Thus Spake Zuska

Perfusing the Magnet

What’s the funniest lab accident you’ve ever had?…

…asks “Ask A Science Blogger”.

Definitely not funny at the time. But funny in retrospect.

As a grad student and a postdoc, I worked with cultured mammalian cells (animal and human). I used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study their metabolism and functional behavior. This involved packing a lot of cells into a very small volume in order to get good signal to noise ratio. Tissue culture experts know that lots of cells in a small volume means problems with nutrient delivery and waste removal – necessitating continuous perfusion with fresh medium. Spectroscopists know that continuously perfusing a liquid substance into a high-field magnet probe is just asking for a disaster to happen.

Which it did. Several times. Twice as a graduate student and once as a postdoc. During graduate school, I twice flooded the magnet probe with my perfusion system. The technician had to take the probe apart and clean it thoroughly, and clean out the stack. Fortunately in both instances we caught the disaster before whole liters of fluid got pumped into the probe. You know, when your signal just suddenly vanishes for no good reason, you start to wonder…what has gone wrong? You go over to the tech’s office…you ask sweetly, “Hey Don, can you come here and look at this…?” And Don, who has actually seen the signal lost due to a magnet flooding before this, knows instantly what has gone wrong. With eternal patience, he sighs heavily and proceeds to tell you what has happened.

Don actually kept a flood-the-magnet scoreboard up in the magnet room, for me and the other graduate student who was doing some perfusion studies. We were neck and neck as I moved towards finishing my thesis.

As a postdoc, I am proud to say that I caught the system failure in time before any liquid made its way to the probe. This was a good thing, because otherwise I might not still be alive. That magnet was like a child to my postdoc supervisor, Bill Hull. I never told him about the near miss. Bill, if you ever read this…please…forgive me…I am only human…I know, I know – Annette never nearly flooded the magnet.**

**Annette Kuesel was the postdoc who preceded me and who, I was never let to forget, was perfect in every way. I would have loathed Annette with every fiber of my being forever had I not actually met her and discovered that she is, in fact, pretty much perfect in every way as a scientist. Also pretty goddamn wonderful as a human being and friend. I note here for the record that Annette never, ever, even for a minute, fantasized about killing the colleagues.


  1. #1 Zuska
    November 30, 2006

    A postscript to this story: Annette phoned me this evening to tell me that she herself had actually flooded the magnet once prior to my arrival at Bill Hull’s lab in Heidelberg. On a weekend. Imagine, she said, having to phone Bill up on a weekend and ask him to come out to the lab to clean up the probe. And it’s not like Bill lived next door to the lab – it took him something like an hour to get there. That hour was a long, long wait in a postdoc’s life. Bill reminded Annette that cleaning cell culture medium off a probe was not like cleaning water off it – all that protein in the medium was very sticky, and any of it left behind would continue to mess with the signal. No, Annette, was not a happy lady that weekend.

    I’m not happy that Annette had to go through that but I did tell her it’s nice to know she isn’t entirely perfect!

  2. #2 absinthe
    December 1, 2006

    When I was in junior high school I had one of the worst teachers on earth for Chemistry. He was not only crazy in what appeared to be a borderline dangerous way, he was also sleazy. He used to tell us that he used to “impress” his friends when he was in college by taking a scupula scoop
    of cyanide and eating it before their eyes. He said he practiced a long time to ensure that he would scoop a non-lethal amount.

    What an idiot.

    Anyway, he had a habit of handing out information sheets for the lab project we were going to do, then just buggering off to who-knows-where for the rest of the class, leaving a bunch of youths loose in a lab with semi-dangerous chemicals.

    One day the lab project involved sodium, so when we came into the room there was a big honkin’ chunk of sodium at the front alongside a stack of petrie dishes. He handed out the information sheets and then buggered off as usual. The info sheet said to carve off a piece of sodium, put it in your petrie dish, then remove the surface oxidation by pouring a bit of water on it.

    The petrie dish I picked up from the stack was plastic. I didn’t think anything of it in my youthful ignorance. Also, in my youthful ignorance, I carved off quite a healthy sized chunk of sodium. Back at my lab bench I poured a bit of water over the sodium. The plastic petrie dish caught fire. In a panic, my lab partner tried to douse the fire with about a pint of water. The little fire turned into a huge conflaguration that set off the alarms.
    The smoke was unbelievable.

    Everyone ran out into the hallway, and eventually a teacher ran up who had enough sense to grab a chemical fire extinguisher and put the fire out. The fire had burned so hot it had almost burned right through the flame-proof lab bench. Eventually the chem teacher was routed out from wherever he habitually spent his time and the truth became known to all the other teachers and the principal that he had left a bunch of kids unattended with a 5 pound chunk of sodium. And worse yet, he left us unattended every class.

    He got in big, big trouble, and rumour had it he was almost fired. For the rest of the year he had it in for me as being the reason he had gotten disciplined. My punishment was to have to sit at that lab bench for the rest of the year, trying to write in a lab notebook that was resting in a charred crater. I also never got a mark higher than a B from him after that.

    It was an exciting day in what was an otherwise really boring class though.

  3. #3 absithe
    December 1, 2006

    This one didn’t happen to me, but to a couple of male friends:

    When they were in high school they were making a batch of ammonium tri-iodide, an explosive. It’s primary amusing use (to people who are amused by such things) is to put a drop of it on a floor, for instance, and let it dry. When the residue is impacted it explodes with a bang. Ha ha…what harmless fun! (I’ve never understood the almost-exclusively-male fascination with anything that explodes)

    Anyway, they were in the high school chem lab after hours mixing up a very big batch. Apparently it is important to keep it cool during the mixing (otherwise the whole mess will explode), so they had the bowl of ammonium tri-iodide sitting in a much larger bowl of water, sitting in one of the lab sinks.

    All was well and good until: the. water. began. to. boil.

    In a panic, they poured the entire works down the drain.

    Which was followed by a tremendous BANG.

    A good stretch of the chemistry lab’s plumbing was apparently laid waste. Not surprisingly, kids were suspended, parents had to make restitution, chem labs were closed thereafter for any after-hours high jinks, etc etc.

  4. #4 absinthe
    December 1, 2006

    Hmmm….I just looked up the instructions for making ammonium tri-iodide and it doesn’t involve a water or ice bath. However, making nitroglycerin and a number of other explosives is nearly as easy, and does require a cooling bath to prevent explosion. Mosey on over to any one of the number of sites that feature the Anarchist Cookbook for more information.

    So, either I am recalling the name of the explosive incorrectly, or my friends were perhaps downplaying the nature of the chemical they were trying to produce (no doubt because making illicit nitroglycerin is likely illegal, but making relatively harmless ammonium tri-iodide probably isn’t)

  5. #5 SuzyQueue
    December 2, 2006

    I did get to participate in one incident that has solidified my impression of physicists. In my first year of graduate study, I taught a lab. All the lab instructors gathered once a week to meet with the professor who lectured for the class and had written the lab manual. The lab we were prepping for this week involved thermal conductivity. The equipment on the table included a bunson burner, thermometer, beaker, beaker stand, insulating materials, electrical meter, connecting wires, and an insulated metal container split into two parts with the bottom part containing a known copper mass to measure the change in resistance with temperature. The professor, who I swear had never even looked at the equipment when he wrote the manual, started to lecture us on the intent of the experiment. He stated that we needed to have the hot water in the top part of the apparatus then place that apparatus on an insulating material and finally place this set onto the base with the copper mass so we can measure the change in resistance. He said this will probably get a bit messy as college students are. He proceeded to pick up the insulated top cup of the apparatus, fill it with water, and set it on the bunson burner stand over the flame. No matter how much we questioned why he wanted to do this, he assured us this is the way it was to be done. After a few minutes of arguing, the bottom spacer cap holding the insulation on the cup started on fire, followed by the insulation around the cup. The professor calmly rubbed his chin and kept muttering that the students wouldn’t be able to complete this week’s experiment if they kept starting the appartus on fire – poor equipment design. The rest of us frantically grabbed beakers of water and a fire extinguisher to put out the fire. The professor was still muttering and rubbing his chin as he casually walked out of the room shaking his head and commenting on how such a poorly designed piece of equipment could have been provided for students to use. He was going to the office to lodge a complaint. To this day I cannot understand how such a supposedly smart person could not see the beaker on the table to use in heating the water or better yet, by placing the upper cup on the burner the measurements would have biased since the cup was being directly heated to a higher temperature than the water, whose temperature was monitored as it cooled. After that, the TAs would arrive a half hour early, run through the lab and be showing each other what we needed to do before the professor arrived.

  6. #6 Zuska
    December 2, 2006

    My friend Annette just forwarded to me an email from Bill Hull; he told us about a link on You Tube with a great video of an MRI explosion. Not quite the same as flooding an NMR spectrometer, but watching an imaging magnet explode is pretty cool. Uh…sorry Absinthe…I guess I liked watching the magnet explode. Fortunately, no one was hurt and no property was damaged (other than the magnet.) Filling and venting magnets are always the most dangerous times in their operation.

  7. #7 absinthe
    December 3, 2006

    Your mention of the magnet reminds me of when I was working at CERN (a large particle physics lab in Switzerland) during my graduate degree. Just like any other particle physics experiment, collaborators had to take turns doing “service work” shifts running the detector during data taking. I was on shift one day and the order came down from the beams division that it was time for our experiment to ramp up our magnet. The magnet was a two storey high solenoid, and was water cooled. It was 4 Tesla at full strength, which is getting pretty close to the maximum field you can get out of a conventional water cooled solenoid….ramp up the current too much, and the solenoid will melt.

    Having to manually ramp the magnet was a rare event at my old experiment, so I paged in a couple of tech dudes to help me out. With trepidation, we approached the crate where we had to ramp up the current to the solenoid. God, I was sweating bullets. I remember trying everything I could think of to ramp up the current, to no avail (all the while thinking “jesus I hope I don’t fuck something up and melt the solenoid while I’m messing around here”). Finally top people at the experiment were paged and they finally arrived after half an hour (meanwhile all 4 LEP experiments were sitting idle because they couldn’t start data taking until we got out magnet ramped up…a half hour wasted when there is available beam amounts to a *lot* of money down the drain).

    Anyway, the big cheeses arrived and after some mucking around confirmed there was an actual serious problem (thus saving me from being forever labelled as incompetent). It took them quite a while to fix it.

    However, on the electronic log of the beams division, it was my name listed as the person sent up to manually ramp the magnet, so I had to deal with people I know from all 4 experiments giving me a hard time over the following week (delays of over half an hour when beam is ready are serious no-no’s, and are unforgivable if they are due to sheer incompetence). Luckily they all know from the e-logs that the problem turned out to be serious and not my fault, so they were just teasing.

    I am so glad to this day I didn’t melt that freaking solenoid.

  8. #8 A. Mad Scientist
    December 3, 2006

    I once had a field project during my Ph D. studies in which I was trying to stain mosquitoes during development in outdoor ponds with Giemsa stain- This experiment required me to mix 4 liters of Giemsa concentrate- which is a hell of a lot of stain. The stain crystals were supposed to be dissolved in 50% Glycerol and 50% Ethanol (or maybe it was methanol) with heating. My Ph D. advisor who never was any help to me, but a very demanding fellow none the less, insisted that I show off some tapes I made during my research the previous summer. He dragged me off to the meeting and forced a student worker to watch it while I was gone. When I came back about 90 m later, the stuff hadn’t yet mixed but unbeknowst to me, the student had turned the heat on the hot plate up because the stuff didn’t mix. Thus, by this time the glycerol on the bottom was much hotter than the upper alcohol phase and quite a bit hotter than the alcohol’s boiling point. When I turned on the stirrer the entire contents of the giant ehrlenmeyer flask quickly mixed, causing the hot glycerol on the bottom to contact the alcohol phase. The alcohol vaporized causing the entire contents to erupt out of the mouth like a Giemsa Vesuvius. It splattered on the ceiling and everywhere else in the room and stained it (and myself) mottled purple. It took me the rest of the day to sop up most of the giemsa stain. There was still some there when I left for Berkeley two years later. Needless to say, this incident did not engender good relations with my major prof. But nobody was hurt.

  9. #9 PhysioProf
    December 3, 2006

    “I’ve never understood the almost-exclusively-male fascination with anything that explodes.”

    The men and women in my graduate school lab both enjoyed rolling dry ice-in-an-Eppendorf-tube explosive devices under unsuspecting labmates’ benches.

  10. #10 85bugz
    December 6, 2006

    I was pretty careful around lab stuff and I never thought accidents were funny.

    I see what the jr. high school teacher was trying to do. He was trying to explain the concept that “the dose makes the poison.” Toxicology is an important subject and too many people believe in the “zero threshold” theory that even microscopic quantities of “everything” are poisonous.

    That being said…

    I would _never_ tell reckless and idiotic 7th and 8th-graders [yes, 95% of kids that age are IDIOTS] about cyanide, though. The less that 8th graders know about compounds with LD50s around 4 mg/kg the better.

  11. #11 Pygmy Loris
    December 6, 2006

    I’m a new reader (from Pharyngula), but I’ve got a lab experiment gone awry story.

    My high school chemistry teacher loved “creative” labs. For our final one semester, she had us burning cheese puffs to determine how many calories are in a cheese puff. Sounds innocent doesn’t it?

    Here’s where it goes bad: We were supposed to light the cheese puffs on fire while holding them on lab tongs. If you’ve ever lit a cheese puff on fire you would know that the little buggers drip grease like crazy, so our teacher had us put paper towels under the burning cheese puffs to absorb the grease. Being my clumsy self, I dropped three fiery cheese puffs onto a grease soaked stack of paper towels that went up in a giant blaze of glory. Luckily my lab partner was quick with the fire extiguisher, and put the fire our before the alarms even went off, but it freaked me out pretty bad.

    BTW watching the grease drip off of those cheese puffs made me never want to eat another one ever again!

    There was also the time we made methane bubbles and lit them on fire, but that’s another story.