Strangest things I’ve seen & heard in research lab

Being in a research lab feels like hanging out in a second home to me.

Maybe that’s because I’ve spent more than half of my life working in labs. Being a scientist has its challenges. However, at times it’s very exciting such as when a discovery is made. The lab can kind of buzz with new data.

Admittedly, some of the labs I have spent time in weren’t very homey.elephant in the lab, science lab, research lab

There can be a certain level of humor in labs too.

Unusual things may happen or be said in the lab, which can be amusing. At least to us scientists. I’ve seen and heard some strange things over the years. Some are funny, but others are more just strange.

While no elephant has made an appearance in any lab that I’ve been in, years ago I wrote a series of humor pieces on the “elephant in the lab” that has resonated with readers over the years. That series’ focus is on difficult topics in labs, but most of the posts have a satirical or humorous tone. Some of them are slightly cringey too.

In today’s post I’m focusing specifically on odd & humorous things I’ve heard or seen in research labs.

Can you find the Golgi apparatus in the research lab?

Someone once told me that when they’re interviewing undergrads for potential lab positions they have a special question. They ask the candidates to “point out the Golgi apparatus” in the lab like it was a piece of equipment. That’s tough, right?

An impressive answer would be something like, “let’s go to the scope and look at some cells that been stained such that you can see the Golgi.”

Just concentrated NaOH…all over the floor

One morning I came into the lab as a tech at UCSD in the 90s and felt my tennis shoes squishing on a few inches of liquid in the lab.

“What the heck is that?” I wondered.

Later a tech from another lab came in and said, “Oh, that’s just our concentrated NaOH” that leaked out of the 20L carboy on a shelf.

Just concentrated NaOH? Isn’t that the stuff they use to prepare skeletons by dissolving the rest of the body?

What if I had slipped and fallen in it? Cue the institutional hazmat team, which came and started the cleanup.

I guess the bottoms of my tennis shoes were really clean at least.

Research lab shifts

A famous lab occasionally popped up on our radar in the 90s.

One time maybe we got a plasmid from them or vice versa. Another time I went over there to talk about a protocol. The lab manager casually mentioned that someone else had her desk and bench starting at 5pm. She said, “We have a day and a night shift since we don’t have enough space for everyone.”

Okay, great message there to trainees: “If you really want to work in our super-duper special lab then you should be willing to work at night and sleep during the day.”

Some labs feel more like factories. Another question is whether one mentor can effectively function for 25 or 30 trainees?


One time when I was a tech, someone held up a Western blot with results they didn’t like. As a joke they grabbed a Sharpie and said they’d “fix” it.

Nowadays that’d probably not go over well. Back then it just seemed goofy. At that point I didn’t imagine that there were people who committed major research misconduct by changing their data.

Parafilm is the best

A colleague back in my trainee days once told me that they felt that Parafilm was the greatest invention in lab research accessory history.

It’s great stuff, but the greatest?

Do you have a favorite thing in the lab? It might be hard to pick but I do love the simple power of PCR machines.

Refuge from PI

Long ago I sometimes would go to a core facility lab room to get something or talk to the tech there about plans.

Fairly often, I’d see some of the same people from another lab there. They’d be playing video games on the computer or just doing random stuff. Finally, I asked them how it was going.

Their reply gave me pause, “We’re just hiding from our PI.”

They were serious.

Lab meeting or wrestling match?

In a research lab you typically have a weekly lab meeting. At the first such lab meeting that I attended as a new postdoc one of the existing postdocs was presenting. He and another postdoc got into a tense argument during the presentation. I would call it a verbal fight. This was over specific conclusions of certain data and such. No punches were thrown but voices were raised and it was extremely tense.

I wondered, “Is this how the lab meetings go in this lab?”

It wasn’t, thankfully. However, generally lab meetings there were intense. Sometimes above and beyond the Socratic method.

What are the strangest or funniest things you’ve seen, heard, or otherwise experienced in the lab?

I might add more to this post.

1 thought on “Strangest things I’ve seen & heard in research lab”

  1. Thank you for putting these fun stories up…they brought some great laughter and memories to an otherwise dismal day I was having !!!

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