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Children Ask “How Do I Become a Scientist?”

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 08-07-2014

The National Eye Institute at the NIH recently released a kids video series called “Ask a Scientist.” In this series, children who are curious about science, ask “bonafide” scientists their burning questions about science. In one video, a child asks Dr. Chris Thomas, a science writer, how to become a scientist. Dr. Thomas responds by saying that becoming a scientist “is easy” and all that kids need to do is to love nature and be curious about how things work. He also says that kids can hone their scientific skills by taking either science or art classes.

Putting aside the fact that the target audience for this video is young, school-aged children, do you feel that Chris’ response is an oversimplification of reality? Is science really all about nature and curiosity?

While I happen to agree with Dr. Thomas that curiosity lies at the heart of what it takes to become interested in science, I believe that hard work and perseverance are tantamount to scientific success. Think about all of those times that you’ve had to repeat experiments over and over just to get your p values to a publishable level!

Have a look at Chris’ video below and let us know what you think.

Smallpox Anyone?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-09-2014

First it was Anthrax and now it’s Smallpox!!! Last month, we told you about the CDC’s report that as many as 75 CDC scientists may have been exposed to Anthrax when a vial containing the deadly bacteria was accidentally transferred to a low level bio-hazard lab that was ill equipped to handle the stuff. Now, Science Insider is reporting that six vials of smallpox were found by an FDA scientist who was cleaning out his freezer! Apparently, the 60 something year old vials were stuffed in the back of this lab’s freezer or fridge in a poorly labeled cardboard box.

Folks, this is why you don’t store you lunch in the same fridge that you store your lab reagents. Imagine the headlines had the vials been mistaken for savory condiments. Scientist contracts smallpox while accidentally spreading it on his favorite sandwich.

It is also another reason not to buy cheap Sharpie pens. Vials must be labeled clearly and the label must last. Labeling your samples in a code that nobody understands is a surefire way to cause major pandemonium amongst current and future lab-mates. And if the label rubs off, what good was it to begin with? I bet that tens of hands (gloved and ungloved) have touched these poorly-labeled vials of smallpox over the decades.

The article in Science discusses the dangerous possibility that these vials could have fallen into the hands of terrorists and used as bio-weapons. But, as scientists, we should be more worried that the vials could have fallen on anybody’s hands and contaminated the entire lab! This is scary stuff.

To read the article in Science Insider visit Six vials of smallpox discovered in U.S. lab

Yesterday-Science Was Such and Easy Game to Play!

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 07-02-2014

Is Working at the Bench Putting Your Health at Risk?

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 06-23-2014

Let me start by saying that I don’t mean to be sensationalist. I really don’t. But current events really have my blood boiling. All of us, and I mean each and every one of us that works at the bench, have taken tons of courses in lab safety and are probably sick and tired of the annual boreathon that is called safety training day (or whatever it is called in your institution). No, I don’t wear open-toed sandals in the lab. I don’t pipette by mouth. I file each and every MSDS sheet in our safety binder when the materials arrive (OK…I don’t really do this one). So yeah, I think that I am a pretty safe guy. And so are most of the people that I work with. But WHAT THE HECK??? ANTHRAX???

If you haven’t heard the news, last Thursday, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a statement informing the public that as many as 75 scientists may have been exposed to live Anthrax while working in their Atlanta facility. 75 scientists! Anthrax! Just the sound of it makes my skin crawl. The lab can often be monotonous and boring, but surely this isn’t the way anyone wants to break up the monotony of bench work. Imagine the scenario. You wake up one morning, pack your lunch, kiss your wife and kids goodbye and head off to work. You figure that you’ve got a good 8 or 9 hours ahead of you in the lab and then its back home. Only nope. Someone has something else planned for you. You are about to be exposed to anthrax.

While the exposure was not intentional, (staff in a high-level biosecurity lab working with the live virus forgot to inactivate it before passing it on to colleagues who were untrained in handling of the bacteria), the carelessness and negligence exhibited by the scientific staff at the CDC is just as worrisome. However, do you think that these kind of mishaps can only occur at high-level biosecurity facilities? I think not.

Although the use of radioisotopes is not as common as it used to be, I remember how, as a graduate student, neighboring labs were shut down when they failed to pass the radioactivity officer inspection. Apparently, swipe tests showed that hot stuff was all over the place! Unsuspecting passersby were unintentionally exposed to huge levels of beta particle radiation.

And what about the widespread use of ethidium bromide for detecting DNA in gels? Sure, the person handling the stained gel was wearing gloves, but did he bother taking off the gloves when touching the door handle to the dark room or gel doc imager? Did he unintentionally contaminate the common computer keyboard? The list goes on and on.

So while I don’t want to be a sensationalist and blow things out of proportion, I do believe that the occupational hazards associated with lab work are probably higher than your average desk job worker. I would be interested in seeing a long-term, epidemiological study of morbidity and mortality rates among those who worked in a research lab for a significant period of time.

Any takers?

Science in the Clouds

 :: Posted by American Biotechnologist on 06-16-2014