The biology is only as good as the labs

I winced in sympathy at this account, “A biologist in Nigeria”, by Dave Ng (The World’s Fair) of his experience teaching a genetics course. The conditions were simply awful. But I’m afraid any non-biologist readers won’t understand how awful – why, you may reasonably wonder, do we insist on shiny, spotless, well-lit, glass-and-brushed-metal labs full of inscrutable gadgetry and hypnotically blinking lights? Are we striving for some kind of James Bond ubervillain aesthetic?

The answer is obviously yes. But it’s not that scientists are excessively fastidious and high-maintenance – not entirely – it’s that the techniques are so demanding. A few stray skin cells or a moment’s power surge can ruin an expensive day-long cloning experiment. Everything has to be sterile; everything has to work in a timely manner. Now imagine training students to do such experiments inside a Dumpster with broken tools, and you get some idea what Dave was facing.

Once, as an undergrad, cradled in the luxuries of a top-notch US research university,* I found my experiments contaminated time and again – despite every tool being autoclaved and every reagent brand-new. I troubleshot my protocol in the conventional way, and concluded that – I barely believe this myself – large (multi-kb) chunks of DNA were flying zeppelin-like across a large lab space into my Eppendorf tubes, contaminating my work. When I did everything inside the laminar airflow hood, the problem went away. That’s when I learned that even if you have all the right equipment, science can still go mysteriously awry.

At that time, I took everything for granted – the laminar hood, the limitless stocks of new reagents on the shelves, the bags of pristine Eppendorf tubes – and the considerable funds I spent repeating my little student experiment until I solved the problem (using that shiny sterile glass-and-brushed-metal laminar hood). Sterility, reliable power, and access to common reagents are well within reach of every US lab, even grant-poor ones. Without such infrastructure, it barely matters how imaginative or innovative a nation’s scientists are. In some countries, it is practically impossible to do molecular biology.

Nonetheless, Dave miraculously managed to make his teaching lab work – and is returning to do it all again. Afterward, there will be several dozen young Nigerian scientists who truly understand what biotechnology is, and hopefully, how to bring more of it to their nation. If only they could clone Dave, and send him out to all the other countries without clean labs or basic reagents.

*I didn’t actually attend that school, I was just there for the summer – to ogle the ubervillain labs, of course!

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