Ghost in the Machine

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Despite the fact that scientists should be impartial toward all experiments and data, the vast number of unknowns in a wet lab experiment often lead to many superstitions… Oh wait, I meant lab practices that often divide the scientific community about whether they actually matter, like thawing RNA samples only on ice, or at room temperature.

Sometimes, the superstitions go even further, with people believing that non-sentient, non-living lab machines can be cranky and uncooperative.

Clearly, these machines must be inhabited by evil spirits that want grad students to suffer.

I mean, how else do you explain having a machine breakdown on you, only to call for back up and have the technician find it working perfectly fine?

In one such case, grad student JJ Lee was faced with the annoying task of getting an inconsistent plate reader to work properly.

Despite running the same positive controls twice, the reads given by the plate reader were not reproducible. What could the reason be?

“The batch of reagents were the same. Even the pipettes used were the same. Even the bench and time of day was kept exactly the same! What could have gone wrong?” Lee muses.

Being a meticulous grad student, Lee has brought this up with not only her PI, but has asked every post doc in her lab for input as well, but to no avail.

Finally, her PI said, “Well the plate reader is cranky. I don’t often share this, but when I was in grad school, sometimes praying to the god of the plate reader helped.”
Hearing this, Lee felt very disturbed as it was her deep belief that scientists have to be objective and not superstitious.

Taking a deep breath, Lee replied, “Well, but if the results were dependent on a god, then the god can say either yes, no or maybe. That adds another confounding factor to the experiment. Who knows, if the god says yes today and then no tomorrow? Will the results still be reproducible?”

Hearing this, her PI sighed and simply told her to keep working until she found a solution.

Update: lab technician George, upon hearing Lee’s predicament, decided to help her run the experiment.

Somehow, the results became consistent. Maybe these spirits don’t affect lab technicians.