Pipettes vs Paintbrushes

In our lab, we currently have one set of pipettes for 13 people, at the last count. This doesn’t include undergraduate students. No, really – one set of pipettes, and the single P100 is broken.

I mentioned this phenomenon to my dad last night, and he instantly likened the situation to having limited access to paintbrushes. I realised that pipettes are a lot like paintbrushes, with different sizes required according to the task in hand. Use a brush too narrow for the job, and the artist will find that a large area will become incredibly time consuming to cover, and it will result in a highly textured surface. At the same time, using a brush too thick will result in a loss of detail. Pipettes too have a range of volumes for which they should be used: a P20 can be used to pipette volumes of 2 – 20 μL, a P200 for volumes of 50 – 200 μL, a P1000 for volumes of 200 – 1000 μL, and so on. One particular member of our lab has made it their mission to educate in the misuse of pipettes, sending frequent emails detailing the range of volumes that each can be used at, and pinning up information sheets. There was one amusing, but sad day in the lab when this colleague found a P20 cranked up to deliver 96.2 μL; the pipette was viciously taped to a whiteboard, a poor victim strung up for all the world to see. When pipettes are used outside of their recommended range they become inaccurate and will need recalibrating. I’m not condoning it, but in a lab with one set of pipettes, it is easy to see how misuse of equipment and a sense of disregard can set in.

The point at which the pipette-paintbrush analogy runs out is that in art, there are other ways of making visual work than to use brushes and paint. The artist might instead use pencil on paper, paper collage and glue, or computer drawing software to realise their art. In molecular biology there are no experiments without pipettes.

I still don’t understand why we only have one set of pipettes. I’d like to think that the lab grew rapidly so that when there were only a small number of scientists, rarely all in the lab at the same time, it didn’t seem necessary to purchase more pipettes. However, at some point in time a threshold number of laboratory members was reached, and then surpassed, without anyone deciding that now would be the time to order extra sets of pipettes. As time goes on, the “it’s the way it’s always been done” mind-set takes hold, until one day I find myself ranting about it early on a Saturday morning.

I think that once this sense of complacency sets in, it is difficult to shake and spreads to other aspects of the workplace. It’s the feeling the staff members get if their working conditions aren’t up-to-scratch, and nobody seems prepared to do anything about it. “If the others don’t care, then why should I?” Consequently, my cells have been infected five times in the last two months. I can’t do research without pipettes, and I also can’t do research without cells. The first time it happened I narrowed the cause down to a dirty water bath, which I furiously disinfected. The image below is from the fourth time, when I had not yet realised that the water at the bottom of the incubator was teeming with microbial life.

An infected cell culture plate. Clue: the media in the top plate on the right isn’t supposed to be grey.

We use cell culture media containing phenol as a pH indicator to show how acidic the conditions inside the flask or Petri dish are. The red of the two flasks on the left of the picture is about right. As the cells proliferate, more cells produce more waste products, turning the media to orange and eventually yellow. Any deviation from this range is a clue that the flask might be infected with microbes (e.g. grey, as in the picture above). The cells I currently work on are adherent, meaning they grow on the plastic surface, not in the bulk of the media itself. Therefore, the media is clear when the cells are healthy, but becomes cloudy when contaminated with bacteria, which grow in suspension in the media.

As science budgets continue to be under strain, lab heads try to employ more staff for less money, expecting them to work longer hours, and skimp on equipment and consumables. How, then, can the quality of research produced not fail to suffer?


  • Seriously WTF!

    I do a bit of molecular work on the side (actually a palaeontologist) but have never worked in a lab with less than 1 set of pipettes per person.

    I have a less accommodating view of your bosses – skinflint, tight arsed, bastards. I won’t ask you to reply, but that’s my opinion.

    • Hi James – thank you for your comment. The sad fact is that I’m inclined to agree with you. One of my biggest failings is that I believe people mean well at heart and have the ability to change. I’ve thought a lot about writing a grant application for extra equipment, organising fridges, freezers and chemicals. (They don’t even have a poisons cabinet – and we work in a hospital!) But ultimately it would probably be a complete waste of my time – there are no Nature papers in catalogued antibody collections. Thankfully one of the jobs I turned down to take this one is being advertised again, so it looks like time for me to move on.

    • I’ve realised that although these labs are worryingly short of equipment, I am given freedom to follow (broadly) whatever direction of research I choose. Other labs might have all the equipment I could dream of, but I would be working on a tightly managed project. Right now the freedom is kind of winning over the equipment, although they’re obviously not mutually exclusive. It is difficult, especially with so few jobs to choose from.

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