Imperfect science: Research mistakes and lab lessons

Despite painstakingly perfecting protocols and mastering methods, even the savviest scientists make mistakes—especially early in their careers. Learn from (and laugh at) our painful lessons as some of Quartzy’s resident scientists reveal their most memorable lab blunders and research miscues.

Adam, co-founder
Mistakes: Too many to count. Two memorable ones:

Mistake 1: Almost burning down my lab. I was doing SDS PAGE on some lymphocyte protein extracts. I set the samples to boil for five minutes, but forgot to set a timer. Then I sat down and started reading some journal articles. I became engrossed until I thought, “That’s weird. Smells like smoke.” I continued reading for another 2-3 minutes because sometimes the building would inexplicably smell like smoke anyway. Finally, I looked over at my samples and saw all the water had boiled off, the plastic had melted and was smoking, and just as I got up, the whole thing erupted into flames. I used a beaker of water to put it out, which was also probably a bad choice.
Lesson: Set timers. Every time.

Mistake 2: Melting the linoleum floor with chloroform. As an undergrad, I did a lot of phenol-chloroform extractions in a microbiology lab. I’m also the kind of person who likes to carry as many things as possible in my hands instead of making two trips to anywhere for anything. So, with one hand full of tubes and pipettes, I reached under our fume hood with the other hand to grab the chloroform, which was in the back. I delicately avoided all obstacles in the hood while extracting the chemical, but right at the end, the bottle collided with a bottle of ethanol, and the entire bottom broke off, spilling chloroform all over the floor. I didn’t think it was a big deal at first, and just started cleaning it up with paper towels. As I began to feel faint in the haze of chloroform, I noticed that the linoleum was coming up with the paper towels. I left the lab to avoid passing out, and when I came back there was an ugly 10-square-foot blob-like area of grey linoleum under the fume hood. In retrospect, I probably should have called EHS to get their help with the spill.
Lesson: Chloroform is not a good floor cleaner, but it’s a great floor remover.

Leslie, Customer Engagement Associate
Mistake: Melting a 96-well plate in the microwave.
Lesson: When you’re trying to do heat-induced epitope retrieval, don’t overlook the seemingly simple step of asking someone how to put the microwave on 10-percent power. 

Taylor C., Marketplace Support Specialist
Mistake: Not bringing extra supplies to the field when performing an ornithology experiment. Something is bound to happen!
Lesson: A gull flew away with my only pencil to record the experiment’s results. Ever since, I carry extras of EVERYTHING.

Kayla, Customer Engagement Associate
Mistake: Spilling a rack of microcentrifuge tubes full of E. coli all over myself while carrying them across the lab because I ran into a table.
Lesson: Close the tubes. Just close them. While you still can.

Dylan, Customer Engagement Associate
Mistake: Trying to follow a Qiagen DNeasy Plant Mini Kit exactly, only to mess up on the final step. I used way too much of the final buffer, overflowed the filters, and basically diluted the DNA into un-usability. I also laid down the pipette on its side with liquid in it, ruining it.
Lesson: Follow instructions to the T. EVERY TIME. Double-check your work. And DO NOT lay pipettes down—ever. Bad habit.

Melissa, Life Science Product Specialist
Mistakes: **Note: These are not ALL of my mistakes. There are many, many more.**

Mistake 1: Trusting someone else’s protocol without double-checking the technical details. I used someone else’s protocol for my (very similar but not exact) qPCR experiment. The protocol required that ROX (a passive reference dye) reading be turned off on the qPCR machine. I could not figure out why I wasn’t getting results after trying my experiment multiple times. Finally, after desperation hit and I called technical support, I was told to turn ROX reading on in my analysis software. BAM! There were my beautiful, perfect amplification curves!
Lesson: Never rely on someone else’s protocol. Lazy never wins. Do your own damn homework.

Mistake 2: Making a 10x dilution instead of a 100x dilution. Making a 1000x dilution instead of a 100x dilution. You name it, I’ve made the dilution error. (Not proud of this.)
Lesson (that took me too long to learn): DO NOT attempt to do quick mental math at the bench. Take the time to write it out and make a plan.

Mistake 3: Using the incorrect gel type to run my samples. I couldn’t figure out why my samples were blobs at the bottom of the gel.
Lesson: All gels are not created equal. Do your research to make sure you are using the right gradient gel to get the resolution you need to visualize your bands properly.

Do you have any personal stories of scientific imperfection? 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.