Put the Sci in your Fi – Beakers, Bunsen Burners and Budget Cuts (Part 1)

First of all, thank you to fellow sci-fi writer K.S. Watts for the title!

And now, on to post no. 2 for putting the ‘sci’ in your ‘fi’, part 1 of the mini-series, Beakers, Bunsen Burners and Budget Cuts!

If you’ve watched any sci-fi movie, you’re probably familiar with the following setting:

Super dark, blue-lit labs… (Image credit: jimmyjimjim)
Full of high-tech equipment… (Image credit: neisbeis)

Why do labs always look like this? Because it’s edgy. It’s dramatic. It’s exciting and photogenic.

It’s also incredibly expensive. And who can blame the author for wanting to set up a billion-dollar lab? Expensive, flashy toys are always exciting, not to mention they are apparently extremely effective at getting the job done. Vaccines can be discovered and mass-produced within a week, amiright?

But what if your character is not a trust fund baby with rich parents, and they want to set up a lab in their basement using money they saved from their summer job delivering pizzas? (Okay, maybe two summers, because let’s face it, science is hellishly expensive no matter how you look at it).

In other words, what if you want your character to stand out and slum it?

This blog post will show you the tricks real scientists use in real labs to cut down on costs. You won’t end up with a fancy lab that looks like the ones pictured above…but you could get away with having a character who doesn’t have millions of dollars in their inheritance just conveniently sitting there, waiting for them to tap into.

First up is…

Non-fat powdered milk

milkpowder-main

First of all, no, we don’t drink this stuff. I mean, we could in our own homes (or anywhere besides the lab), but for science purposes, we use it to prevent non-specific protein binding in Western blots or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (or ELISAs). What the hell does that mean? Assays like Western blots or ELISAs are meant to detect and measure concentrations of specific proteins of interest using antibodies. But antibodies (like most other proteins) are sticky, which can lead to a lot of background “noise” in our results. Skim milk is full of protein, but chances are, we’re not looking for the proteins in milk. The milk proteins can act as a block by taking up “empty space” on our blots, unoccupied by samples, preventing erroneous detection (a step in the process that is, unsurprisingly, called blocking.)

western
Photo courtesy of
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sms.12702/full

 

TL/DR—if your character works in a lab with proteins, put a box of this stuff in their lab.

Clear nail polish

81lpgwqlb-l-_sl1500_

Ain’t none of us putting this on our fingernails as far as I know, but this actually makes a good sealant around glass coverslips on microscope slides. It’s easy to apply, develops a hard surface that is impermeable to water when dried, protects samples from desiccation, and is relatively immobile which will keep the coverslip in place during storage or imaging.

finished_clear_millie
Image courtesy of Very Tiny Things, as part of their step-by-step tutorial of how to make a permanent slide

Actual, specially formulated coverslip sealant exists that could be useful for anti-fading or preserving fluorescent stains on your samples (available from Fishersci and VWR), but as they are highly specialized products, your character won’t find them at CVS for $4.77.

TL/DR—if your character works with microscope slides or cell imaging, throw a few bottles of this in one of their drawers.

Salad spinner

0719812076461_a1c1_0600

I have literally seen one of these in a lab at Rutgers. This is not a drill.

Why on earth would you need one of these? Well… because for certain applications, it can be used as a centrifuge. It certainly won’t achieve very high speeds (so no, it cannot separate things in liquid, and most certainly cannot replace an ultracentrifuge for viral isolation.) But what your character can do is use plastic zip ties to hold one of these in place:

centrifuge2
Image courtesy of Makezine

Those trays are meant to hold little plastic tubes, commonly found in molecular biology labs. There are also trays with 96 wells, generally used to spin down PCR plates before running them. Your character can now gather liquid to the bottom of their tubes without resorting to banging the tube on the table.

TL/DR—if your character needs some low-speed centrifugation (ONLY for the purposes of pushing liquids down a tube, and not for actual separation of any components), like what you might need for PCR, scatter a few of these across their countertops. 

Aluminum foil

best-quality-aluminium-foil_350x350

Your character will likely have a few refrigerators in their lab. Some fridges have normal, solid doors, and that’s fine. Some labs (like one of the ones I worked in) will have fridges like this:

9ee90a7c70bfd126e5c71b1407f60012
Giant, glass door deli fridges

The plus side to a fridge like this is they’re generally much roomier than your normal household fridge. The downside is they tend to let in a lot of light, and some of the reagents typically used in life sciences aren’t a fan of that (i.e. lots of fluorescent antibodies or stains, and paraformaldehyde.) Often times, these reagents come in opaque bottles or pouches. But if your character needs to aliquot their reagents, as scientists often do when they get a new batch of something, chances are, the tubes they’re using are clear to light.

That’s where the aluminum foil comes in handy. The foil can be scrunched around the tube itself, or folded into pouches. Taping up sheets of aluminum to the inside of the glass doors is another good trick, and often times scientists will do both.

Bonus trick: Nitrile gloves (the blue or purple ones) can also help block light. If your tube is small enough, your character can cut the fingers off the glove and stick a tube in there. I used to aliquot some fluorescent dyes in teeny little PCR tubes and store them in the tip of a glove finger.

pcr-tube-strip
Great for storing small amounts of reagent. Whenever you need to unfreeze an aliquot, just break one of the tubes away from the strip.

TL/DR—if your character has glass door fridges in their lab, have a few large sheets of foil taped up over the glass, or squeezed around tubes. There’s also aluminum foil tape you can consider.

Microwave

Doesn’t have to be a fancy, laboratory microwave. A simple one from Walmart will do.

Last, but definitely far from the least, microwaves. Everyone knows the primary use of a microwave—to make instant ramen or blow up marshmallow peeps. But in the lab, your scientist character probably isn’t using it to heat up food or explode animal-shaped sugar monstrosities.

Microwaves are actually quite common in life-science labs, and yet… I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in a movie or a book. Except possibly in the Big Bang Theory? Or maybe I’m just completely oblivious, I would not rule out that possibility.

Regardless, my graduate school lab was essentially a stem cells and tissue engineering lab. The microwave in our lab was used for everything from heating up sodium citrate for antigen retrieval (to increase the detectability of proteins in a cell or tissue sample) to melting agarose gels for Western blots (also for protein detection), to heating Coomassie Blue stains (visualizing bands of proteins…)

Coomassie Blue staining bands of proteins on a gel after electrophoresis

My laboratory in undergrad worked with DNA, and part of the experiment involved making a Southern blot, a method in molecular biology to detect specific DNA sequences in a DNA sample. Similar to the Western blot, the Southern blot involves making an agarose gel to separate pieces of DNA into bands based on size, which requires melting down agarose powder in buffer solution, and by now you’ve probably guessed, this needs… a microwave!

The ubiquitous agarose gel, formed and ready to go

In a microbiology lab, microwaves are typically used for melting agar-based media, used to cultivate bacteria or molds/yeasts. When stored at room temperature, agar media solidifies—which means you can’t pour them out of their bottles to make petri dishes or agar tube slants.

agars
Colorful agar plates and tube slants

Now, you could potentially have your character buy pre-made agar plates, but again, if you want your character to save some dimes, making the agar plates in-house is much more cost efficient.

Finally, a paper on producing copper nanofluids using one-step was published by Zhu, et al in 2004. Essentially, the paper boils down to this paragraph, which reads a little like a cookbook recipe:

All the reagents used in our experiments were of analytical purity and were used without further purification. In a typical procedure, 25 ml ethylene glycol solution (0.1 M) of copper sulfate pentahydrate (CuSO4·5H2O) was mixed with 5 ml of ethylene glycol solution (0.01 M) of polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP-K30) in a 100-ml beaker, followed by magnetic stirring for 30 min. Then 25 ml of ethylene glycol solution (0.25 M) of sodium hypophosphite (NaH2PO2·H2O) was added and stirred for another 15 min. The mixture was put into a microwave oven (700W, Galanz Microwaves Oven Corp., Shunde, China) to react for 5 min under medium power. The color of the mixture turned from blue to dark red after the reaction. After being cooled to room temperature, Cu nanofluid was obtained.

TL/DR—If your character works with proteins, DNA, microbes, or nanofluids, throw one of these on the workbench. 

That is all for this post! I hope the information here will help you add a touch of authenticity to your sci-fi character’s laboratory setting. There are many more cheap, every day items that can be found in a lab, but those will be covered in later posts.

As always, if you have any questions, if anything needs clarification, or if there’s anything you’d like to see addressed in the next post, please leave a comment below.

Thank you for reading!

Til next time!
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