There are invariably three things TV shows get wrong when they show scientists (mad or otherwise) at work, discovering (or creating) a dangerous new pathogen:
- The work is being done by old, white, male professors;
- The pathogen, despite having being just discovered/created, is easily spotted on a light microscope or by scanning a patient’s entire body in real-time;
- The lab is stark, sterile, and tidy.
Reality–at least in academic American biomedical labs–is quite different:
- Old, white, male professors do not actually work in the lab. As silverbacks, they spend their time attending meetings, applying for grants, and picking tasty lice off of each other. Actual lab work is done by graduate students and poorly-paid staff of miscellaneous ages, ethnicities, and genders.
- Isolating, positively identifying, and visualizing pathogens takes days–months–years of effort, typically involving deli-meat-like slices of fixed tissue and other unexciting bits of dead mammals. As for visualizing pathogens…this often requires slow, expensive, breakable equipment such as fluorescence and scanning electron microscopes, which require dyes and probes customized to the pathogen. Additional qualifier: only one person in the lab knows how to run the expensive equipment, and they will invariably be on holiday when patient zero of the zombie apocalypse shows up.
- Academic labs are not tidy (see FIGURE 1).
FIGURE 1. This is a “Before” shot, showing my lab bench in its natural state. The blue things are disposable gloves and the wadded-up blue thing is (I kid you not) an absorbent, disposable square of cotton called a di-per. The big thing to the right, covered in plastic and getting ready to fall off the bench, is a light microscope; the miscellaneous bottles above the bench were largely inherited from previous grad students, with the sort of “creative” and “zany” labeling that keeps haz-mat teams steadily employed.
FIGURE 2. Shot taken during my first 10-minute break. With the bottles out of the way, I get a nice view of the chaos on the wall beyond my bench, its shelves filled with little white boxes we use for storing samples. The spray bottle that appeared is full of 70% ethanol, which I needed to wet down the layers of dust on the shelves so I could clean them off without creating an inhalation hazard.
FIGURE 3. This is the “After” shot. Creatively-labeled bottles? Gone! Ethanol-saturated dust? Gone! Even the pipets are neatly aligned!
Thank you, UfYH! I’ll think of you fondly when next I see an underemployed haz-mat team.