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Mistakes in the lab

Experiences in the lab tells me that a slight mistake can cost you big. For example, while I was in graduate school, my labmates all work on dating rocks with the cosmogenic nuclide of beryllium-10, while I worked on a nutrient cycle in order to understand the fate of beryllium-10 in organic materials. My samples were really, really high in 10Be compared to theirs, so “even one microdrop” could cause major issues for my colleagues through any route of contamination. When someone in the lab had been careless with acid, and the professor has looked at me in panic. If there is any way my samples could have gotten on or in anything, it would definitely be bad all around. He didn’t come right out and point fingers at anyone, but you can tell from his now constant baby-sitting in the lab it is a pretty serious situation.

This situation in our lab made me think of the various ways I was trained to prevent cross contamination. In most academic labs,  each lab has it’s own set of important rules and how to prevent contamination. However, on the whole, it has been a lot of learning as I go. For instance, in the NASA lab we were worried about contaminating old samples with new, so we just threw away old stuff as we finished up. In the soils lab I worked in, you had to be careful not to mix the samples, but more importantly, never to get anything near the standards that could contaminate them, giving false readings. And, in my graduate student lab, there was my samples that could contaminate everything else. The one theme that was present in all these labs is that they never taught me what was a mistake and what wasn’t. Instead,  I didn’t find out until after the mistake is made. Granted, it was only after that the mistake took place that they bothered to teach me how to prevent it. Thus, most of us in science learn how to fix our mistakes very, very quickly and efficiently.

Using my own experience as a background, I’ve wondered if there is a way I can teach my students at the museum how to think ahead and prepare for such problems, as well as how to take it mentally and emotionally. Not all people react the same. The first time someone told me I made a mistake and it costs the samples, I nearly broke down out of sheer frustration later. The first thought I still have every time though is ‘how am I to know this if you don’t tell me before hand this is a potential problem?!’ Now, I know it isn’t fair to blame the one training you, but communication shouldn’t come belatedly. On the other hand, there has to be a way to train the student/lab worker how to recognize when cross contamination is even remotely possible.

I, personally, have two ways I can help the situation for future situations. I work at a museum with little ones, and I can start to teach them in subtle ways that it is okay to make mistakes, and good ways to go about handling it. This coming term I’ll be working with middle school students as well, so I’ll be able to help them start recognizing when a potential situation may cause cross contamination, and how to prevent it in easy ways, such as using cleaning tools properly. I hope these two little things help working relationships in the future.

Now, I’m the CEO of a research and development firm and I oversee various types of research. I talk to the heads of the departments and remind them how important it is to have this type of discussion with new people. It may not amount to much, but knowing something can cost you your samples — or worse — is the first step to prevention. After that, it’s knowing how to prevent the problems from rising up. Only after the steps of prevention have been taken should steps of correction be implemented. Not only is it more efficient this way, but it just makes more sense.

Featured image: Chemistry accident by ~shadows-soaring on Deviant Art