s worth, I have heard that he is now a board-certified dermatologist.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    November 10, 2006

    I too, had one of those moments with a glass pipette. The lab where I was a post-doc used to “save money” by re-autoclaving disposable glass pipettes. Unfortunately, the pipettes had a tendency to get somewhat fragile.

    One of these pipette shattered as I was putting it into the pipette holder and I cut an artery and nerve in one of my fingers. We were a short walk from the ER, luckily, but I still have the scar and there’s a small part of finger where I don’t have any feeling.