Tuesday, July 28, 2009

not a herpetologist, not a physiologist... cue identity crisis!

It’s official – I am not a physiologist! I spent the morning doing lab work, and had some major pipette issues (you know, those cool colour-coded thingies like they have on CSI?) Well I pipette stuff almost every day I’m doing data collection, but accuracy isn’t really all that important because when you’re taking a sample you kind of want the maximum from your sample (once it’s been centrifuged) so it’s more about getting it all out of there…

So this morning, besides my typical oversleeping and being cranky until after about cup 3 of strong coffee I had to sort through all my blood samples, while having a conversation with some random who was walking past and hearing an ex-lecturer go on about thermal gradient in my head (if your samples are in a minus-70 degree freezer, they warm up insanely fast when you take them out, which leads to me scrambling through my thousand-odd samples (fine, 600) to find number 612a_w/x_spring before the rest of them thaw. Fortunately besides having a numbering system that makes no sense to anyone but me, I pack them away in sections so it’s slightly faster than what most people have to do!).

And then with the strike going on of course South African motorists have to gawk and crash into the cars in front of them so I had to dodge two accidents to get to medschool, by which time I had poured coffee all over myself, but managed to avoid it getting near my samples, but then I nearly had an accident in the parking lot when some little soon-to-be-doctor darling came screeching around a corning at about 60km/h, saw me braking to avoid her and burst out laughing at me. What is the world coming to? And so I ran off to the turnstiles to get onto campus and…well... I was carrying two boxes of equipment, my laptop, a coolerbag with blood samples and a normal bag. I got stuck. The turnstile kind of turned halfway and stopped and nothing I did could move it.

Of course the security guard who had been glowering at me a second before miraculously vanished, but some nice students (also medics, which confuses me. They’re not supposed to be nice…) stopped to help. The problem was that our cards will only wipe once for exit or entry and they get denied after that (cuts down on the sneaking friends in and so on) and so they couldn’t help me without getting stuck… finally someone got fed up and used her card, only to be trapped in education campus for all eternity (or at least half an hour) by which stage I thanked her profusely and left her there (I was already late!)

Of course I had to go through another turnstile before I could get into med-school, but the security guard reappeared (I think it was the same one) and let me through the other side so it was ok.

Anyway the guy who is letting me use his lab is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met and he basically took me up to his lab, showed me where everything was, helped me to get started planning and left me to it. It was quite scary as I suddenly noticed exactly how many things I do wrong in a lab (now that it actually matters, fortunately today is a trial run). I also realised that I am SUCH a zoologist. Physiologists are all lab-coated and gloved up and I find it so tedious. I’ll do it, if just to avoid the lovely radioactive stuff I’m working with, but I hate it.
I’ve never known a zoologist to wear a lab coat willingly, except for Luke’s case but that involved working with dung, so of course that changes things. I wear mine if I’m teaching or if I’m doing something really disgusting – although not always – the best part of teaching a dissection is that you get to wipe your hands o the nearest student. As for gloves… it’s fun once or twice, but having fingers that smell and taste like latex gets old pretty darn quickly. The only time I wore them willingly was when we were de-fleshing a mildly decomposing mole-rat to get the skeleton out…

I also quite like the fact that in zoology you face simple dangers – being bitten by a test subject, catching a weird tropical disease or picking up an exciting gut parasite. My doctor has his textbooks ready whenever I make an appointment and I can recite symptoms and treatments for most of the more common zoology-linked ailments in English and Afrikaans. I can deal with these things; I’ve been doing it for years. Working with things that are toxic and/or radioactive… I worry when I realise that I may have to face the consequences in a decade or two when we find out that it was FAR more dangerous than we’d thought…

Physiology is scary – there’s also the fact that I’m working with amounts that barely even register. I’m talking 1/50th of a millilitre – that’s like 1 percent of a teaspoon. So making a tiny little error can really mess my results up. And as nobody has ever worked on my lizards before there is no way of checking if I’m messing up or not. No pressure!

And of course, there’s the simple and obvious fact- lab work is boring. Mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly, boring. Give me a rock face with a sneaky lizard any day! And once you finish with pipetting over and over and over and over, while trying to keep track of everything and take notes and not let things thaw or freeze or explode (I have bad karma around breakable things) you get to sit and wait for it to incubate. For three hours! THREE HOURS! And of course with the strike and the traffic and silly students there’s no point in going back to main campus so I had my lunch with the medics (cringe) and set up my laptop in the lab.

Thanks for keeping me entertained guys! Now I have to do some reall work… only an hour before I get to try to avoid blowing things up again!

Oh and I went spinning with a friend alst night and it was totally not as bad as everyone said! i think I work harder when I cycle on my own though, none of those pesky rest periods... and it's Tai chi day! I've got the form I'm learning on my ipod now so I'm hoping the learning will go faster this time :) w00t!


SuvvyGirl said...

I always hated disecting things in school because it had all been soaked in formaldihyde (I know i didn't spell that right but I just don't care at the moment). I had a lab partner that smoked and cigarette smoke and that stinky stuff do not mix together. Thank goodness I have a strong stomach. I wouldn't have the patience for lab work or the skill not to break and mis measure everything. I wish you luck and karma as you work!! Enjoy Tai Chi!!

EEbEE said...

The worst of my lab work came in the form of Micro bomb calorimetry. The calorimeter was SO fussy. it would only take 0.005 grams of dried faecal matter at a time and throw a fit for every third sample or so... It was also anal about room temperature. just a bit too cold and you would get 'ERR003!!! reset everything' (very difficult in a room with no thermostat on the aircon)

took me the better part of a week to run around 300 samples.

I feel your pain...

po said...

Ah yeah, you are describing my daily life here. We lab rats should let you in on a secret though; when it says 20ul on the instructions, 10 or 5 or 50 or 100 will do. Lab work is not so unforgiving, and I have to say I often just make stuff up and gooi in random amounts. When it works it is all good, but when it doesn't work it is a bit of a bugger.

Anyway, labcoats are sexy ok ;)

The Mutant said...

Um, lab procedures, pipettes, latex gloves... It's like some crazy alien world to a spanner monkey like me.

I'm engrossed... tell me more!

Helen said...

Suvvygirl: you get used to dissecting, although the smell hits me every time, particularly the inside of a fresh rat... my stomach churns just thinking of it! The formalin/formaldehyde smell isn't too bad, but it makes me hungry for some reason.

EEbEE: I'm glad you've finished with that, it sounds painful!

Po: I think zoologists like to pretend to be the cowboys of science or something equally cheesy, labcoats aren't cool because it stops the interesting bloodstans from seeping nto your clothes! Thanks for the advice though!And the lab coat I'm wearing is AWESOME! It's the biggest one I've ever seen, I have to roll the sleeves up halfway to see my fingers at all and it comes down to my ankles (well almost). It's amazing!

Mutant: I'd be glad to keep you entertained and educated! What do you want to know?