How-to Guide for Building a Lab

by srosengard

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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.

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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.

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