24 hours in the lab

The sun still hasn’t risen in the horizon, but it doesn’ t matter. The light of the fluorescent tubes is always on. Those that make your skin look gray even in a city were the sun is almost never missing (so statistics say). It doesn’t matter if it is Monday or Sunday, there’s always light in the lab on the fifth floor, because there is always work to do.

Pipette once, twice and up to ninety six times a negligible amount of a colorless liquid into one, two and up to an equivalent number of tubes, also transparent, keep on ice at all times, you shouldn’t allow a change in the temperature of the reagents to start the reaction. Not that. And control that each tube contains EXACTLY that one microliter of sample. As it should be. The sequence is always the same, internalized as a mantra for months: negative control, positive control, sample. Without changes, like a robot, no thinking.

Plate’s ready. Now, set the program…which one’s due today? Yes. Number two. Two hours and half of waiting until the washing machine…no, wait! The thermocycler, finishes amplifying my DNA. Meanwhile, get another couple of plates ready, change the media to the cells and, if there’s still time left, leave a gel ready for running the PCR samples (Polymerase Chain Reaction) you’ve just set. Now a little motivation dance for the cycler to manage the run without problems to the end, the PCR to be a really good one and not having to repeat for the nth time the whole process.

An agarose gel where DNA samples are dyed with ethidium bromide. The top left well has the size marker for DNA, in this case of PCR products.

It seems the thermocycler had a good day. There was no time for preparing plates yet but I can still do it once I’m done with this. With lunch, that is. With the cold sandwich I got from the machine at the end of the corridor, that I eat in front of the computer while I answer the boss’s last email, who never rests. Not even on holidays. ”The result of the experiment in…2h:15m:37s”, the time my gel still needs to finish plus the analysis of the results I get from it. If all goes well, fingers crossed, and the positive control has a band of the right size, the negative is clean and ALL my replicas have the expected band, I can answer my boss back and tell her we finally got it! The result we were after this past four months. And then…then I will allow myself to leave the lab before the sun sets. I deserve a little reward. Of course, after I am done preparing the plates and planning tomorrow’s experiments.

If not…if not, the same process all over again. As in the morning. As yesterday. And the day before. Pipette, plate, wait…and pray (sometimes I even wish there was a God to call in, but I am afraid he’s either unavailable or out of reach)

The positive control turns out blank. The boss answers from her paradise hideout that we need a positive result ASAP and increases my stress levels beyond any scalable measure. I have been more than 7 hours straight in the lab, not even a cigarette break, but it doesn’t matter: let’s repeat. Plus, I optimistically think, this way I can get up to date with the literature and…

Well, surely at least today I will be on time to catch the last metro, right?

*Note: Though ficticious, this story has common elements to the life experiences of anyone working in a Molecular Biology lab, at least in terms of work load and stress, although not all are present in every lab (luckily)
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One thought on “24 hours in the lab

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