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.