Work in a modern biochemistry lab has its good sides and bad sides – like most workplaces. On the other hand, people who have never worked in a ‘laboratory’ (which is most of us) may be surprised by some subtle, and not so subtle, differences between the lab and other places of work. For example, most other workplaces don’t feature a number of interesting ways in which to get yourself killed or make you very sick. For many biochemistry labs, working with highly toxic fluids and materials is simply what they do. The nature of the work can be very demanding for both care and precision. The tolerance for mistakes is limited. This makes crazy fellow workers a particular liability.
Unfortunately, even the most level-headed scientists and lab technicians suffer periodically from what is sometimes called ‘lab rat fever.’ It’s a form of cabin fever, of being locked into a small space for a long period of time with no end to a project in sight. The onset of lab-rat-fever (LRF) is often difficult to detect. Mild forms of misbehavior are common in labs, and are often caused by improperly ventilating fume hoods, too much coffee, or the lack of sunlight exposure (i.e. never leaving the lab during daylight hours). However, as LRF progresses, the symptoms become more pronounced. Here are some sample warning signs:
- A lab worker suddenly screams, “Don’t touch my Petri dish! I swear to (some personally relevant deity), I’ll kill you if you even look at my Petri dish again!” (Note that much biochemistry lab work is done with Petri dishes, those shallow lidded glass containers on which is spread a layer of agar, on top of which grows the really icky stuff.)
- A lab worker begins placing yellow sticky-notes in strategic positions around the lab as a way of marking territory.
- Someone taking a coffee break under their lab-bench (sitting position is even more confirming). Taking lunches in the same manner may require immediate intervention.
- Finding a worker with their upper torso deep into the dumpster out back and muttering, “No, no! Come back! I miss you….”
- It becomes obvious that a person has just spent all day trying to pick the best color background for demonstration slides.
- Someone who requires sunglasses if the lab curtains are opened during daylight.
- A fellow worker who likes to jiggle your recording thermometer, just to make you think you have a spike.
- A lab worker who autoclaves your pens and pencils, ‘for safety’s sake.’
- Someone who never hears a lab timer go off because they’re constantly wearing headphones and listening to Elton John (…and only Elton John).
- A lab technician who is trying to program a mass spectrometer with his iPad (or other Apple appliance). (A ‘mass-spec’ is one of the most costly and sophisticated digital machines in any lab. Usually specialists do the programming.)
- A lab administrator who constantly checks to see that electric instruments are turned off when a run is over.
As you can see, the range of symptoms is large. In fact, laboratory people can be quite unwittingly inventive in expression of LRF. This may also distinguish the lab workplace from many others although working in a stock market may be similar. On the other hand, a stock broker suffering from a type of LRF rarely kills anyone directly. Hopefully this provides you with some insight into what makes biochemistry such an interesting field in which to work.