Tag Archives: lab

Just another evening among scientists


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.

Me and my laptop


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…


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.



I think (most) people who defend their PhD thesis actually deserve two titles.

A degree in whatever subject they spend 4+ years on studying.

And a PhD in procrastination.

I myself am surprised I still haven’t received tenure for a procrastination position, since I have perfected the art of procrastination and single handedly brought it to a whole new level. I rarely answer an e-mail within 24 hours. Just because. If it is an unwanted one I might just plain ignore it. I take the day off to avoid running into my PI. I would rather die from backpain than having to admit that 50kg bag is really too heavy for me, but if my hand hurts even a little I promptly decide I cannot do dishes, laundry or any other household work for a week.

Ok, some of this might be pure avoidance. But still.

I took last Friday off because I had a mail from my former PI to discuss the articles I still have to finish from my PhD which I defended almost a year ago – I wanted to work non-stop on those for 3 days. I also had to clean the apartment, do shopping, think about a project for a research grant due end of this month, and make a schedule for the work that needs to be done for my current project. To begin with.

So here’s what I did: I watched 2 seasons of Dexter, went out to Copenhagen on Friday night and booked a trip to Iceland.

Oh, and I got my sequencing results, which were perfect. Except for the fact I discovered my primers were wrong. If you don’t know what this means, let me translate: the past 5 long, boring, repetitive months of experiments (which shouldn’t have taken longer than a month tops to begin with) were in vain because I misdesigned one of the basic ingredients.

And thus I took today off too (PI avoidance…). And watched half a season of House.

All this to say that I’ll be laying low on the blog-front in the near future, trying to break my procrastination habit and get some stuff done, so as to feel less of a failure (please, don’t even try to say I’m not. I designed the primers. I did the experiments. Blaming this on anything else is nothing short of denial.). I had prepared some posts around the Chinese New Year coming up, I’ll see if I’ll be able to finish them. And after that, you might help me get some ideas for a career change.

Christmas Eve the scientist way


I spent Christmas Eve at the lab. How geeky can you get?


No, seriously, I did spend Christmas Eve in the lab, but it wasn’t (really) by choice. As has been the case since last Friday, my internet connection at home is still broken, and thus the lab is the only place to connect to the world. I could’ve of course stayed home and watched a movie or so, but we decided to make full use of modern-day technology and I ended up spending Christmas Eve at Ts place. Via Skype.

Webcams on on both sides, they actually put the computer at the dinner table so I could join in the conversation, and later dragged ‘me’ along to the salon for the gift exchange ritual. We always (well… the tradition started last year…) do a Secret Santa thing with the whole family (2 parents, 5 kids and 3 gf/bf make it a big enough group to make it fun). The catch is you’re not allowed to buy a present, you have to make it. Since all of them attended hippie school they are pretty good with crafts and the like (they can sing and each play 15 instruments or sth), so I always feel a bit daunted when I see their presents. Last year for example, I knitted a hat for SE – which I was very proud of, since I had never knitted 4 needles before. This year, NE made a tea hat for her sister, including holes for the pout and the handle, with wool she had made herself. Like in, take what comes from the sheep, clean it, turn it into threads, then knit.

This year, my target was YE, the boyfriend of Ts middle sister. He works at customs in the harbor of Antwerp. And he likes to cycle. That’s about all I know about him. Oh, and he doesn’t like sweets, so baking cookies (always the easy way out ;) ) was out of the question. Finally, I came up with this:

I bought the cheapest water bottle I could find and painted it. Maybe not the most masculine gift ever, but I was pretty pleased with the way it came out, especially when he said that he never drinks enough when he goes cycling – so it will be actually useful. Of course, it’s not a candle shaped like St. Francis or a wooden candle holder, or a mosaic mirror. But I tried :).

And then, as the evening drew to a close, I was silly enough to check the Brussels Airlines site to see if there was any news about my flight tomorrow morning. There was :

This is nót what you want to see on Christmas Eve. I completely freaked out and Ts dad almost jumped in the car to come and get me (which, under good weather conditions, would probably take at least 10 hours. however, there is a reason many flights are delayed: the weather sucks). A refresh of the page 5 minutes later showed the “on schedule” icon, but I’m still pretty shaky. The flight is at 11:40 am, and the train to the airport takes half an hour, so normally I would leave around 10 am, but since a colleague of mine had a train delay of 2 hours, I will be getting up at seven to be on the safe side. T will also be getting up since I can’t check tomorrow morning whether my flight is still leaving (how did people live before the internet??) and if it is even worth it going to the airport at all. Meanwhile, we have decided I will be leaving my christmas presents here and travel with hand luggage only, because there are huge delays in Brussels in the luggage delivery and if there is trouble, I will be more mobile with just a backpack.

This does have the advantage I won’t have to pack too much :D.

Fingers crossed!

Städdag (aka cleaning day)


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


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.”.

Sweden in a nutshell


I thought, if I can successfully write a recap of two weeks of blogging, I can surely successfully list the things I love/hate most about Sweden, two weeks into this little project of mine?

  • I love … free coffee. Free coffee, I’m telling you! Well, at the lab at least, but anyway… Nothing helps to recover from (or prepare for) a failed experiment as does a cup of coffee. At our lab, there is a HUGE, and – more importantly – cosy coffee room with two coffee machines and all the sugar, milk, cups, spoons, … you could ever need. Heaven surely must come close to this…
    However, I hate … the lack of Freddy. Freddy was the guy in my previous lab who filled pipet tip boxes, did the dishes (you cannot believe how much dirty glassware one scientist can produce in a day), did the ordering, made media, autoclaved everything – in short, did all those lousy, dreadful things a scientist has to waste his/her time on. There is no Freddy in Sweden :(.
  • This is maybe not the best example... but at least I could afford it.

    I love … the shops! I am not talking clothes shops (obviously) – if you thought IKEA had neat ideas, think again. I am absolutely loving to stroll around interior decoration shops and discover all the genius little things on display. Buying them would ruin my budget, but one can dream, at least…
    I hate … their opening hours. Granted, the supermarket is open till 10pm every day, but on Saturday you will not find any shop open after 4 or even 3pm. I mean, how can you enjoy a relaxing day of shopping when you only have 5 hours? Honestly?
  • I love … cycling. And everybody cycles here! There are loads of parking places for bikes, separate tracks along the road, … There is only little traffic but it is well organized – you know how as a pedestrian you have these buttons to speed the green light when crossing the street and it seems that it takes longer when pressing the button than if you’d have just waited? Not here! You press and … presto … cross along! b.r.i.l.l.i.a.n.t
    But I hate my bike. Or maybe that’s too strongly put. I don’t actually HATE it. But it squeeks. And it has a back pedal break. And my bell is broken. I can do something about the squeeking and the bell, but that damn break… .
  • I love … the gym. At €165 per year (for university employees, it’s around 200) including full access to the gym and all spinning/aerobic/workout/… classes, you have no excuse not to go (which probably is the point). I’ve been there for the first time today and it was a blast (though I’m stone dead now – after only 2 classes… how disappointing). The teachers are good, the building and equipment are recent and modern, and while the majority of people are students, you see a good deal “older” people (grey hears included!) so I’m not really feeling out of place.

    I hate … that they don’t have dancing classes. Don’t get me wrong, I love a serious session of Aerobics, but I am completely hooked on “true” dance classes, where you take a song and work out a choreography over a couple of weeks, so that you really have time to make the dance your own. Most group session are “gympa”-based (defined as “All around workout in a group with focus on strength, cardio, and flexibility”) so the dance element is often missing, but even the Funk or Afro sessions are drop-in (understandably) so … not gonna happen. I keep on searching, though!

I love the purple trains … I miss UHT milk … I like the rabbits in the university grounds … I hate it that I don’t speak (or at least understand) Swedish … I love the many trees/green spaces in the city …

So all in all, the things I like about Sweden are at a slight advantage. Let’s see if they can keep this up ;).