Lab smells: Unforgettably stinky science

It’s been said that smell triggers more emotions and vivid memories than any other sense. Anyone who’s ever worked in a science lab knows this to be true. Whether a common chemical aroma or a particularly foul odor caused by a spill or experiment gone awry, every scientist has at least one smell permanently etched into their brain—and nostrils. Quartzy’s resident scientists share their most malodorous memories.

Aline, Life Science Product Specialist Manager
Smell: At school, we did a fermentation experiment with wild yeast and bacteria inoculations. Daily, I had to go through about 30 fermentation samples and jot down aromas. I can remember Kloeckera in white wine’s daily progression going from gym socks to stinky feet to stinky old gym socks to cadaver socks to stinky buried dead socks that had mold growing on them.

We did a similar experiment with smoke-tainted grapes a few weeks later. Best wine: A can of old cigarette butts that got left on the porch in the rain at grandma’s house.

George, Marketing
Smell: Back when I worked in a fuel-testing lab, many of our clients were airlines that needed their fuel tested for various reasons. When things went wrong, we would do failure analysis on the fuel, and we would have to collect fuel samples from the aircraft’s fuel tanks and sumps. This generally required you to crawl into the aircraft fuel tank to collect samples from different parts of the sump. Now every time I gas up a car it brings back slightly claustrophobic memories.

Dylan, Customer Success Associate
Smell: Acetone. I can’t be the only one who thought it smelled sweet, and possibly pleasant enough to drink? (DISCLAIMER: I never partook, don’t worry. I do not condone imbibing acetone). 

However! If you want a drink that tastes like the smell of acetone, some sour beers have that “glassware-cleaning solvent-iness” to them in aroma and flavor. So much so that I flash back to organic chemistry lab whenever I enter a hipster bar.

Melissa, Life Science Product Specialist
Smell: During my master’s research, I had to grow batches of E. coli in 2xYT broth. Each batch was about 2 liters, and once I spun the cells out, I had to disinfect the remaining broth by adding bleach and sloshing it around. The stank of E. coli waste broth plus the volatile bleach was horrendous and nostril-burning—like if rancid Cup O’Noodles married that summertime public pool that used too many cleaning chemicals.

John, Life Science Product Specialist
Smell: I used diethyl pyrocarbonate (DEPC) at 0.1% v/v to inactivate RNases in water we used for certain experiments. It smells sweet and vaguely fruity—easily my favorite lab smell. My least favorite smell is a tie between TEMED and β-mercaptoethanol, which smell like rotting fish and rotting eggs, respectively. Despite that fact, they’re vaguely comforting as parts of bread-and-butter molecular biology techniques I know and love.

Laura, Life Science Product Specialist
Smell: Even though everyone told me I would get used to the smell of formaldehyde, I never did. I was fortunate enough to work with several cadavers during my master’s program, but could not get used to the smell. I ended up putting eucalyptus oil in my mask while I was working.

Chris, Life Science Product Specialist
Smell: The worst smelling substance I ever came across in the lab was β-mercaptoethanol (BME). It’s a sulfur-containing compound used in molecular biology labs when running gels. The unfortunate thing about BME is it’s pungent enough to escape the fume hood. Since the undergrads in the lab used it constantly, our lab always smelt like eggs and skunks. It comes in a super-concentrated form, so spilling some or breaking a bottle is a great way to clear the lab!  

Taylor C., Marketplace Support Specialist
Smell: I worked as a field ecologist as an undergraduate, and a few of my internships involved monitoring the behavior of breeding birds. As a result, my days involved suiting up in “bird-proof” gear and doing my work in the middle of a breeding gull colony. If you’ve ever seen videos of gulls pooping on some kid eating ice cream on the beach, then you can get a sense of what that looked/smelled like. Except take that image and replace it with me, hundreds of gulls, and no ice cream. All smells considered, I loved that job!

Adam, co-founder
Smell: I did a lot of phenol-chloroform-isoamyl alcohol extractions during my research days, and the aromas of each of those chemicals stick with me to this day. I especially like isoamyl alcohol—smells like a delicious syrup I’d put on pancakes. Phenol is used to preserve cadavers now, too, so I got a good dose of that smell during my first year of medical school. It doesn’t smell horrible, and I’m not sure whether it was just the timing of our anatomy lab or a direct effect of phenol exposure, but after every class, all of my classmates and I were starving.

Do you have any personal memories of scientific smells? Leave a comment or send us an email!

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Greg Schindler

Greg has a BA from Stanford (English/Football) and MS from Oregon (Journalism). He's our Director of Marketing and Pastries.

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