The year was 2004 and I was on my way to becoming a Ph.D. candidate. I had just joined the laboratory of my choice and felt like I was on the verge of making my first big splash in science. The Toledo Blade, the city’s leading newspaper, had just interviewed Phil, a senior graduate student in the lab. I was envious. I wanted my name in the newspaper, too.
I wasn’t just daydreaming about my moment in the limelight — I was also working hard on my project. But at the moment it was not newspaper material. So I decided that I would push myself even more and blow everyone away by making a mutant breast cancer gene cloned into bacteria.
It was close to midnight and I had not eaten dinner. I was at the bench spreading bacterial culture on an agar plate, using a bunsen burner to protect my precious mutant clone from contamination. I tried to ignore my rumbling stomach. All I needed to do is spread the culture on the plates, stick them in an incubator, go home to my bed and wait for the mutant colonies to appear on the plates the next day. That’s when it happened. As I dipped the glass spreader in alcohol, a tiny lit splinter on the rod set the big alcohol beaker on fire.
On any other day, I might have grabbed a glass plate and placed it over the beaker, snuffing out the flame. But low blood sugar has a nasty way of pushing me towards panic and draining my presence of mind. Adding to my anxiety, the burning beaker sat on a cluttered bench next to a gas line with papers dangerously suspended from a shelf above it. I could not find a glass plate to cut off this tiny fire’s oxygen. The exhaustion of a sixteen-hour work day caught up with me in seconds. In a moment of despair, fearing the worst, I called campus emergency.
The next few minutes were a blur. I was nauseous from the smell of burning alcohol one minute and desperately hungry the next. I had alternating visions of perishing in the fire and eating doughnuts. I tried moving the beaker and burned my fingers. As I stood back from the hot flaming beaker, trying to think clearly, a dozen firemen rushed in. They picked up the beaker easily with gloved hands and placed it on the floor of the hallway.
“Ma’am, what is in this beaker?” they asked me. I felt like I was on a television crime show and had been caught with explosives.
“Ee—alc–ethanol” I stammered, not making much sense. Isolated from all inflammables, sitting in the empty hallway, the flaming beaker now looked surprisingly meek—more like an aromatherapy candle.
The officer bellowed into his radio and said something about not wanting to touch an “unknown chemical.”
“It’s just alcohol!” I bleated. But my voice must have been weak because he ignored me. Finally my glazed eyes fell upon the glass plate I had been looking for. In a mad dash, I took it out of the cabinet and put it over the beaker, extinguishing the night’s drama. The officers asked me my name, some details and just as suddenly as they had rushed in, they were all gone. Later, having eaten a cereal bar, I was back at my bench. None of this would matter, I told myself, if I saw colonies on my plates the next day.
When I arrived the next morning, there was a small crowd outside our lab. When my advisor turned to look at me, I saw that he was laughing and his eyes were filled with tears of mirth. He handed me a folded newspaper. There on the front page of the Toledo Blade that morning was a headline that sank my heart. “MCO officer extinguishes alcohol fire in glass beaker.” The article included my name and the events of the previous night.
“This, my dear child, is why I tell you not to work long hours without eating,” my advisor said with a big “I-told-you-so” grin. I turned red in embarrassment. “
But I was the one that put the glass plate on the beaker—not the officer!!” I protested petulantly, but was drowned by yet another burst of laughter.
This incident won me a permanent mention in the institute’s lab safety class where I became somewhat of a celebrity. I earned a cool nickname—PyroAditi. Soon I could look back and laugh at this incident. I still made mistakes in the lab following this little beaker fire, but managed to keep my name out of newspapers by snacking before major experiments and not overworking my body. This may have been my biggest goof in science but what I remember fondly about that day is when the hilarity over my newspaper headline faded, I went in and opened the incubator. There, growing on my plates, were plump colonies carrying my mutant gene, the one that ultimately became the subject of my research and got me my Ph.D.
Aditi Nadkarni is an editor with John Wiley & Sons. She received her PhD in cancer biology and, prior to her career in science publishing, conducted cancer research at the Mayo Clinic and New York University.