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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 8, 2007

Depraved and Deprived

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Posted by Derek

Here's another one of those topics that is a bigger concern in academic labs than in industrial ones: stealing supplies from each other. The difference is easy to understand, and can be summed up (as a terrifying number of things can) by the word "money". Industrial labs generally are the Land of Research Plenty, so people don't spend much time looting and pillaging.

But boy, do they have to unlearn those habits. Most academic labs run on tight budgets, so valuable reagents and pieces of equipment get hoarded. People would practically steal things out of my lab coat pockets. I remember going on vacation in graduate school and leaving notes in the drawers in my lab: "Please don't take this. It's the only one I have" or "Go steal one of these from So-and-So. He has more of them than I do". When I came back, people told me how much they liked the notes.

Deprivation leads people to all sorts of money-saving (but time-wasting) attempts to economize. I mentioned a disastrous attempt to recycle lumpy, brown waste acetone here, and there are more stories like that to be found whenever chemists gather. Graduate student time is the one cheap commodity in academia, so you see people redistilling used solvents or washing and re-using silica gel, both of which are (to me) roughly the same as trying to dry out uneaten pasta so it can be boiled again later.

A group down the hall from me in those days used all sorts of exotic mixtures, and whoever made up decent quantities of them was sure to see pilferage. A friend of mine got tired of making things for his colleagues to steal, so he started labeling his bottles with the names of freshwater fish. A midnight raid on his cabinet would present the would-be shortcutter with a row of jugs labeled "Rainbow Trout" and "1:1 Catfish / Smallmouth Bass". That slowed things down for a while, anyway.

Comments (20) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. Greg Hlatky on February 8, 2007 11:06 PM writes...

It remains only to add to this excellent post Theft's cousins: leaving the lab's liquid nitrogen Dewar empty and killing sodium/benzophenone in stills by not sparging solvents. Hanging's too good for those people.

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2. milkshake on February 9, 2007 3:16 AM writes...

Unlearning bad habits takes time - I became recently pretty frustrated with some new postdocs who would never clean after themselves, never order elementary stuff they need but beg and borrow ten common chemicals at the time (they just assumed somebody would have it ready for them), they never return a bottle that they borrowed and never re-order a catalyst, use it to the last miligram and then act surprised there is not another bottle when they need it.

This reminds me one very good academic group which had decent, friendly people but the fridge and stockroom was full of decomposed crap, the GCs and HPLCs were down on permanent basis and shared glassware was a sory junkyard of broken odd pieces. As of 2000, they did not have a normal analytical balances - but electromechanical clunkies from 60s.

The reason was that the old chief was raised during depression times and he had this notion about not spending needlesly. He would return his unused grant money back to the agency and be proud on not wasting resources - but his people would have to go to other groups when they needed an analytical nstrument or Schlenkware.

His secretary would place all purchase orders and would ask you twice if you realy needed to buy new sodium hydrde for $25 because according to the inventory list there still must be an old can of it somewhere...

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3. Felix on February 9, 2007 7:39 AM writes...

I used to think everything would be good after being done with the introductory labs. but I guess that's not the case

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4. Anonymous BMS Researcher on February 9, 2007 7:54 AM writes...

Yep, it's 180 degrees reversed. As a graduate student and postdoc, I could and did spend as much time as I wanted on any project, but money was extremely tight. Now I can -- within reason -- get access to needed tools without worrying overmuch about money, but my time is severely constrained.

It has taken me a while to learn the appropriate level of depth a given task requires. In academia, my approach to basically any question was: learn as much as I could learn about X. Now, however, in most cases they want information on which to base some decision so the moment I have learned enough to answer the specific operational question being asked I should STOP and move on to something else. While I am better at stopping than I used to be, I still sometimes invest more effort into something than is needed, due to a combination of perfectionism and curiousity.

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5. Darth_Bubbster on February 9, 2007 11:02 AM writes...

It was the same in molecular biology when I was in grad school -- nothing was really "kit-i-fied" by that time, so you had to make all your own reagents and pour your own plates.

It got to such a bad point, I actually MIS-labeled things (not just nonsense labeled like your freshwater fish friend) -- thats a sad point to come to.

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6. Liberal Arts Chemistry on February 9, 2007 11:30 AM writes...

A few years back I resigned from an academic position (but I had six months to finish my courses, get my graduate students finished or transferred etc.). Within days of my resignation OTHER FACULTY MEMBERS were wandering into my lab (without asking first) and removing equipment. In a white fury I stormed through the other research labs reclaiming the stolen items (everything from hotplates to IR crystals). I then had to hire a student, who went through all my purchase orders, to separate all the items that were paid using departmental funds from items purchased using my independent research grants. The other faculty were outraged that it turned out that I had used departmental funds to mostly pay for consumable items (not equipment) and that I had used an engraver to mark my name even the smallest items in the lab. The dept. head then let it be known that any items to remain in the department were to stay in my research lab until I actually left (at which point there would be a dividing up of the spoils). It was kind of like being on your death bed and hearing your relatives haggle over who gets your collection of Barry Manilow records. What was crazy is that it did not stop the pilferage.

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7. Laura on February 9, 2007 11:32 AM writes...

In an ironic sense, this effort of pilfering is just an exchange of time for money in some respects. When working at an unnamed highly ranked research institute of technology, I was prepping for a field study in which we would definitely need certain equipment that would need to be of particular sizes and compositions. It wasn't particularly expensive, but the PI (who wouldn't be in the field with me for some reason I never have determined) thought it would be better to send me around to every other lab in the building to borrow said equipment instead. The amount of time I wasted (charging by the hour to the SAME grant) was far more than it would have been to just buy the damned things. But this guy would do this all the time....blow through expensive parts (thousands of dollars) in less than a day and fuss about the cost of certain equipment or reagents than never totaled more than a hundred. For some reason, there are just people out there who have strangely high values for things and strangely low values for other things (like my personal cell phone bill on same field study...)

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8. joel on February 9, 2007 11:36 AM writes...

With tuition as expensive as it is now---and many departments actually having to pay it---the time of a graduate student is becoming a competetive cost compared to chemicals and labware.

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9. Reluctant Chemist on February 9, 2007 1:01 PM writes...

Actually, people sometimes still steal labware and consumables from each other in some industrial environments. In my case, my employer is a small company (under 500 employees). We keep overstocks of consumables in a building that is a 3 minute walk away. If people are feeling lazy, they start pilfering consumables from other labs, rather than walk 3 minutes to re-stock. Go figure.

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10. dearieme on February 9, 2007 1:07 PM writes...

I once incorporated a top-pan balance into an apparatus; someone dismantled the apparatus and stole the balance DURING a run.

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11. johnny-o on February 9, 2007 3:31 PM writes...

I knew of grad students who labeled their culture medium as "almost sterile" and their buffers as "ph 12".

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12. wm on February 11, 2007 11:18 AM writes...

We had one graduate student in my graduate lab who always had his sterile water pilfered. I don't know why it tended to be his that was so attractive to the pilferers, but it was. He tried removing the label, writing the label in Chinese, etc., all to no avail.

Finally, he wrote on the label "A very dilute solution of zinc chloride. Feel free to use this in your experiments." Since the lab mainly worked on metalloproteins, that finally did the trick, because it *might* have been true.

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13. Lou on February 12, 2007 5:12 AM writes...

So I guess from reading all the comments, academics are innately stingy due to their training...but that this pilfering from the lab next door is just human nature to be lazy? Could this equate to the office scenario of the wandering pen?? :)

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14. TNC on February 12, 2007 10:55 AM writes...

Absolutely the wandering pen. (But the wandering pen is here, too.)

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15. ATD on February 12, 2007 3:15 PM writes...

My own trick was to label my buffers as containing 5 mM ATD. They never got stolen... (anti-theft device!)

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16. paiute on February 12, 2007 5:19 PM writes...

One fellow labeled his distilled reagents in code. And then forgot the key to it.

But seriously, after a year or so of graduate school, I felt morally in the clear when ripping off whatever I needed to get the hell out.

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17. doctorpat on February 13, 2007 3:16 AM writes...

My first day in my last job, I was being shown around the lab and my guide explained "If you left a plate of shit around here someone would steal it."

I later found out he was understating the case.

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18. Ralph on February 13, 2007 9:25 AM writes...

I recall my second week in industry i.e. out of grad school. I had just finished running a column purification and I started washing the test tubes - while all those around me just pointed and laughed.


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19. B on February 14, 2007 3:44 AM writes...

We had to ask our P.I. for NMR tubes. He gave us each 3 when we joined the lab (along with the distinct impression we should not come back for more for a very long time).

About that time, I had a visit from some friends who'd gotten jobs in big pharma right out of college.

They brought me 300 NMR tubes.

Best. Gift. Ever.

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20. Dr Rob on February 15, 2007 4:56 PM writes...

Ah, good times. I work in Big Academic Institute, and the lab space is 'open', you can walk from lab to lab without issue. I think it slightly cuts down on the stolen stuff issue. That plus the fact that everyone has alot of money. In my older lab, it was common for people to wander over and take whatever they need without asking, so i grew into that habit. When i came to this new lab, one labmate got so pissed that I got chewed out (rightly so) by the PI. I think it's a cultural mentality, some labs are very anti-theft and some labs are freer. My advice to postdocs/grad students is understand the culture of the lab. For example, in the new lab, my drinking buddies are very close and sharing isn't an issue. Not so on the other side of the bench.

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