We used to think science stopped for no one and nothing, but now that feels only partially true. During these uncertain times of mandated social distancing and a 24-hour COVID-19 news cycle, we’ve been reflecting on how different our lives are compared to four weeks ago.
Back then, we were in the lab working diligently on finishing confirmatory PCRs for a large whole-genome sequencing study and organizing patient samples for another large study. Now, our days are filled with daily 9 a.m. lab meetings via Zoom, other conference calls (so many virtual platforms — and let’s be honest now, we all have a favorite), learning bioinformatics, and making loaf after loaf of fresh sourdough bread (yum).
As we do our best to navigate these unprecedented times, we remember the intimate idiosyncrasies of being a bench researcher and how much these are tied to our identities as scientists. Each researcher has a unique set of senses with which we perceive the fascinating world of bench science. Here are some sensory wet lab experiences that we’re missing during our mandatory telework days.
- We miss the fluorescent lighting of the lab, even though it usually causes us headaches after about four hours.
- We miss seeing other passionate scientists (AKA fellow nerds). Our political science major friends don’t share the same zest for neurological disease research wormholes.
- We miss the sight of the qPCR machine generating its multicolored curves in real time. Even when the experiment fails, it’s still pretty.
- We miss the way that our tube racks look when they’re finally organized and all oriented the same. exact. way.It takes dedication, but it is fulfilling.
- We miss the sight of the lab’s messy benches after a hard day’s work.
in her kitchen baking tasty treats.
- We miss the aroma the autoclave produces during its cycle, which is mysteriously similar to bread baking.
- Quite inexplicably, we miss the faint scent of mice coming from the behavioral testing room.
- We miss the smell of Trizol. Just kidding, no one ever smells Trizol because it is always used in a perfectly ventilated fume hood through which no odor escapes … And we don’t miss it.
- We miss the smell of the baked goods shared in the lunchroom by our wonderful lab mates. Another chance to smell baked bread.
- We miss the odor of rotten eggs and burnt rubber — oh wait, that’s just beta-mercaptoethanol being used outside the hood.
- We miss the cool benchtop on a warm day.
- We miss the weight of a pipet in our hands.
- We miss the weird feeling of hand sweat inside our non-latex gloves (not that much, though).
- We miss our itchy, too-warm lab coats.
- We miss holding hundreds of tubes as we attach adhesive labels to the lids. We suspect this fondness will be short-lived when we return to the lab.
- We miss the sounds of our Maxwell extracting DNA from brain tissue (it’s just normal machine sounds for which the exact onomatopoeia is not yet coined).
- We miss the sound of the cell counter focusing. We don’t know why, but it’s such a specific, whirring sound that holds a special place in our hearts.
- We miss the sounds of scientists excited about successful experiments: gasps or general praise of science, cells, an antibody — whatever is involved.
- We miss hearing the freezer beeping madly to alert us that it’s gotten slightly too warm. Coincidentally, that sound also haunts our dreams.
- We miss the only sound in the lab at 2 a.m. — the hissing of liquid nitrogen tanks in the corridor. We only recently realized this wasn’t coming from lab ghosts.
- We miss the taste of the gummy bears that come with our primer orders from Eurofins.
- Beyond that, we’re hoping this one doesn’t apply to anyone these days since mouth-pipetting is strongly frowned upon.
Here’s to being able to do bench science again — soon.
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René Fuanta, a second-year assistant professor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, tries to support his students through a semester of unexpected challenges.