Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lab skills or life skills?

Considering how many hours I have spent working in laboratories, I suppose it was inevitable that lab experiences would begin to influence my everyday life.

The rinsing principle

Let's say I'm going to wash up a unit of red cells to use in a procedure. First, I have to cut the bag open and pour the blood into a big centrifuge bottle with some saline solution, which is a messy process. But no matter how hard I shake it, there are always some red cells left clinging to the inside surfaces of the bag. I want to get as much of that into my bottle as possible, so I squirt in some saline from a squeeze bottle and swish it around the almost-empty bag to get all the good stuff out.

This is a remarkably useful process to bring into real life. For example, when I get to the end of a carton of coffee creamer, I spoon some coffee into it and swirl the carton to clean off its insides, then pour it all back into my coffee cup. I've also been doing it with jars of spaghetti sauce, because I can never get all of it out, even struggling with a spatula. I dump the jar out onto one side of the pot of cooked pasta, then I scoop up some of the uncoated noodles, pop them into the sauce jar, shake it up good, and then dump the noodles back into the pot. Less waste!

Butt-operated doors

Gloves and door handles aren't supposed to meet, since gloves are potentially covered in nasties. I've developed a butt-first approach to swinging lab doors that really works for me. Back into the door, gentle shove with my butt, and I'm through. I do this more often in non-lab settings than I'd like to admit, probably to my husband's embarrassment. If the door has a lever-style handle, I can navigate that quite easily by adding my elbow to the procedure. I lean down, push with my elbow, and then bump the door with my hip to get through.

It's somewhat more complicated when the door opens towards me, but I've recently been practising and can often use my elbow to get the door opened wide enough to stick my foot into the opening and swing it the rest of the way. Very useful in public bathroom situations.

Regular round doorknobs have thus far remained beyond my skill level.

The microbiology grip

You're supposed to keep things sterile in microbiology, because one tiny mold spore or bacterium getting into your culture medium can ruin everything. That's why microbiologists do most of their work with their arms inside special biological safety cabinets whose airflow and HEPA filters minimize the possibility of contamination. Still, sometimes you've got to unscrew the cap on a tube of media you want to inoculate, and you can't just put it down on the desk. Solution: the Microbiology Grip.

It can be accomplished with the pinky finger of the dominant hand:

Pinky technique - image from
Or, if one absolutely needs the strength or dexterity of the thumb and index fingers to unscrew the cap, one can try the claw grip, but the inoculation wire or loop ends up being held awkwardly, and I think there is less control with this method.
Claw-style - image from
And where, you may ask, am I finding a use for such a grip? Toothpaste. Not because my sink is so disgusting that I don't dare put down a toothpaste cap, but because my hands just do it anyway. Muscle memory is no joke. I hold my toothbrush like an inoculation loop in my right hand, then pick up the toothpaste tube in my left, bring my hands together, and unscrew the cap by gripping it with my pinky and then twisting both hands in opposite directions. I keep the cap firmly in my pinky grip while I apply toothpaste to my brush, and then I recap the tube and brush my teeth.

Laugh at me if you wish, but I can be confident that there are no mold spores in my Crest Complete with Scope.


  1. So, lab smarty! What do you do in LIFE when you realize, in the middle of it, the recipe you are making really ought to have called for safety goggles and you have none?


    Not that I'm asking for any reason or anything...

  2. Sunglasses, obviously. Because then you also look COOL.

    And now I need to know what you were doing that required safety goggles. Fingers covered in hot pepper juice? Bacon-frying at eye level? Crustacean exoskeletal shrapnel?

  3. Making homemade amaretto. The recipe DOES call for a hammer and chisel.

  4. Hi, i'd like to know how much math is actually involved in this proffession? I really want to persue medical technology as a career however, am not sure if this is the right choice based on the fact that I suck at math and I mean really suck!!...By the way your blog is fantastically interesting :-)

  5. The job does require some math, but how much you'll use on a daily basis will depend on what area of the lab you work in. It's probably most important in chemistry and hematology, where you've often got dilutions to worry about. It's not heavy-duty math, though, just basic solutions, dilutions, and a few formulas you need to know how to apply.

    If a glucose level is above the measurable range of your instrument, for example, you'll need to dilute it 1:1 (or some other amount) and repeat it, and remember to multiply your new result by the dilution factor. Much of the math is done by the instruments and LIS these days, but you should still have a basic idea how to apply formulas so you don't have the lab fall apart when the computers are down.

    That said, getting through school will take more math than the average shift in the lab, in my experience. If you want to be a lead tech and start working with QC and statistics, then you'll need a stronger math background, but for entry-level work, as long as you can grasp the idea of why you're using a specific formula on something, then you'll be okay. And we all have calculators in our pockets, too.

  6. Thank you for responding. Im going for it! Im currently in the nursing field but I have a love for science and I know I belong in the lab. Thanks again for the information you have been truly helpful :-)