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February 8, 2007
Depraved and Deprived
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.
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