Category Archives: Lab

Just another evening among scientists

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One of the things I love about my life in Sweden, is the fact that I’m surrounded by academics almost 24/7. This by all means doesn’t imply that my friends and family back home are stupid, but there is just something about scientists and their sense of humor that makes a conversation that little bit more challenging. So yesterday, during the post-symposium free pizza-bar, I wrote down some of the jewels that made us crack up, but might have had any non-scientist in the company frown their eye-brows.

  • One of the PhD-students wanted another piece of pizza and although she preferred a Napolitana pizza that was on the next table, she settled for a Margarita that sat on our table because “the distance-to-taste ratio was more favorable” for the latter.
  • Another PhD student is Serbian, and we were joking on how former Yugoslavia seemed to keep falling apart, with new countries separating every year: “the half-life of Serbia is shorter than that of beryllium-8”.
    (in reference to radio-active decay) 
  • Our oldest professor has volunteered to be a mammalian cell-donor to anyone who finds him should he drop dead in the lab. One condition: he is to be second author on the paper when any results coming from his cells are published.
    (a number of groups in our lab use mammalian cells for experimentations. everyone who has contributed to a scientific discovery, gets a mention as an ‘author’ when the discovery is published – the higher in the author ranking, the higher the contribution was)
Rattler Wooden Puzzle

Image by dump9x via Flickr

  • We have a series of these little wooden brain teasers in our coffee rooms. When one of the guys finally managed to put one together, he exclaimed: “I conquered entropy!”.
    (entropy, in its simplest explanation, is a measure for the degree of chaos and solving a puzzle creates order from chaos.)
  • One student was talking about a former teacher of his, who was apparently very… curvy… . They had determined an estimation of her actual weight, not by putting her on a scale, but by studying the bending of the light caused by her body.
    (Einstein predicted that objects of large enough mass can bend light – this is used in astronomy to calculate masses for planets etc.)

The light-bending effects of a black hole.

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My week

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Monday
Experienced true friendship firsthand when a couple of Spaniards threw me in the Baltic Sea. One gave me his dry clothes (I didn’t have spare ones), the other drove me home, so we’re all good.

Tuesday
I discovered the Draco Trilogy, a 2000-page Harry Potter fanfiction. Draco Dormiens and Draco Sinister are right up there with the canon works, that’s for sure. It leads to a strange fascination with Tom Felton and Draco Malfoy.

Draco Malfoy in A Very Potter Sequel. I'd say (s)he's cuter than the original one, what you?

Wednesday
My EMBO-scholarship application (the one with the interview with the scary professor in England) is denied. My funds run out in August and because I’m not entitled to unemployment benefits going back to Belgium will mean moving back in with my parents.

Thursday
The lack of sleep (see Tuesday) hits me during the wrong time of the month, and an early-morning meeting with my PI ends up in me running out of the building, crying. Tip for those who make a runner in the rain: take either your mobile phone, your key card, your house keys or an umbrella with you, otherwise your options are extremely limited.

Friday
I get been awarded the Lawrkis scholarship I applied for 3 weeks ago. I get to stay another year in Sweden and don’t have to move in with my parents come September. On top of that, the repeat-meeting goes (more or less) smoothly, and my PI is happy with me.

Didn't have the top. Or the blonde hair. Or the body. But I got the tattoos! (via Flickr, kyleburning)

Saturday
An American friend organizes a “Think Pink!” party. I buy the first bottle of nail polish I have ever owned in a bright, shiny pink, and use a permanent black marker to draw P!nk’s tattoos on my ankles, arms, and neck. My brilliant impersonation of P!nk gives me the prize for most original interpretation of the theme: pink lipstick. Yes, first lipstick I have ever owned.

Sunday
I haven’t practiced accordeon, I haven’t cleaned up the apartment, I haven’t cooked, and I haven’t caught up on my Reader and the e-mails I am to reply to. But I wrote another story and spent a Lazy Sunday once more.

 
Yes, I’d say, overall it has been a good week.

Me and my laptop

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So yesterday, I bought a bike. The last one got stolen somewhere last fall, but with the snowy season kicking in early last year, I never really bothered to get a new one. Well, that and I was kinda getting tight on the budget. But we’ve had great weather the last couple of weeks here, and even apart from that I was getting real tired of walking everywhere. It’s fecking time-consuming, I’m telling ya.

Anyways. Yesterday was not a good time to buy a bike. At least, not yesterday between 5 and 6 pm.

See, I was happily rejoicing in my newly acquired possession (a black bike! with 21 gear! and decent breaks instead of back-pedal! and a slightly unstable pedal, but anyway, it was only 700 SEK), and walking back to the lab (don’t have a decent lock yet… I’m not taking any chances this time), when this suddenly crossed my path.

I thought it was quite exciting. A crime scene on University grounds. I felt like Morse. Or Frost. Or De Cock. With C-O-C-K*.

So I took a detour to get to the entrance to my building, but it only got better. Firetrucks. And firefighters. And policemen. Cute ones, at that. EVERYWHERE.

Turns out the ventilation broke down in one of the wings, and the whole department had been evacuated, nobody was allowed in. Which is good. Because you don’t want people running around in a building full of chemicals but without ventilation. Only, and I am trying to say this in the calmest way possible…

MY LAPTOP WAS IN THERE!

I have very consciously decided not to get a tv here, because I felt I was watching too much of it, only to have my full focus turned to my laptop. It is my alarm in the morning, my radio, my writing sanctuary, my phone, and my connection to the outside world (i.e. it gives me internet). In other words: it’s my everything. Without my internet laptop, I am nothing. I need it like I need oxygen.

And I was not allowed to go get it.

Clearly, they didn’t know me yet. I’m not much of a troublemaker, but I’m stubborn as hell. I got security at Rock Werchter to break the rules just for me without uttering a single word, and I’d do it again.

And thus I went back there every hour. Until they let me in.

They finally caved.

Love to say, I told ya so.

I couldn’t stop my experiment though so that failed miserably, but who cares about a week’s work? I had my laptop back.

And everything was right in the world.

*It’s from a Dutch crime series, in which the main detective always spells his name when introducing himself. “My name is De Cock. With C-O-C-K.” It doesn’t mean the same in Dutch, by the way. The first two are British, should you not be familiar. I should find analogies that are more internationally usable.

Heart attack. On. The. Spot.

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So, I was gonna take it easy here… keep it light, after my rant of last week. Get back in the routine, I almost even had a post prepared and all. In my head, obviously (who writes drafts, anyways?).

And then this happened.

Dear ———————-

I am happy to inform you that your application for an EMBO long term fellowship has been selected for an interview and sent to:

Dr. Gideon J. Davies
Department of Chemistry
York Structural Biology Laboratory
University of York
Heslington
York YO10 5DD
United Kingdom
Tel +44-1904-328260
Fax +44-1904-328266
davies@ysbl.york.ac.uk

Please contact your interviewer directly to arrange an appointment.

You should use second class rail to travel to your interview or, if a one-way journey is longer than 8 hours, an economy air fare. If you travel by car, please include an estimate of the cost of the journey by second class rail; this will be the amount reimbursed by EMBO. The daily rate EMBO pays for accommodation and meal costs during an interview in the United Kingdom is EURO 75.48. If an overnight stay is involved, EMBO will pay a complete daily rate, up to a maximum of two daily rates.

If your travel costs are likely to exceed EURO 500, please contact the EMBO office before booking.

Please note that the deadline for the interview is 13 May 2011.

Best wishes

Liselott

GASP.

So, to provide some context – in science, at university, you rarely get employed by university itself, rather you are paid externally by grants, foundations, … which you apply for and which provides you money for yourself, for a project, … . The money can be for a few months, for a year, but never (rarely?) more than 4 years. So basically, in science you are constantly balancing searching for scientific answers and searching for money.
My money runs out in august, and thus last February I applied at 2 organizations (success rates are somewhere between 10-30%, so you kinda have to bet on several horses). One of them, EMBO, is a highly competitive one (good money, if you know what I mean…) and for this call the first round consists of a written application, and selected applicants then go through a second round: an interview with an expert on the topic.

In all fairness, I didn’t expect much from it. It’s the first application I ever wrote – in under 5 days, at that – and as there are literally 1000s of people applying… no way. Just… no way.

But there you go! I miraculously made it through the first round and get to interview! It just made my day until I saw the name of my interviewer…

Gideon Davies.

Gideon Freaking Davies.

That is… daunting.

Imagine you’re applying for a grant in English literature, and your interviewer would be Jane Eyre.
Or for a grant in Applied Physics and you have to defend your project to Albert Einstein.

Thát kind of dauntingness (<- proof I never took English lit, lol).

I'm not even belittling myself for the sakes of getting encouragement, I'm just stating a fact here – I have. no. chance :o.

Gonna be fun though ;).

Has anyone seen …

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Apparently, there is something about Mondays in the last week of January. They’re blue.

Who knew?

Blu Monday, which occurs during the last full week of January, is supposed to be the most depressing time of the year because, generally, one or more of the following occur: a) the weather sucks; b) New Year’s resolutions have failed; c) motivation is at an all-time low since the next holiday is SO far away; and d) the Christmas tree has gone. The exact formula, by Cliff Arnall, is total nonsense, as is the concept – but you have to admit it has a nice ring to it and since there is nothing new to report (in Belgium the government is … still non-existent, the floods … are still there, the flu … also), it makes for a good easy-read article.

Now, some say Blue Monday was yesterday. Others say it is next week. I say: it’s a whole bloody Blue Week. (and yes, I can tell only 2 days down the road)

The reason may seem elusive: the weather is nice, I’m keeping up with my New Year’s resolutions (moaning: check!) and my Christmas stars (didn’t have a tree) are still dangling in front of the window.

But. Something is missing. And I know exactly what.

One like this. But pink. And prettier. (image via http://www.artfulcookie.com)

In case anyone was wondering why I refer to my girlfriend as “T” (you didn’t really think that was the first letter of her real name, did you?) – I call her Tinkel. Or Tink. Or Tinkerbell. What – she’s blonde!
I got this mug from a friend when I came here so I would have ‘my Tink’ always with me (corny, I know, but what can I say? “Corny” is my middle name …). And up until Christmas break, I did. My faithful hot chocolate coffee mug went wherever I went and I never left her alone, not even in the dishwasher.

But then I did.

And somebody took her.

And despite checking both dishwashers and all the cupboards 3 times a day, she remains missing.

So if my productivity level the past week is any indication of how poorly I function without my mug, you better give it back ASAP. Otherwise I’m afraid my project will have to be cancelled.

1 am smörgåsbord

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It is 1:11 am and guess where I am?

At the lab, that is very correct!

Now, honesty requires me to say that I did go home from around 4 to 9 today (bacteria had to grow… could as well clean up my apartment before I leave than sit and wait in the lab), so I’m really just working my hours… at different hours. And thanks to hormones, once or twice a month I get a special no-sleep-required night, how convenient is that?

So before I gather my courage to walk home through the snow, so here are some random thoughts I wanted to share in case I don’t get near a computer before I get back from Christmas Holidays:

  • Not having internet at home for 6 days straight sucks. I fear I might have to conclude I’m an addict.
  • I got inspired by the Tomterna I made during Jane’s birthday challenge, and decided to make my own Tomte-christmas cards. I’m feeling very crafty and country now.
  • I managed to get my DNA sucked up tonight. It was one out of 4 samples, which basically means 25% of my work down the drain. To top it off I almost dropped DNA sample #2 on the floor. Losing DNA on the floor is like losing contact lenses: very hard to spot and impossible to get clean afterwards.
  • Fortunately, the pellet didn’t fall out of the tube. As an added bonus, it was mutated. 3 mutants done (unverified though… cross your fingers), 3 to go.
  • I’ll be spending Christmas Eve alone this year. My family now knows how much I’m prepared to spend to be with them – not much, lol. I will by flying on Saturday morning though.
  • Some people say there will be 10 cm of snow in Copenhagen on Friday. I hope they’re wrong.
  • I kept postponing going to the alcohol-shop to buy Swedish gluhwein for the people back home. Now if I go tomorrow the place will be PACKED.
  • I am starting crystallization trials on a colleague’s protein at MAX-LAB tomorrow. It is actually more impressing than it sounds.
  • I sorted all my pics of the last 8 years, backed them up, burnt them on a cd (in case the external hard disk got stolen), sorted my .mp3 files, … . That part of this was done during working hours is not too guilt-inducing now I got might have a new mutant.
  • I’ve been having great fun with the Ikea home planner. Although it might be another year-and-a-half before I can start my renovation plans, I have decided : it will be lime green. Oh yeah.
  • At any temperature below -5ºC, the right way of dressing is a pair of thick trousers AND long underwear and/or socking pants.
  • My professor missed his bus by seconds today because he was counting on it being late. Maybe I have what it takes for professor-hood after all.
  • My arms are too long. Or all sweaters are too-short-sleeved.
  • My fingers are too long. There is no lab glove that ever fits.
  • 2 am is a good time to go home. Being late for an appointment at MAX-LAB cannot be good.

I am not giving myself any schedule for the upcoming holidays (I’ll be home for 2 weeks), rather I’m just gonna try something else and post whenever I feel like it. Or not. It’s an experiment. We’ll see how it goes. In either case : merry christmas, happy new year, enjoy the holidays and don’t forget to close off the decade in style.

Städdag (aka cleaning day)

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Today was “städdag” at work, aka cleaning day. Apparently, next week we will have inspection and everything should be clean and tidy which, in a biochemistry lab, isn’t exactly… easy.

Many people have this idea about scientists and their lab where it is always dirty, with dust piling up on old equipment, mold growing in the fridges, bacterial cultures and reagents which have been standing there for years, desks piling with articles and grant applications, … .

I will tell you this: it is all true.

My working space... it only looks this nice after cleaning day.

I have worked in 4 labs until now, and it has been the same everywhere I went. In theory everything is perfectly organized, but reality shows a different picture … . I don’t know where this stems from: whether we are just so occupied with our work we don’t have time to clean, whether we are immune for dirt and just ignore it, or whether it is simply because we have to clean our own desks. The thing is: in most companies there are cleaning ladies/gentlemen who take care of the hygienic situation at work and who clean the desks etc. In a lab, however, that is not possible. You cannot simply throw everything out in the sink or the bin, go over it with a sponge and that’s that – there’s some toxic substances around, which should be disposed of properly, and other substances which are not exactly toxic, but could cause trouble when mixed. Basically, you need a masters degree to be able to clean up a lab. In others words: we need to do it ourselves. And thus, every so often, a day is organized on which everybody puts on their lab coats, disposes of molded cultures, old buffers, and cleans up a drawer or two (the rest is for next time).

We had to be in the lab at 9. I woke up at 9.45. I’ve always been great at making good impressions on crucial days. So, to make up for my being late, I took on the kitchen. And whoever thinks that was the easiest part in the lab, think again. We found cereals that expired in 2002 (I must have been in kindergarten when those where bought), and some Tupperware boxes have been thrown directly in the bin: there is no way they could have been sanitized ever again, and I’m pretty sure inhalation of the spores of whatever was inside would have had us landed in hospital had we dared to open them.

Anyway, we survived (and got free pizza from the department for lunch!), but I just hope the inspection here is not half as strict as it was back in Ghent, cause I don’t think we would pass… .

But best of all – tonight I finally managed to ask my professor about Christmas holidays: I was planning on taking the last week of December and come back January 3rd because he didn’t seem too happy on me taking a week of to be with T last time, and I didn’t want to piss him off… but he suggested himself I’d take the first week of January also because, well, nobody would be in the lab anyway. So I’ll actually have TWO WEEKS of Christmas holidays! Yey for me!

That’s what the “re” stands for

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I like my job, I really do. I won’t go as far as to say I love it – I don’t feel I have the experience (yet?) to be confident in what I’m doing, or even why, and as a result I’ve got this constant nervousness flowing through my veins whenever I’m at work, half expecting somebody to show up anytime, grab me in the neck and pull me out of the lab, shouting: “How many times have I told you not to play around with grown-up experiments?!?”. It keeps me from really enjoying, and loving, my job.

But still, I like it. I like it enough to spend 12+ hours a day in the lab if I feel it’s worth it, if I’m onto something.

And this week, I felt it. I’m working on introducing a specific mutation into a gene (for those of you opposed against GMO’s and the like, hold your comments, I’m trying to make biofuel here!) and I had been fumbling around with this PCR for a couple of weeks now, which really should’ve been a piece of cake to begin with, and finally managed to get it to work. At least, “something” was produced. Whether it was my gene or even whether I got it to mutate, I was about to find out.

I let you guess.

It didn’t mutate.

It should look like this...

but instead, it looks like this...

The worst part is, I have no idea WHY. I included all the controls, excluded all variables, and there is just no friggin’ way that it could’ve gone wrong. But it did.

So I’ll redo it.

Or as my former advisor would say: “That’s what the ‘re’ in ‘research’ stands for.”.

A new beginning

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So today was my first day at the new lab. The first day of a new beginning. My first post doc.

As I was walking to the Information Desk this morning my heart was pounding. Why was I there, anyway? What the hell was I thinking, where the hell was my head when I decided to do a post doc, let alone a post doc abroad? Why didn’t anyone stop me?
They should’ve stopped me.
But time was ticking, and at 10:29am I had no choice – Swedes apparently invented punctuality so the last thing I wanted to do was make a bad impression by being late. I introduced myself. Henrik came to fetch me. No way back.

(as if there was any way I could’ve backed out before)

I still don’t know whether I’m up to this, this post doc-thing. It felt so weird, Henrik introducing me to everyone as if I were someone with experience, an added value to the lab. I am not so sure I am. I’m so… green. Inexperienced. So insecure.

So many things need to be done – register at Skåtteverket, file for a personnummer, get a bank account, read articles (by tomorrow!), finish my articles from back home (2 of those, plus 11 structures, …). Meanwhile keep the fridge filled, learn Swedish. Be a good post doc.

Oh hell.

This is never gonna work.