At the bench or fluorimeter

January22

The semester has begun and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.  With all my classes and journal clubs, I have two presentations to present for the semester.  Add to that my lab meetings that come around about every 4 weeks.  It just so happens that my first presentation will be my lab meeting on January 31st.  My presentation for Proteomics was February 1st.  And finally my journal club presentation was February 4th.  All in one week.  Shoot me now!

But then I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture.  The goal was for me to defend my thesis by May or June.  Actually doing all these presentations in one day might just be the only way that will possibly happen.  One of the professors in another department, with whom I frequently talk things over, strongly urged me to wait and graduate in the summer.  In order to make it this semester, I would have to apply in just over two weeks.  The written copy would be due fairly early too.  By waiting until Summer, it would give me a bit more time to get everything done.

So that is the light at the end of the tunnel—the Master’s tunnel anyway.  The PhD tunnel is still out there.  Another plus to waiting until summer is that I can defend in June, get my thesis rewritten and finalized then take some time off until the beginning of the fall semester when I’d be back in class four hours a day four days a week.  Great fun for someone whose pain level is directly proportional to the amount of time I spend sitting.  I’m am not looking forward to that at all.

Our lab has undergone a bit of change during the past year and we’re finally turning a corner, I think.  Last February, the boss’ wife, who was our lab manager, retired.  She didn’t just retire so much as ran running out of the building never to return unless it’s to pick up the boss for a basketball game or night at the theatre.  I can’t blame her at all; she has worked all of her life in a lab and she was ready to be Grandma more and  to perfect her skiing.  The trouble with this though, is that she set up this lab and knew where EVERYTHING was.  She was also the one who kept up with all the general housekeeping issues in the lab.  After a year of not having a “lab mom,” things were getting messy very quickly.

Finally, after all the crap around Christmas, I was feeling well enough to be back in the lab full time.  The first week I was back, I had things fall on my head more than a dozen times.  Every time I turned around, I was stepping around things that had been used and not put up afterwards, or deliveries that had been signed for and left right where the delivery man set them, or even walking around trash that had just been set where it was last used and left for someone else to clean up.  Finally I’d had enough when I was walking down the hall outside the lab and the boxes that had been set aside for whatever reason fell on me when I stepped back to allow someone else to walk by.  Normally, more than one person could have walked down the hall side by side but not now.  Too much crap was in the way.

I grabbed the boss and made him walk the lab with me.  Then I asked him if I could handle the clean up.  He honestly hadn’t noticed how out of control things had gotten and of course, he said yes—with the caveat that I don’t do anything that could hurt me.  So the first section I tackled was the hallway.  We normally save a few small boxes to use for disposing of broken glass but we had probably 25 small boxes and several large boxes just piled on top of each other.  Packing material had been thrown all over the place and it was so obviously disorganized that people were throwing candy wrappers and other trash into the pile as they walked back and forth from the break room.  After I confirmed which of the four large boxes we needed to keep (one of them), the rest got pushed to the freight elevator full of several of the smaller boxes that we just didn’t need.  It only took about 15 minutes of me going through stuff and breaking down boxes for our laboratory technician to come out and ask me if I had gotten permission to clean up.  She is the only person I know that would actually have to get permission to clean.  She absolutely freaks out if there is a minor bacteria spill or refuses to be in the lab if someone is working with I125 and has the Geiger counter going.  But she has no problem with leaving metal carts in the middle of the floor or leaving trash and boxes sitting around  OR making media at the balance and spreading the powder all over everything within a two foot radius.

Anyway, I assure her that I do indeed have permission and explain to her that we can store more boxes for glass disposal neatly if we break them down flat.  I am actually quite proud of our little section of the hallway now.  The next day, I tackled the shelves above our two large centrifuges that hold all of our various tube racks.  We also started saving all those styrofoam holders that our 15 ml falcon tubes and 50 ml falcon tubes are sent in.  We had approximately 50 of each not stacked nearly, but just thrown up on the shelf.  If you attempted to grab any of the tube racks, at  least a portion of these styrofoam racks would come raining down on your head.  Above these were this mis-mash of various sizes of styrofoam coolers, the find that vendors use to ship reagents.  We had more than 50 of these.  Several were coolers with no lids but there were also several lids that fit no coolers in our little collection.  I pulled all of them down, matched up the ones that I could and then went through and toss the ones that had holes, were falling apart,  leaked or had nasty stains in them.  I ended up saving about 20 of the coolers.  The next area was over our chest freezers where we had even more styrofoam coolers but also several coolers in their boxes that we could use for shipping to collaborators.  The problem was, again, we had several that were exactly the same size, didn’t have lids, were nasty, etc.  Each shelf was about 8 feet long and there were two shelves full of these.  We were getting so low on shelf space that we were putting supplies on the floor.  Tissue culture supplies.  It just seemed incredibly stupid so I grabbed one of the guys, the ladder and we went to work.  Again, our tech was climbing the walls.  “What if we  need to mail something?”  I asked her if she thought we’d be mailing 75 of anything to anyone in the next few weeks.  We narrowed everything down to one of the shelves and the rest went to the dumpster.

As we were cleaning up, I looked over by the microscope where there were five boxes piled on top of each other.  Thinking they were supplies that we could now put on this nice clean shelf, I asked my friend helping me to look and see what was in them.  The tech then stands up and say, “Stop! Those are empty boxes I’m saving to use as glass boxes since you threw out all the others.”  I was absolutely stunned.  I tried to calmly explain to her again that I had not thrown away the glass boxes, but simply cut the tape so we could lay them flat.  The guy who was helping me grabbed these last few and threw them out for me.  I had to take a walk about the building to keep from absolutely slapping  someone.

The next day,  I was preparing to place several orders and went to grab the 3 ring binder we use to log our orders.  As I reached for the notebook, the cover tore and the notebook slipped from my hands.  I jerked out of the way and wrenched the hell out of my back.  It was the first time I’d logged anything in a while and I  was amazed at the condition of the notebook.  We have a cabinet in the hall full of empty binders and here we were using a binder with the cover torn in several places and pages falling out of it.

The next week, I tackled the ordering notebook and the notebook we store our radioactivity wipe tests in.  Each were 3 in binders and each was completely full.  I grabbed a new binder for ordering and moved over most of what was in the binders into other storage binders.  The next day after sending an email explaining what I did, I get a response from this tech, “We occasionally move things over regularly.”  I guess her definition of occasional is different from mine.  The order notebook had over two years of orders and the wipe test went back four years.  She still didn’t address the problem of the pages escaping from the notebooks.  I told the boss I wouldn’t be going back and reinforcing all those holes.  It wasn’t my job to keep the notebooks current.

The tech and I have banged heads more this year than we ever had before but I’m just done with things not being finished.  She changed the cartridge on the printer and left the old one sitting on the ordering desk for a month before I finally took it to our administrative assistant to send in to the exchange program.  This week we ran out of both gloves and ethanol, both which she is supposed to order.  And we had several other reagents run completely out but that isn’t all her fault.  Communication in the lab has disappeared lately.  People are using the last of reagents and not telling anyone else.  It’s an attitude of lazyiness that is driving me crazy.  We all have a lot going on but it’s going to get much harder if we don’t all get our heads out of our asses.

I really do feel sorry for those I work with over the next few weeks.  I will have even less patience than normal.  Wish them well, they will need it!

Johnson-Sokatch Lectureship

May15

Dr Peter Palese!  I was so psyched to have Dr Palese as the keynote speaker for the Johnson/Sokatch Lecture Series.  But before I plow ahead with how much I enjoyed Dr Palese, I want to spend a few moments sharing my thoughts about Dr Sokatch. 

Back in 1997, I was a new technician in the lab of Paul DeAngelis in the same department I’m in now.  He was relatively new to the area, having moved in 1994 along with the new department chairman (who is now my mentor) and had a small lab with only one research associate and one grad student.  He had just lost his technician/research assistant as he was now his graduate student.  I was working in another department (Physiology) for a total windbag of a PhD doing live animal research on dogs.  I was MISERABLE!  I loved dogs and we were sacrificing at least a dog a week for a while and the research was going nowhere.  Another PhD that was adjunct for the university was actually conducting the research.  I was hired because I had experience working as a veterinary technician and was going to be trained to do the surgical portion of the experiments so this adjunct and I could conduct the experiments on our own and the PhD who actually had the lab could do his own thing.  After six months, several dogs and even a visit from the adjunct’s former mentor who had previously been conducting this research, we were no closer to a viable experiment and I was probably clinically depressed.  As part of our research I would have to carry 100ml centrifuge bottles up to the 8th floor to use one of their centrifuges to spin down the blood we took from the dogs (the whole experiments was supposedly to research alternatives to canine blood that would still carry oxygen as efficiently.)  After a couple of these trips where I would literally be standing by the centrifuge crying my eyes out from having had to throw away this poor dog just like he was trash, I made friends with a gal named Valarie Tlapak-Simmons who one day—about the fourth time we’d talked— grabbed my hand and pulled me down the hall to meet Paul DeAngelis. 

I asked Val several months later what made her believe in me so much and her answer was quick and simple, “God told me to do it.”   And I believed her.  I knew NOTHING about working in a biochemistry lab.  I had been pre-med in college and switched to a microbiology emphasis but at that time, university where I did my undergrad had everything prepared for the students before they walked into the lab.  I had never mixed a solution or even used the Rainin pipettors.  But for some reason, Paul believed in me too.  He patiently taught me everything I needed to know.  After a couple of months, he slowly began giving me experiments and projects for me to do on my own.  He would sit with me for hours and patiently answer all my questions.  It was a wonderful environment to “grow up” in because I knew that he would answer any question, even if it was stupid because he didn’t want me to have to repeat something because I made a mistake. 

About this same time, I met my soon-to-be second husband, Michael.  We were doing the on-line dating thing back when it wasn’t cool.  Remember, this was back in 1997.  We started talking online in October and on November 30th, we met for the first time face to face.  We’ve been together ever since.  What was the spark?  He was a flight instructor.  My dad had offered to pay for me to get my pilot’s certificate when I was in high school (he’d gotten his when I was in middle school) but I was too busy with school, band, studying, piano and oh, yes—-boys.  I’d always regretted this decision and now that my life was essentially beginning again, I found that I was looking for a way to erase this one regret.

We began flying lessons at the same time we began dating.  It was interesting to say the least.  There were times that I really wanted to throw him out of the plane and it was frustrating because I would only fly on the weeks that Caity, my oldest daughter, was with her dad.  We shared custody so every other week we were swapping off.  The weeks she was with her dad, we flew three times a week, but that first time was basically a catch-up period where I would try to re-polish what I had learned two weeks before. 

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