Thursday, February 14, 2008

I haven’t been updating this page much in the last few months, so one piece of news has fallen through the cracks: I switched labs at Rochester a few months ago. Funding for my original project ended, I haven’t yet lined up a longer-term job, and my husband is still a postdoc here. So, when I was fortunate enough to find another faculty member with research funding, I moved to my current lab.

The big change is that I’m actually doing Drosophila genetics now. Although I’ve been working for a few years with wild drosophilids and other small flies, I hadn’t actually done genetics experiments on the critters since around ninth grade. The lab’s main focus actually has an ecological component – we ‘re not interested in breeding flies that have legs where their antennae should be – but I’m definitely working a lot closer to the operating system, so to speak, than I ever have before.

D. melanogaster is a real workhorse, or maybe a workbug, in genetics labs, but the cultures still contain real insects with every instinct you’d expect from a critter that breeds in fermenting fruit and knows how to make lots more of itself. For instance, if you think you’re working with a purebred strain, but somewhere between the supplier and your benchtop some little dude from a different strain made his way into a vial and had his way with one or more of the pedigreed females, complications will ensue. And they won’t be hilarious. In fact, if Lothario introduced a rare allele into a population that has no business hosting it, your experiments will fail in ways that are not necessarily reproducible, and in fact look for all the world like a common type of PCR glitch. This will waste a lot of your time when you mistake the result of unplanned fly sex for that of a non-optimal bench protocol. In fact, every one of the humans involved in the effort will become at least somewhat irritable.

It’s not easy on the flies either. After throwing away a good week’s worth of work, I had to personally dispatch six thriving culture vials, and then put out a contract on any other subcultures of this strain that might happen to be in our incubators. Fortunately, this strain makes up only a minor fraction of our cultures, and weren’t being used in extensive breeding experiments. But I’m still sufficiently cheesed off to have sporadic fantasies involving very, very small flyswatters.

The other high point of my week was having to take my annual online lab-safety refresher course, and document this via a standard quiz. Now, I’m a big fan of safety training, and I think it’s reasonable to require lab personnel to understand safety regulations and regularly review the procedures to follow in case of lab accidents. The problem is that the quiz is made up primarily of questions like this:

Which common biological-lab items are safe to spill on your skin and clothing?

a. Burning ethanol
b. A live culture of transgenic bacteria
c. The contents of a container marked “CAUTION: HAZARDOUS WASTE”
d. Glacial acetic acid
e. None of the above

I’m sure I passed the test, but if I ever needed to dial the campus emergency number I’d probably still have to look it up. I have stories very much like this from a previous workplace, but will stop now. Readers with similar tales of training sessions that aren’t are invited to comment.

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