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Open Thread: Lab Confessions


Behind the scenes, a few ScienceBloggers have recently confessed some tenure-risking transgressions in the laboratory. (Just think of all the mischief to be had with dry ice, helium tanks, liquid nitrogen, or an autoclave…)

Which makes us wonder: What’s the most embarrassing or over-the-top thing you’ve ever done in a lab? (Or in a lab coat?)
(Or in a cold room?)
(Or while wearing lab safety goggles?)

Needless to say, this post doesn’t mean that ScienceBlogs editorial endorses any kind of unscrupulous behavior. In other words, have fun sharing stories, but don’t try this at home! Or in your own lab for that matter.

(Photo from Flickr, by jepoirrier)


  1. #1 One of the Sb'ers
    November 21, 2007

    Well…. I may have has various flings on various lab surfaces in many different labs.

  2. #2 Richard Simons
    November 21, 2007

    Not I, but in the early days of controlled environment rooms there were banks of ballasts for the lights that threw off a lot of heat. One Sunday, a graduate student where I worked decided to wash his clothes and dry them in front of the ballasts. It happened that the Director had a visitor and, in the process of showing him around, opened a door at random to reveal JS working there while wearing not a stitch of clothing. The Director told his visitor ‘As you can see, we do a wide variety of things in the controlled environment rooms’.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    November 21, 2007

    This isn’t something that I did, but it’s still a funny story. And it’s true.

  4. #4 qetzal
    November 21, 2007


    Using an insulin syringe (the kind without leur-locks) as a water gun, only to find that if you depress the plunger too hard, the needle shoots across the room and embeds in your lab-mate’s lower lip. (He was OK, and they were new syringes.)

    Over the top:

    Decorating the lab door at Christmas with a display of Santa’s sleigh being pulled by fetal pigs (meant for dissection; didn’t stay up long).

    Embarassing and over the top:

    Experimenting with live female chicks to see how testosterone injections alter secondary sexual characteristics. The systematic evaluations of weight and comb size were part of the protocol, but the subjective evaluations of aggression (“Let’s see if they’ll fight!”) were not. Neither was injecting one guy’s chicken with vodka to get it drunk.(We didn’t let them really fight, and I don’t think we gave a big enough dose of vodka to do much, although it probably caused pain at the injection site.)

    And these were all in high school! Best high school class evar!

  5. #5 Petra
    November 21, 2007

    Not mine, but I heard from a friend that for some reason there was a bottle of vodka or rum or so in the lab – that was there for something other than drinking (deco? a present?). However, every now and then, the contents would be less than they should be – and everyone in the lab claimed it wasn’t them. So they poured an laxative into the bottle to find the culprit.

    🙂 And only a few days later they got a called that the cleaning lady was sick and couldn’t come clean anymore. Ever since, the bottle has remained untouched… or so I was told.

  6. #6 Mr. Gunn
    November 21, 2007

    A standard way of welcoming new people into the lab that I’m familiar with is to add about a half a gram or so of dry ice to a 1.5 mL tube, preferably one of those with the extra-tight lid, and accidentally leave it under the new guy’s chair or next to his keyboard. There’s a bit of an art to getting it just right, but well done you’ve got around 2 minutes, which is just right.

  7. #7 Bing McGhandi
    November 21, 2007

    When I was a freshman in college, I was an assistant in the astronomy lab. Had a key to get on the roof of the physics building and everything. So many of my best dates ended up there… Ah, good times!

    HJ (Astronomers do it all night!)

  8. #8 Kevin
    November 22, 2007

    When I can’t find anything else to stir the cream and sugar in my coffee I sometimes use my inoculating loop.

  9. #9 Julie Stahlhut
    November 23, 2007

    My most embarrassing moment (as in, “Jeez, did I feel stupid!”)

    I was handling some agar plates on a benchtop, and flame-sterilizing various tools before using them. I dipped a glass spreader in a beaker of ethanol, which I’d been careful to position nowhere near the flame. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to:

    * Flame the spreader while it was still dripping ethanol.

    * Do this over a wad of Kimwipes that I’d neglected to move out of the way.

    * Forget that the Kimwipes were piled on top of two of the lab’s pipettors.

    My advisor was actually very forgiving about the whole thing, especially since I managed to put the fire out without hurting myself or destroying the lab. But I kept the warped, half-melted pipettors on my desk afterwards, to remind myself that burning solvents, flammable paper, and expensive plastic lab instruments don’t mix.

  10. #10 Abel Pharmboy
    November 25, 2007

    Everyone must visit milkshake’s post at OrgPrepDaily to read of his home chemistry experiments as a young boy in Prague – it is a classic. This is just one of several examples:

    My mom worked in administration of the Academy of Science. As I accompanied her on a 1st May parade I was introduced to a chemist from some institute. (I think mom was bragging a little about my ďż˝advancedďż˝ interests). I shared my frustration – about my attempts at preparing solid iodine. ďż˝But you wonďż˝t need solid iodine for iodonitride – add ammonia to your iodine solution, NI3 should crash outďż˝ the helpful man explained. Two weeks later I was already in a hospital with burned face and eyes. I accidentaly detonated a spoonfull of dried NI3 about 15 centimeters from my face, with no glasses. The explosion blew the window and my eardrums; I was back from the hospital in a week and I could see again – but the iodine-stained corneas made my eyes extremely sensitive and I wore dark glasses for months afterwards. I also lost a sense of smell for a long time – it came back eventually but even now my nose is not that discriminating. (Probably a good thing, for a chemist.)

  11. #11 Stephen
    December 1, 2007

    Hey Virginia,

    Did you ever hear the story of how Paul Jones and I managed to catch a roll of paper towels on fire in Dr. Erhardt’s chem lab after school? I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe a Bunsen burner was involved.

    Big, rolling flames, too, and the two of us just stood there, wondering what exactly should be our next course of action. Finally, my quick thinking had me knock the flaming paper towels into one of those sink pits and turn the water on. Of course, when he came in and saw what was in the sink, we had to go ahead and confess to Dr. Erhardt, and he was Not Pleased.

  12. #12 Omer Moussaffi
    December 13, 2007

    Back when I was in 3rd year physics B.A. lab, a few years back, we had the pleasure of playing quite a lot with liquid Nitrogen. Mostlyy we would pour some on the floor and watch as the bubbles of liquid skidded across the floor. A friend of stepped on one of those bubbles, with his newly-purchased expensive pair of Nike shoes. One shoe was destroyed. The rubber sole, hardened by the cold, neatly split in two.
    The man was in tears. We told him he should go back to the shop. “And what an I supposed to tell the shop owner”, he demanded. “That I ruined the shoe on physics lab”?
    I met the guy the next day, and he had a huge grin on his face. Apparently, he went to the shop, and he didn’t even say a word. The shop owner said that he has never seen “such a MANUFACTURING FAULT”, and sent the damaged shoe to the supplier, replacing my friend’s shoe free of charge.

  13. #13 Youtube Video
    February 21, 2008

    There’s a bit of an art to getting it just right, but well done you’ve got around 2 minutes, which is just right.

  14. #14 James Frost
    December 23, 2008

    My company has just setup a non-commercial site for the unburdening of
    lab confessions. I enjoyed reading these and thought that your readers
    might enjoy the ones on the
    website. Please feel free to add your own.

    Here is an example post:

    “I used a 4 liter glass flask to collect the waste from my DNA synthesizer. The flask overfilled and had liquid on the outside when I went to empty it. I made the mistake of setting the flask on the floor and it glued itself to the floor. I decided to get it off the floor by lightly tapping a wedge under the flask. Apparently three taps are required to invoke the flask cracking gods. The whole floor to my small lab filled with stinky DNA waste. I spent the rest of the day with Hazmat.”