Tales from the Hood: what really goes on in research labs?

This is just the first in a series “Tales from the hood” about the stories of the stem cell scientists at the front lines of research.

What really goes on in  labs?


After spending nearly half of my life being a scientist in one form or another including much time studying stem cells, I have seen a lot of crazy things in the lab. I blogged about one of them (my flooding my graduate lab with water) here in A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To the Incubator.

Scientists in all fields work long hours and often into the night and on weekends, but the stem cell field is arguably a lot more intense and frenetic than most.

One reason for that is the very nature of stem cells.

Stem cells don’t care what time it is, what day it is, or what holiday it might be.

They want their fresh media as they are hooked on growth factors such as FGF big time.


They want to be with each other, but not too tightly packed into their dish.

What this all means is that stem cell scientists have to be willing to baby their stem cells including changing their media, sometimes every day. So while the scientist who works down the hall might be asleep at home in bed with visions of sugar moieties dancing in their heads on Christmas, the stem cell scientist might very well be in the tissue culture room that night giving their human stem cells tender care.

So one thing that goes on in labs, often late at night or early in the morning, is dedicated scientists working to keep their cells happy and get their experiments done as fast as they can do them well.

Sometimes poor sleep-deprived scientists can find themselves in strange, even frightening situations though.

I recall one very early morning as a technician at UCSD I came in to get a long experiment started early. I was a bit sleepy and sort of half-awake walked into the small lab I was working in at that time. I got all the way into the middle of the lab before I realized that my shoes were making a splashing noise and that got me wide awake instantly. I found myself completely surrounded in the lab by a few inches of some unknown liquid on the floor.

Bad, very bad.

For you see, in a science lab, an unknown liquid could be almost anything including things that are very dangerous.

I surveyed the surroundings and a slowly dripping, but very enormous carboy (a large plastic container for storing liquids) on a shelf caught my eye. It was one of the type that holds dozens of liters, it was almost entirely empty, and it was labeled with what was a very simple, yet terrifying name to me given the circumstances:

10N NaOH

What does that mean?

It means highly concentrated sodium hydroxide–the kind of stuff people use to dissolve human corpses leaving only the skeleton behind on TV shows–surrounded me in the lab. I was like my own small island in a sea of a liquid that ferociously burns human skin and tissue.

I said some unrepeatable things and slowly tiptoed my way out of the lab…thinking “what if I slip? What if I slip?”

I escaped the lab and called EH&S, who promptly arrived in Hazmat Suits to spend many hours cleaning up the lab and neighboring labs as the liquid seeped through the walls. Then of course there was the worry about it seeping through the floor to the space in the basement.

You might say I was mad at the dumbbells who had put that carboy there, but that would be an understatement.

Stayed tuned for more posts in this series of the crazy, frightening, weird things that can happen in labs.