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Month: November, 2013

How-to Guide for Building a Lab


Early on, setting up for a week’s worth of work.

In the past week, I learned how to transform a chicken coop into a laboratory. The transformation had already started long before I arrived last week, but my short, quick stay at Fazenda Tanguro has still provided some important insights into the process.

 Most fundamentally, improvisation is key to drawing the blueprints. There is clearly a strong correlation between surprise and creativity here. The more unexpected turns I encountered, the more scientific innovation came out of improvisation.

I learned this with an early obstacle: blowing not only the fuse but moreover the capacitor of the power box for the peristaltic pump in incompatible Brazilian outlets. I planned to use this pump to suck water from a collection container and push it through filters on the other end, but now I had no more power to drive it, or collect half of my samples. For half of this half, I needed to pump water through a filter that removes particles from river water, allowing me to collect the throughput for other scientists at WHOI to measure nutrients and ions. For the other fourth, I needed to force water through cartridges that trapped lignin molecules dissolved in water, which are produced by vegetation and therefore help track the presence and influence of land plants in rivers.

But, maybe, the effect of arriving on a ranch over an hour removed from the nearest town and perhaps a half-day’s travel away from the nearest big city, makes you think in different ways. Certainly outside the box, as they say. As it turned out, replacing my pump was easy because the chicken coop lab had another. Most of the work entailed finding a car battery to power it, and fitting tubes of different sizes together pass water.

Other challenges, however, became clear with time. Most notable was the lack of a fume hood. Ventilation was ample in the lab, but no matter how much of a breeze passes through the open windows, hydrochloric acid is still hydrochloric acid, and extremely –literally – painful to smell. In the hottest of climates, I needed a small quantity of this caustic acid, which when added to my river water samples, helps extract the lignin molecules from the rest of the water feeding through the peristaltic pump.

So even in the tropics, it is useful to have some long sleeves and closed toe shoes, and gloves and goggles if you can manage it. Aside from these essentials, Paul – maybe the master lab architect here – also helped me fashion a trusty apron with a garbage bag, a fan to ventilate, a plastic sheet to serve as a hood-esque shield, and, finally, a bucket of water on standby as an emergency shower. This is how you build a fume hood in a chicken coop.


Later, wearing my lab gear after using the Hydrochloric Acid.

As I reflect, the odds seemed against collecting lignins for the Woods Hole Research Center. But, despite all the troubleshooting, I think I can return home with some vegetation to track from the streams at Fazenda Tanguro. 

Though I may not go back to the ranch for my thesis at WHOI, I am curious how the lab will continue to change into the future. What new innovations will occur? Will future generations of scientists soon forget that it once housed chickens? I will be particularly curious to learn whether anyone secured a system to keep insects, our great contaminants, away from field samples.


It probably took me five repetitions to engrain the word “multi-tirao” into my new vocabulary. And I’m not sure if you can even find it in a proper Brazilian Portuguese dictionary. Nonetheless, I will try my best to define it here because, in just three syllables, it adequately conveys the way field work gets done on Fazenda Tanguro, my field site over the past few days (fazenda means ranch). 

Oftentimes, dictionaries break down words into their different roots, so I will start with this same approach. First off, just like it would in English , “multi” means many. And indeed, at this fazenda, things exist and proceed in multitudes. I see multitude in the ten or so ripe mango trees that line our row of dormitories, kitchens and labs. I see multitude in the ostrich-like rheafamilies that roam the wide, flat fields of soy and corn. I certainly see multitude in the beetles swarming to my makeshift  laboratory when it is the only bright light on the grounds at night.


These are the rheas who run often through the crop fields in family-sized packs. I can’t remember their name in English. 

Following this track, there is multitude in how research gets done here, as well. While I seek to describe the chemistry of rivers draining through different land types (i.e., farm vs. pristine rain forest), the other scientists stationed here have several other questions to answer. Daniel and Paulo from Sao Paulo, observe how fish grow in similar parts of watershed. Rafael and Junha, also from Sao Paulo, are after the butterflies that live on the ranch, how they respond to forest fires. Paul and Marcia from the Woods Hole Research Center are investigating regional hydrology and soil water chemistry across different land types. Only a multitude of scientists can sufficiently tell the environmental story of Fazenda Tanguro, and perhaps contextualize this one ranch in the greater mosaic of landscape conversion in the Amazon River Basin.


 Taking a soil sample from a soy field.

The next part of my new word is more difficult to decipher: “tirao”. From my limited history speaking Portuguese, I have heard the verb “tirar” used in the context of taking photos or grabbing something. Assuming that the noun “tirao” is derived from the latter meaning, we do a lot of it on the fazenda, as well. All my field work is grabbing. I grab at least one hundred liters of stream water from each field site. I scoop soils from the land types surrounding each stream. The laboratory processing of these samples comes later, and certainly takes up the majority of my hours here. But, it all begins with the act of “tirao”.

Of course, compound words take on new meanings that surpass the sum of their parts. “Multi-tirao” as a whole also expresses a sentiment of teamwork and force. When the full-time Fazenda Tanguro crew helped me take 100 liters of water from a stream flowing through my one pristine rain forest site within a half hour, this was a multi-tirao. (In fact, this is when they taught me the word!) Not unlike my Indian Ocean expedition, field sampling is done best with many helping hands. A hundred liters is not an easy volume to carry, so the multi-tirao saved me a few more hours of energy that I could devote to post-collection processing in lab.

Just under 70 pounds

Image (Above: Before landing in Goiania, capital of the state of Goias in central Brazil).


Packing light is not the central philosophy of preparing for field work, and the baggage I am tied to for the next 10 days in central Brazil affirms this. One 68 pound suitcase, and a duffel bag that can fit an average-sized adult. Fortunately, the approximate weight limit of what I can carry on my own equally matches the weight limits for check-in.

In the past 24 hours, I have grown ever the more aware of the trust we put into the check-in agents at airport gates. Perhaps I should not take for granted that all the equipment essential to make a worthwhile field expedition in the Amazon River Basin can actually survive three flights from Boston to Brasilia to Goiania, a sprawling city that sits just beyond the intersection between dry cerrado forest and humid rain forest, at the center of the Brazilian Amazon.

My goal for the next few days is to collect hundred liters of river water from streams flowing through a giant ranch 12 hours away from Goiania by bus (stay tuned to see if my luggage survives that too!). And so it follows that most of my baggage contents are empty plastic containers, from bottles of various size to huge collapsible cubitainers, which can expand to hold almost 20 L of river water (or 5 gallons) at a time.

Although I might have over-packed my water sampling supplies, I do not actually plan to carry hundreds of liters of water back to the United States. If all goes well, I will leave with just the suspended particles of organic carbon and minerals, the soils and plant remains that have washed into the water from adjacent lands. When I analyze these solid materials back in lab, its chemistry will (hopefully) tell us something about which plant types produced this river-borne material in the first place, as well as the history of this organic material since being introduced to the soil and riverine environments. Because this organic material originally came from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, many scientists are interested in keeping track of its movement from plant to river.

And hence the 68 pound suitcase is full of filtration units to separate the solids from this water. These units have been developed and refined through years of field work by scientists from my rivers research group from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Research Center. A vertical cylinder, the filtration units accept water from the top and pushes it through a filter at the bottom that, very much like a coffee filter, collects only solid materials (or the coffee grinds) too large to pass through its small pores.

Image (above: A filtration unit when connected to a bike pump, during a practice run in Woods Hole with the more experienced river scientist Britta Voss)

With gravity alone, it would take much longer than my daylight hours to get all the water through the filter. So us river scientists are also typically equipped bike pumps, which I will use to pressurize the air inside the cylindrical filtration units, pushing the water downward past the filters faster than gravity would manage alone. Imagine being able to have your drip coffee ready in a few seconds rather than a few minutes. I hope that this bike pump accelerates my work over the next week by a comparable order of magnitude, as well.