Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pack rats

Everyone has that relative, maybe more than one. You know, the one that keeps absolutely everything that ever crosses his or her threshold, picking up 'new-to-you' things whether they'll be used or not. In my experience, the pack rats tend to be older relatives, usually grandparents or great-grandparents. Part of this, I've been told, comes from the fact that they or their parents lived through the Great Depression, when times were hard and you came up with inventive ways to use every last scrap that you had. Personally, I think it has as much to do with the fact that they've been around for a while, and chances are, they haven't changed residences in 20 or 30 or 50+ years.

There have been quite a few pack rats in my family. When I was a kid, my family visited my great-grandparents almost every weekend; I think they had every issue of National Geographic going back at least 15 or 20 years. However, my grandmother has probably been the most 'successful' at being a pack rat. She has a walk-in closet, at least two other closets, and two bedrooms full of clothes, shoes, etc. When I say 2 bedrooms full, I mean, dressers, closets, boxes stacked around the room and/or a garment rack--all full. There are probably things that haven't seen the light of day in 30 years. And then there's the basement. One room is full of boxes, again accumulated over a long period of time. Admittedly it was quite useful when my friend and I were moving into our first apartment--we did half our kitchen shopping in my grandmother's basement.

I completely (well, mostly, at least in the case of my grandmother) understand how people accumulate so much... stuff. Shortly after getting married, Paramed and I (with the help of my parents) moved a HUGE Penske truck full of stuff to Grad School City (GSC). We kept pretty much everything when we moved from our first apartment in GSC to our first house in GSC--which provided even more room to accumulate stuff. After 3 years in that house, we moved into a large one bedroom apartment before leaving GSC. I was shocked at the amount of stuff we took to Goodwill and to the dump... and stored at our parents' homes. We got rid of even more stuff when we moved to the Northland (although my grandmother was quite concerned that we didn't have enough stuff to move).

What I find quite amusing and yet bizarre at the same time is this practice in science. Recently I was helping our unofficial lab manager go through stuff in preparation of the impending lab move. There were solutions with dates from more than 5 years ago, new and like-new items that hadn't been touched or seen in years, unopened cases of pipettes dated 1999...

This is certainly not unique to my current lab. Every couple of years, Bear would declare a date for lab cleanup, which actually took 2+ days. We would find equipment, solutions, boxes of samples with initials we didn't recognize... So we'd ask Bear, "What is that?" to which he would generally respond, "Oh, that's my first _________ ." (which was 20 years old and hadn't been used in at least 10). Or we'd ask "Who is XYZ?" which would occasionally take him a minute to figure out.

Some of this is due to 'well-meaning' predecessors who left crap at your bench because 'someone might use it'. I think this is just a way of turning it into to someone else's problem as you run out the door. When I left Bear's lab, I sought out those remaining behind based on their project or techniques and offered what I had that they might actually be able to use. If they didn't want it, there was no common stock of it, and it wasn't exorbitantly priced in the first place, then it was out. Because my successors should sure as hell be able to figure out how to make a Tris buffer, and it doesn't take that long to make it.

Some is due to the "But we might be able to use it sometime" mentality. That I can go with. To a point. Sure, there's a chance that some klutz, maybe even me, will knock over that bottle of buffer QZ from the special kit, but:
(a) the kit usually has some extra
(b) generally somewhere in the manual they tell you how to make buffer QZ
(c) there's no reason to keep near empty bottles
(d) there's no reason to accumulate three or five bottles of the same kit buffer
(e) when poly-whatever bottles start to turn yellow, it's been around for a while and do you really want to trust your samples with that?

I have similar feelings about keeping 10+ year old equipment. With very few exceptions (i.e. centrifuges), eventually equipment becomes obsolete. The parts can't even be used on the current equipment. It can't even interface with a computer. I don't foresee us returning to the pre-desktop computing dark ages, and if an electromagnetic pulse kills all the computers in the country, then we've got bigger problems to worry about anyway. Bottom line, if you've replaced it with something better and it hasn't been pulled out in years, then it's time for that equipment to go.

These behaviors are amusing, yet bizarre because labs are always complaining about not having enough space.

It is quite possible that, when I have my own lab, I will fall into some of these traps myself. I just hope that if I do, someone will look at offending object, then look at me, and say, "Seriously?"


Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

Yep, we do the same thing here. We had a lab clean up in December and we unearthed a ton of old things. There were solutions that were 10 years old (mostly Tris-like buffers), a 5-year-long-lost rotor, and a bunch of tubing (amongst other things). We convinced Advisor to get rid of the 2 old CRT monitors (they don't even have desktops that go with them!). There was a lot of "Seriously?" going on there.

Genomic Repairman said...

New lab here, so we don't have a ton of old crap but we go through the fridges and cold room monthly to toss some of our old stuff. Freezers we usually dive through to get rid of stuff every six months or so to guard against us becoming pack rats.

biochem belle said...

I recall one student finding Bear's 'first HPLC pump'. After the monster was id'd, the student asked, "You think we can get rid of it now?" and Bear seemed reluctant to say yes. Maybe it was a bit of nostalgia setting in.

Give it time, GR. Though maybe/hopefully longer than your tenure there.