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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

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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March 23, 2011

Laboratory Sabotage?

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Posted by Derek

The topic of lab sabotage has come up here now and again. And while there are some documented cases, I agree with Chemjobber that these stories are often more in the realm of legend. He'd trying to bring some of them into the light, though, by offering a valuable prize to the most interesting and well-attested story of deliberate action that he can find. If you know of any, go for the glory!

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side


1. Chemjobber on March 23, 2011 3:37 PM writes...

Thanks, Derek.

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2. pete on March 23, 2011 3:45 PM writes... takers so far. OK, it's tangential but I immediately recalled watching with rapt attention as the metal lid was rolled back on an improperly balanced ultracentrifuge that had torn up its innards with a screaming bang. It was a case of lab sabotage by ignorance and the perp got away scot-free...though was forever branded as a major biohazard.

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3. Renegade Sci on March 23, 2011 4:39 PM writes...

2010 Texas

Post-Doc sabotaged RNA gel by adding salt to conductivity buffer repeatedly, and a (highly) frustrated graduate student who started overly documenting her procedures to this step. Found said post-doc was only person in the lab remaining this time. He confessed, and was told to leave. The PI gave him a shining recontamination letter. He was apparently a well liked saboteur, and he went onto a new post doc.

If you're not liked, you're just asked to leave. If you're liked, you can blow up half the lab and get a good job. Ahhh, academia. It's been filed as "vandalism" with the University Police.

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4. Anon on March 23, 2011 6:20 PM writes...

My stories of my experiments being sabotaged are only legend because I can't prove it--should have bought some security cameras.

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5. Chemjobber on March 23, 2011 11:48 PM writes...

Anon: Enter in the comments of my post or e-mail me privately; I'm willing to entertain anything...

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6. MDACC Student on March 24, 2011 2:17 AM writes...

We lock stuff, following the advisor's recommendation after a fellow student was fired. We ended up following it instead to prevent others from "borrowing" our reagents/antibodies/etc.

I think the reason for there being little to no sabotage is because it is your supervisor who ends up losing. Two students in the same lab hinders the PI, who won't be happy...Sabotage between labs hinders the department...who won't be happy to see someone is slowing research, thus results, thus grants, thus money flow into the dept. Sabotage between schools? That would involve more legal repercussions...and I don't think the NIH would be throwing too much more money your way. Revenge through lab work hurts everyone up the chain, so if an individual is caught the consequences would likely be severe.

But most of all it is the seclusion and responsibilities placed on us during training. We learn that we are the only ones to blame for our failures (which are frequent) and as a result don't tend to take it out on others. That's why the Amy Bishop story caught so much news among scientists.

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7. sepisp on March 24, 2011 3:05 AM writes...

Fortunately even one was caught, if you just consider the monetary loss. Scientists often order thousands of dollars worth of starting materials alone, then work on the materials at a cost of thousands a week to the institution, for several months or years. Even the sabotage of a single vial does just as much damage as taking a new car and crashing it to beyond repair. University personnel should have no right to be tried in some sort of an internal ecclesiastical court to be sentenced to reciting three Hail Marys.

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8. Anonymous on March 24, 2011 7:22 AM writes...

lab sabotage by ignorance and the perp got away scot-free

I've also seen this and it's INCREDIBLY frustrating. How does the saying go? The only difference between stupidity and malice is intent? Something like that.

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9. RB Woodweird on March 24, 2011 7:26 AM writes...

Most sabotage plots are impulsive and poorly executed. The classics are carefully plotted.

Case in point: Graduate student X is trying to make intermediate C in his natural product synthesis by reacting A and B. His labmate Y gets his hands on compound D - which is just similar enough to C and just plausibly a true product of A and B if A and B were to react in a wholly novel manner. A manner which, if true, would lead to a series of publications and a named reaction. Named after the PI (and the graduate student - he hopes). Y adds just a bit of D to the reaction one night. Just enough to show on the TLC plate. Just enough to get noticed, isolated, and analyzed. Then Y adds a bit more to the reaction X runs to try and reproduce it. X confirms the structure and flees down the hall to his advisor, telling him the wonderful news. The advisor tells X to drop all other work and concentrate on making more D, optimizing the conditions under which D is produced, ordering analogs and derivatives of A and B to extend the method. Excitement fills the air so voluminously it cannot be fully evacuated from the lab via the hoods. As X varies his reaction conditions, D appears in greater and greater amounts. But then something goes horribly wrong. The yield of D wavers, starts to decline, drops precipitously, then goes to zero despite the sweat and lamentations of X and the lashes of his advisor.

Eventually, there are no appearances of D at all, and the book is closed on that avenue of research. X is left broken and disillusioned, his notebooks from that period are burnt and no one ever speaks of those glorious days when it seemed that the pantheon of organic chemistry immortals was to be expanded by two.

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10. Vader on March 24, 2011 8:48 AM writes...

I can't think of any sabotage in the laboratories where I've worked, at least of the deliberate kind. I've seen some exceedingly poorly-written computer code inserted into a previously well-designed simulation program, though. And I've seen data stolen for use in the thief's publication.

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11. partial agonist on March 24, 2011 9:13 AM writes...

This doesn't quite rise to the level of sabotage, but back in graduate school there was a student who pretty much lost all motivation to work in the chemistry lab but wanted it to "look" like he was very much busy, with numerous flasks in the hood, containing solvents, and spinning away for days on end, unattended. The intention apparently was to fool the PI (he traveled a great deal) to think that lots of activity was going on (despite no notebook entries).

After a few months of this, some other chemists in the lab (I may have played a small role) replaced these apparently dummy flasks with small piles of salt heaped on the stir plates with stir bars spinning away in the middle. I think that we (er, umm... THEY) also placed some crumbled oreos on another stir plate. We stowed away his original flasks in case some real chemistry was occurring (doubtful).

It was hilarious to see these dummy "reactions" sit there for a week until he graced us with an appearance.

He soon veered away from graduate school in chemistry. Last I knew was pursuing patent law, probably making more $$$ than any of his former labmates.

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12. SP on March 24, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

In the realm of legend, I heard about a microbiology lab that sabotaged another by sending them an envelope full of lyophilized phage and destroyed all the competitor's lab's bacterial samples.

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13. Anonymous on March 24, 2011 10:09 AM writes...

This is why people need to pull the occasional prank instead of malicious sabotage.

Nothing like a good ol prank.

My favourites were:

The Jay Manuel homage all over someone's cubicle dubbed "emuanel overide".

This one involves about 30 pictures of Jay Manual taped to everything. Desk, computer, fume hood glass. The real trick is to place a couple in places that keep popping up, like inside the calculator, under the seat. It’s best when your victim has already a grudge with someone else, and you can watch the retaliation.

“The black mage” This one was done to a Phd student that had just been there too long. Smart guy but kind of was allergic to the fume hood. Towards the very end he would spend a lot of time checking ESPN and playing online video games on face book. He was really into fantasy games, knights and goblins.

We decided to make up and professionally printed a certificate saying congratulations on reaching black mage status for slaying the goblin king and other things in dungeons and dragons talk, again thank you for playing 3000 h of this video game.

Then frame and mount on his desk, or actually mail it to them possibly through the supervisor. This one works great if the person gets to the lab late , bonus points if supervisor sees it.

“The mystery lover”- This one is fairly simple but effective. It works on both males and females, that are… very social and gossipy. The trick is gain access to the lab, it works better if it’s not yours and drop a bunch of nice roses on someone’s desk. Bonus points if the person is married/in a relationship, because as you imagine … wait you DIDN’T send me flowers??

This person will spend the better part of the week trying to find out who did it, interrogating everyone.

If you are not ready to run with the big dogs you may want to start smaller.

“stuffing the turkey” – stuff the drawers of the desk with packing peanuts. Especially effective with new uber serious post-docs.

“The radioactive Russian” tin foil wrap everything. Books, papers, computer, desk, stationary.

Personally I never mess with the bench. It's just chemist code.

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14. legend on March 24, 2011 10:59 AM writes...

I don't have real proof but it's not legend either, since the case was solved after security cameras had been installed and the perpetrator caught and fired.
This happenend 5+ years back in a pretty well established biotech company in the SF bay area (South Bay) where a good friend of mine worked. His cell cultures would continuously die and he complained to me about his lab issues at the time.
Eventually he informed HR/others in the company about his suspicions and cameras were installed. The "colleague" was caught in the act and fired (he had tampered with the culture medium).
The story was never made public (and even inside the company very few knew) since the company feared a negative impact on their stock. The company was not too much later bought by a big pharma company.

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15. Anonymous on March 24, 2011 12:53 PM writes...

legend, the way that situation was handled I think is a sad indication of an overall attitude in science.

"Don't to anything to hurt your reputation, even if it's the right thing to do."

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16. Anonymous on March 25, 2011 10:13 AM writes...


The best way to prank anyone is with cyanoacrylate:

Glue a quarter to the floor and watch the fun. The best place to put the quarter is right at the entrance to the bathroom. This causes the most congestion and lots of people banging into you as they come out the door.

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17. Anonymous on March 25, 2011 1:07 PM writes...

The best from my lab was a false accusation of sabotage: It was a guy who decided he needed to "dry" his mercury overnight in the oven. When it was gone in the morning, he ran around the lab demanding to know who "stole my mercury!"

I think real sabotage is very common. Not often an entertaining story. And not often a complete disaster, but a major speed bump to the victim. Happened three times in six years in my lab alone during my PhD, and stories of many more abounded. Usually a case of a twenty-something jerk avenging some petty grievance.

My three definite examples (last one done to me) were: 1) replacing computer code with modified code (confirmed by admission, and research dir not willing to take action), 2) translucent, scattering foreign object strategically placed in optical path of a spectrometer (no suspect idenitifed), and 3) dialing the optics in a spectromter completely out of alignment for the student taking over a instrument/project (99% confirmed, and the 1% alternative invalidates the suspect's dissertation work).

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18. Paul on March 28, 2011 9:54 PM writes...

When I was working in a medical research school, we were all told (and it was very hush-hush) about a postdoc who was sacked because he purposely put concentrated hydrochloric acid in someone else's PBS saline to sabotage that person's work. I guess biologists don't check their pH's routinely, so this went on for some time. It only came to light when someone accidentally got splashed with the contaminated PBS and got burned. A big investigation ensued, the culprit confessed, and was fired.

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19. Been There Done That on March 29, 2011 2:27 PM writes...


This isn't a joke. There are those of us in this field who have had to deal with this crap. It isn't funny to have to deal with the feelings of self doubt and paranoia only to find your lab-mate was screwing you over because of his own twisted world view.

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20. Chemjobber on April 6, 2011 7:30 AM writes...

BTDT: I don't think it's a joke; I think it's really serious. While the prize may be jokey, the sentiment behind it is really sincere.

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21. how to get proof? on September 18, 2011 10:18 PM writes...

I thought that I was a rarity having been a victim of sabatoge myself. It is an incredibly painful thing to endure expecially since the first inclination is for no one to believe you and in fact revictimize you by dissmissing your claim and turing it around on you. Much like was initally done with Heather Ames in Dr. Ross's lab. After having read several articles and blogs on the matter I finally understand why even if you are believed why a company or institution would push it under the rug. Doing the right thing, which would be to take the claim serious and investigate it, would only result in loss of revenue or possibly the business itself if the claims turned out to be true. There is no motive for the company/institution to investigate willingly other than for the obvious moral reasons. The only way I could prove what's going on would be to get a hidden camera myself. But in some states the laws on this appears to vary greatly. Does anyone have any advice on how to go about getting the proof yourself before you take your suspicions to the 'appropriate' people? I have no faith that the right thing will be done with simply reporting concerns without having any concrete proof to back it up...proof that can not be ingnored.

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