Lab Packrat

Jun 04 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science, Humor, Tribe of Science

dmAgent: "So, Postdoc B, what'd BigCheez have to say to you today"
PdB: "Huh. Now that you mention it this is the first time BigCheez has ever directly smiled at me..."

I don't really get the phenotype myself. My type of work doesn't really lend itself to the pathological hoarder of lab reagents. Apparently they are somewhat common though. You know the one. The lab member who orders stuff and then...well, hoards it. Won't give you any even though there's plenty on hand. Even though it'll take a few days to order some more (oh by the way it isn't exactly cheap, you know) and the lab colleague could get the experiment done this afternoon.
So what do you do?


Well, of course you are in a huge lab, so huge that the PI had to put an admin in charge of ordering, just to put a little bit of a bottle neck on flagrant wastage. The admin, of course, isn't supposed to (and can't) make decisions of scientific priority or deal with BadLabPartners. That's the PI's job. 'Course, he's out of town.
It's been awhile now and Postdoc A keeps promising to give some critical antibody to Postdoc B. Why not, it makes perfect sense. PdA orders about twenty times more antibody than anyone else... wtf is he doing, anyway? Everyone knows about the situation by now. It's been discussed in lab meeting for chrrissakes! PdA is going to give some antibody to PdB and some critical experiment will be performed. Everybody's happy. The PI is on board. Everyone's on board.
But....
PdA keeps hoarding. And putting PdB off.
So one afternoon, things get a little heated in the bay. PdB is advancing his case, PdA is resisting. Language gets a little....advanced. PdB may have gotten a little, er, physioproffian.
PdA is incensed and ....slaps PdB! Game On! PdB punches PdA right in the face!
Next day, BigCheez returns from his latest trip out of town to find PdA with a big ol' shiner.

33 responses so far

  • JSinger says:

    PdA is incensed and ....slaps PdB! Game On! PdB punches PdA right in the face!
    Almost the exact same thing happened to me, except that (Grad Student) A merely took off a glove and threw it at my chest. I took a step forward, and decided it wasn't worth getting kicked out of grad school for. Especially since the PI (who was afraid of him) wouldn't stand up to him on his constant hiding of equipment in the first place, and I couldn't imagine she'd take my side after I busted him with the wrench for the CO2 tank. Plus there was, errr, a racial angle...
    After he left, someone else went through his records and found that he'd bought tens of thousands of dollars of unnecessary Taq because they gave you a free Snickers with each $500 tube.

  • Will TS says:

    When I was in grad school, two grad students in the lab next door had a long running feud over supplies and equipment. Eventually they got into a bloody fist fight over a plastic ruler. The campus police came and the larger of the two grad students was taken away in handcuffs. The PI booted the guy out of the lab. He drifted around the department for a while, homeless, before being taken in by my supervisor and moving into the bench right next to mine. Luckily, I was about 4 months from finishing and moving on, but I was terrified every day.

  • Becca says:

    Tens of thousands of dollars of unnecessary taq? You can send it my way! I'll *make* a use for it. Seriously, there has got to be more to that story. Still, it's hilarious.

  • juniorprof says:

    PdA is incensed and ....slaps PdB! Game On! PdB punches PdA right in the face!
    So what do you do?
    Well if I'm the PI both of them are fired. I've seen enough violence in my life thank you, it won't be tolerated.
    Was that the question?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well if I'm the PI both of them are fired. I've seen enough violence in my life thank you, it won't be tolerated.
    I'm gonna step out on the limb and say that when something like this occurs for these reasons, there is more than a little blame to be directed at the PI. Like I said, I don't get the packrat thing. That doesn't seem acceptable to me...

  • we're all adults here says:

    Lame. What's up with people who can't share? It's not your fucking antibody/reagent/equipment. Maybe it's a universal lab phenomenon. At least in my case it hasn't come to blows ...yet!

  • Betsy says:

    Still LOL about the Snickers for Taq story. That's awesome.
    I worked in a lab like this. It never came to blows, but there was a lot of screaming. We had one postdoc who had a massive blow-up with every single person in the lab. Except me. 🙂
    I think on a certain level it's the PI's fault for creating this type of atmosphere. Labs that foster collaboration among members tend to share better. That stuff always trickles down from the top. If it's one bad egg that's doing it, the PI needs to intervene and deal with it. YES, the lab members should act like adults, but when that fails, the PI is responsible for dealing with a bad situation.
    As for what to do--it's easy to say that the PI should fire them both, but put yourself in that situation. What if they're both good scientists that are producing a lot of good work for you? Are you REALLY going to fire them, and leave a gaping hole in your lab? Realistically, I doubt it.

  • juniorprof says:

    I'm gonna step out on the limb and say that when something like this occurs for these reasons, there is more than a little blame to be directed at the PI
    Good point, but still, fist fights, come on! But yeah, I also don't get the packrat thing...
    It's not your fucking antibody/reagent/equipment
    Which is really the point, none of the shit in our labs is "ours". People in academic labs need to accept that their jobs exist only because taxpayers in developed countries have seen fit to invest in science.

  • juniorprof says:

    As for what to do--it's easy to say that the PI should fire them both, but put yourself in that situation. What if they're both good scientists that are producing a lot of good work for you? Are you REALLY going to fire them, and leave a gaping hole in your lab? Realistically, I doubt it.
    Let's assume for a second that I'm the PI and that I'm not some type of asshole that intentionally, or through neglect, creates such a situation in the lab. In that case, damn straight I'm gonna fire 'em. I don't care if they're Einstein. No physical violence in my lab (and no threats either).

  • PhysioProf says:

    If one dude hits another dude, and the other dude hits back, I think I might make a determination as to who was really the aggressor. If the latter dude was not the initiator and really just hit back after being hit, I might not fire him. Would it really be fair to fire someone who did not initiate violence and only responded to it?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I would not be surprised in the least if my institutional HR policy manual reads that striking a fellow employee is one of a very short list of things that can mean "buh-bye" right now, no questions asked, no contesting, no crying.

  • MikeG says:

    Well, I don't know... Maybe I'm the asshole all of you are talking about. I have never struck anyone, but I have, on the occasion of someone else using "my" reagents, just given them the rest of said reagent. Not the big stuff, like the communal chemicals, but I like to have my own Taq, &c, because I know what's been done with them. I know if I left them on the bench overnight and didn't put 'em back in the freezer. If no one else messes with my TE, I am more confident that it hasn't been trayfed.
    I'm only protective of prepared stuff and critical stuff, though. Equipment, general chemicals and shit like that, yeah, that's shared. Critical stuff like primers, Taq, &c, I tend to be a bit protective about.
    Am I that guy?

  • Schlupp says:

    Biomedical research truly seems to be rather eventful. I see the point of PhysioProf's #10, but in the case of the "guily" one, as a reply to Betsy's last paragraph: Especially after this event, they are likely to drag everybody else's productivity down by much more than they can offset themselves.

  • hilo says:

    MikeG, I think you are not THAT guy if you know there are many ways to negotiate things like that without blowing up. If someone was desperate for some reagent that you already had (and could obtain again quickly), it would be good lab karma to give him/her some.

  • JSinger says:

    Tens of thousands of dollars of unnecessary taq? You can send it my way! I'll *make* a use for it.
    We never figured out where it all went. He'd bought orders of magnitude more than he needed for any experiments he could have possibly done but it was all gone. The PI wrote to him at his postdoc and he blamed it on me.
    Seriously, there has got to be more to that story.
    With some distance (OK, a lot of distance) I've realized that he had some pretty serious psychological problems, and that the real blame goes to the PI and senior lab members who basically served me up to him as a sacrifice.

  • PhysioProf says:

    One thing I used to do that was pretty innocent and self-protective was that when I made buffers for myself, I would put ruse labels on them so lazy fucks in the lab wouldn't use up my shit. One thing was to write on the label over the name of the buffer "Contaminated: DON'T USE!' Or I would make up bogus names for shit. Like if I made a nice bottle of TAE gel running buffer, I would label it EAT. HAHAHAHAHAH!!

  • I would put ruse labels on them
    Dude, that is haggard. But funny.
    I'm all for people having their own stocks of whatever they want, particularly as they get into the highly superstitious 5th-6th year. It's just a question of attitude when someone (non-routinely) asks to borrow/steal some stuff. Do you say "sure, here it is" or do you flat-out refuse (despite plenty of excess) and/or give them the wrong thing?
    Anyhow, back to the original point. Uh, I'd sit down with them both and make it clear that they had to attend anger management classes, or otherwise I would never ever write them a positive recommendation. That goes for the second guy, too. Clearly he was legitimately angry, but if you haven't learned how to walk away from or not get yourself into a physically violent situation, you have not figured out a lot of shit yet.

  • BugDoc says:

    I'm with Mike on this one. We have had a number of incidents in my lab (which has a general policy of sharing), where somebody wasn't careful about how they treated common reagents and screwed up other people's experiments for WEEKS while the problem was found.
    If you need to have your own stock of some critical reagent (i.e. 1-2 tubes, NOT a 10K$ hoard of Taq, for fuck's sake) fine, then if someone asks you for it aliquot them out what they need to get through the next few days and ask them to get their own tube. We also make small aliquots of many common reagents so that everybody gets to have their own precious tube, but we don't have to buy 10 full size tubes.
    Re lab members slapping each other around, that is nonsense. I'm the only person who gets to smack people around here.

  • TreeFish says:

    I always tell people that their hands better be working harder than their mouths; and that if things come to blows that the participants face a cage match with me. After all the laughter stops, I remind them that we're a family and that we share. If I see things getting tense, I try to re-establish my alpha-role by giving people the ol' hairy eyeball...and gently reminding them that lab stuff = lab stuff.
    Also, I openly invite people to fight with each other if things get bad, BUT ONLY AFTER they have a push-up contest and compete in a shuttle run down the lab corridor. I take bets, so I'll post the odds on any upcoming competitions on DrugMonkey. No fights yet, so maybe my hyperbole gets them to realize how silly being a pudwhack about shared reagents/equipment is.
    One more thing, I start at 5am so I tell the peeps who are having trouble accessing shared equipment "I know people aren't in lab at 5am, so maybe you should use it then." That either causes said crazy PhD student to become an early bird (or night owl), or makes them understand that their small compromise with organized scheduled use of said equipment will pay dividends in the form of the greater lab good.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I wouldn't be surprised if the Taq person took it with them to their next position (had to wiki that one to find out what the hell it was!). It's incredibly wrong but I'm fairly certain I've seen others depart with chemicals/reagents in tow. . .
    I once heard of people coming (nearly) to blows over priority on a ROTOVAP. . .pressure really does hit people in weird ways sometimes.
    Our lab seems to have the opposite problem: people order sh*t and never use it, e.g. the 7-10 cans of BuLi, 2.5 M, 100ml in various fridges. I haven't had to order it yet and I've been here for about a year!

  • JSinger says:

    Indeed, I wonder if the real issue in the original story and in several other's stories isn't the fact that academic departments keep people around (students, postdocs, techs, faculty) who would never be tolerated in a normal workplace, and pretend that abusive or even threatening behavior stemming from mental illness is just part of the normal spectrum of scientific conduct.
    Even Dr. Jekyll's proposal of "anger management classes" doesn't properly address the reality of someone like Will TS' baymate. The potential consequences of keeping a violent, unstable person around are much worse than even a fistfight between a couple of evenly matched guys that ends with the expulsion of the guy who was defending himself.
    One more thing, I start at 5am so I tell the peeps who are having trouble accessing shared equipment "I know people aren't in lab at 5am, so maybe you should use it then." That either causes said crazy PhD student to become an early bird (or night owl)...
    My colleague was already coming at 6 to steal and hide film cassettes, so that wouldn't really have helped. Even if I'd come in at 5, he had half the lab stuffed in his locked bench drawers.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Do you say "sure, here it is" or do you flat-out refuse (despite plenty of excess) and/or give them the wrong thing?

    I was always happy to give people shit if I had plenty and they asked. I just didn't want people stealing my shit and leaving me to reach for an empty bottle when I need it myself.

    Even if I'd come in at 5, he had half the lab stuffed in his locked bench drawers.

    LOLZ!!!

  • LindaCO says:

    How about the chronic mooch? I work in a lab where one of my colleagues, despite PI's instructions to "order your own stuff" asks to borrow things like Taq, dNTPs or PCR plates on a fairly regular basis. Did I say borrow? Now that I think about it, I don't recall getting anything back... Anyway, I comply when I have extra, but when the boss says it's OK to order your own Taq, why not do so?

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    Geez, haven't these people heard of the term aliquot? Mooching is mooching, and we did have to resort to changing the locks on one room so people without their own grants wouldn't come in and take stuff, but everyone's pretty generous around here. There's only been a couple cases I know of false labels and that sort of shenanigan.

  • bayman says:

    Hoarding is bad. However, claiming a certain amount of reagent territory is a necessary evil when working in a highly populated open lab environment. Wasted months of cloning only to find out that I had the construct all along but was using cross-contaminated common-stock restriction enzymes, and having to can experiments after weeks of set-up because someone sucked up all the reagents the night before have taught me this.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Wasted months of cloning only to find out that I had the construct all along but was using cross-contaminated common-stock restriction enzymes

    Yep! I once thought I had a Nobel motherfucking Prize-winning discovery, but it was just that some fuckwit contaminated the Taq with some fucking DNA. That's the kind of shit that leads to hoarding. That's also why I don't want to watch people pipetting in the lab; it'll just give me a fucking ulcer.

  • bayman says:

    That's also why I don't want to watch people pipetting in the lab; it'll just give me a fucking ulcer
    LOLZ! A rare moment of cutting insight into the mind of the PI!
    Students, try this one next time you meet with PI: Describe to PI how last experiment didn't work but not to worry; it was just the contaminated common-stock enzyme/antibody/plasmid/cell line. Watch as PI returns a vacant stare through the back of your head into the wall behind you and his/her blood pressure goes through the roof.
    Actually don't. That would be cruel.

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    We've had a different but related problem; one of the labs here has a walking hygeine catastrophe working in it. She has 1-1/2" fingernails, never wears gloves, and contaminates literally everything she touches with all manner of crap. She does not understand --or care-- what she is doing wrong, and the PI doesn't want a "confrontation", as she is mighty dam' fond of those fingernails.
    The only way other people in the lab can get anything useful done is to hide everything they want to use so that she can't touch it. I loathe the fact that this whole situation is being allowed to continue -- she has been in that lab for over a year, and god knows what nonsense results have been propagated from her contamination.

  • flinny says:

    I am a hoarder. Maybe I am that person. I'd rather not be, but I was forced into it by the lab that I am in. It's not a bad place to be, but there only needs to be one careless person to mean that communal supplies might spoil my experiments.
    There are one or two people where I work who wash glassware carelessly and put contaminated things back in the cupboards. There are people who know they have let a sensitive reagent get warm/wet/exposed to air and put it back without telling anyone. There are people who will notice that the levels of a common supply/reagent is getting low and will not do anything about it, even right before a weekend or holiday. There are people who will help themselves to your labelled equipment if it's not put out of sight. There are people who leave a tiny amount in the bottom of a bottle to avoid having to get more themselves.
    I hoard to avoid getting frustrated with these people. If I don't get burnt by their sloppiness and laziness, I have a good relationship with them. If I'm constantly thinking, "I wanted to do Experiment A this weekend, but X used the last of the pipette tips" or "last month's work is ruined by the reagent I lent X being contaminated" it's going to affect how I interact with them. So hoarding can be a way of getting along with people when otherwise you wouldn't see eye to eye.
    But this isn't to say I agree with not sharing if people exceptionally need your stuff - if they need it then and they can only get it for later, then obviously you share. But people who constantly borrow to avoid walking downstairs to the stockroom, or who have a habit of returning items in a damaged/contamined state... I lose patience.

  • Kes says:

    Mooching is mooching, and we did have to resort to changing the locks on one room so people without their own grants wouldn't come in and take stuff.
    We had that problem, too. A PI left for another institution but didn't take all her stuff because she still had a tech or two hanging around. Eventually the tech left and the lab reverted to the control of another PI, who told one individual from one lab they could come get something from the remaining stuff. About 11 pm one night a few weeks after that, one of the grad students (under PI #2) noticed a couple of students from another lab wandering around in the unattended lab. They cleaned that place out, and when asked why they did it, said they didn't know they weren't supposed to do that.
    Right. Because that's why you were there at 11pm when you knew no one would be around to catch you, and why you took things that didn't have any names on it so no one could say it was from this one lab. We changed those locks darned fast and now you have to ask PI #2 to get in there.

  • Lab Lemming says:

    "Even though it'll take a few days to order some more"
    A few days? Mate, you should just be thankful you work in a large industrialized country. It once took me six months to get a tank of neon gas delivered.
    And fighting should be confined to the pub. In lab it is a safety violation.

  • DSKS says:

    That fists were thrown isn't so much the issue as where they were thrown, IMHO. Fighting around expensive equipment simply won't do. These things should be settled in a gentlemanly fashion out in the fresh air. Gilsons at dawn and all that.

  • Samia says:

    They actually *hit* each other, and there is a question as to whether not they should be kicked out? If you can't be civil, you shouldn't be working in a lab with other people. I wouldn't feel safe in such an environment. It's ridiculous and distracting for their other labmates to put up with that kind of juvenile crap. You're there to learn and work.

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