First lab jobs: Humbling research roots

As with all experiments, even perfectly planned science careers and educations must begin somewhere. And anyone who’s ever worked in a lab knows that starting point is seldom glamorous. Whether monotonous menial tasks or generally unpleasant projects, research experience often begins with humbling obligations. Quartzy’s resident scientists share their early, unsavory lab duties.

Melissa, Life Science Product Specialist
Job: My first industry lab job while I was going to grad school was at a CRO that specialized in tissue processing. This involved scraping old FFPE tissues off slides, digesting them, and then isolating the DNA and/or RNA. They were spin kit extractions, which are very simple and mundane. So I did kit nuclease extractions LITERALLY all day, every day for a long time. Months. It was utterly mind-numbing, but a fantastic way to keep my ego in check.

Aline, Life Science Product Specialist Manager
Job: In western Australia, I interned for a massive winery and worked the midnight-midday shift. At 4 a.m. every day, a shipment of 60-100 tons of grapes would be unloaded on the dock. My job was to take a random sampling of the 1-ton bins. In order to do so, I had to take the tops off. I quickly learned to take the tops off facing AWAY from me because otherwise, a bird, snake, spider, bat, mouse, rat, lizard, or other Australian creepy-crawly would come exploding out of the bin at me. I definitely got my adrenaline rush every morning, but the worst was then having to go back to menagerie bins to pull my juice samples, and run the analysis knowing a very unhappy snake was waiting for me.

John, Life Science Product Specialist
Job: When you join your first lab as an undergrad, you start at the very bottom. My first job was to take care of about 2,000 vials of flies and cook the fly food for the entire lab. If you’ve worked in a fly lab, you know that they go through a lot of food—mine used about 30 liters per week. So every Friday, I would dump pounds of cornmeal, sugar, and a few other powders into a big vat of boiling water and keep mixing it until it cooled. Then, to keep microorganisms from growing in the fly food, I added a few foul-smelling chemicals (tegosept and propionic acid) and enjoyed the fumes while mixing some more. Dispensing that mixture into 3,000 vials and cleaning up the giant pot were the last steps—a great way to build character as a new scientist!

Leslie, Customer Engagement Associate
Job: The most memorable menial task I had as an undergraduate researcher was filling the purified water jug. This involved either tracking down our cart (that always mysteriously disappeared) or taking many breaks as I carried it through the halls myself. Rather than building character or knowledge, I built arm strength.

Nicole, Business Development Associate
Job: My first real lab job was painful. I was working for an enzyme-development company that made products that go into animal feed. My whole day was spent supporting our assay team by grinding hundreds of chicken feed samples using coffee grinders, and then weighing them into flasks so we could extract and test enzyme levels in the feed. Every morning we would get 5-10 boxes delivered to us, filled with little baggies full of chicken food pellets from our customers. Imagine a 10-foot long bench lined with 20 coffee grinders and chicken dust all over the place. It was pretty glamorous. At the end of the day, we would unwind by filling empty pipette tip boxes by hand, listening to country music, and thinking about all the hungry little chickens out there who would have a major field day in our lab. I did get to take leftover feed and give it to my grandma’s friend, who kept chickens in her basement. I received free, basement-fresh eggs in return.

Dylan, Customer Engagement Associate
Job: I joined a lab as an undergrad. Before I could be let near the PCR, or even the hood, to do some DNA extractions, I helped organize field samples (leaf tissue) into cold storage. That means I frantically cut up and separated the frozen tissue kept on dry ice into labeled tubes, put those into freezer boxes in a -80 freezer, and labeled all of those changes on a spreadsheet—all while not letting the samples thaw, taking up the space belonging to the guy who actually owned the freezer, or looking bad in my soon-to-be thesis-advisor’s eyes. That was just day one. It got better, but I always had to work at night to avoid hood-scheduling conflicts.

Neha, Customer Success Associate
Job: My first job as a lab technician required a lot of cleaning and maintaining the lab. We ran a lot of gels, and any time we microwaved the agarose a bit too much, it would leave residues all over the microwave. When I first started, it was my job to sit by the sink, wearing a lead apron, scrubbing the microwave clean. From then on, I made sure that everyone cleaned up after themselves so I’d never spend half an hour scrubbing the microwave again.

Jane, Office Manager
Job: My first summer working in a lab was spent crushing 100-pound sacks of rocks to dust by hefting them through a sequence of machines named (not kidding) The Bonecrusher, The Jawcrusher, and The Shatterbox. After that, I’d use a giant electromagnet and some heavy liquids to isolate the crystals we wanted to study. Out of every 100 pounds of rocks, we’d get .000001 pounds of the crystals we were looking for, and 99.999999 pounds of dust—most of which adhered itself to my clothes, skin, hair, teeth, eyeballs, etc. I begged for a nice, cushy data-processing job the next summer.

Do you have any personal stories of painful first jobs? 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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