All Your Best, Most Terrifying, and Strangest Stories From The Lab

Illustration for article titled All Your Best, Most Terrifying, and Strangest Stories From The Lab

The lab can be a strange place. Just how strange is best illustrated by these stories you shared with us of misadventure, accidental reactions, and even the rare triumph, that took place inside your laboratory walls.


Warning! Do Not Ingest:


I was working on my PhD in biology. One morning the -40C freezer died. I got a call from the PI/prof asking me to clear all the stuff out of the dead freezer and transfer it to another freezer ASAP. Our prof works on rodents and did an extensive study on hanta virus in natural populations of deer mice a few years before and many tissue and blood samples were known to be stored in the dead freezer. As I worked my way through, I found (1) labeled tubes of tissue and blood, (2) unlabeled tubes of tissue and blood, (3) loose, unlabeled tubes of tissue and blood (rolling around the bottom of the shelf), (4) a sweater (my prof said it was there to keep it safe from moths), and (5) a half eaten box of bagel bites. Bagel bites. Pizza flavored. Next to known hanta virus infected samples.


Oh, and for a second story, not my own, comes from my college Microbiology professor. She had worked in a lab that had live been passaged one of the nasty bacteria that thrived during the 1918 Flu pandemic through mice since the outbreak. Take a sample of blood from a dead mouse, inject it into to a live one, wait till it dies, repeat. So, 50 odd years, this thing had gotten used to murdering its host.

And some dumb lab tech spills it on a bench, and his supervisor put his and on that bench, and he had a cut in his hand. The next day, he had infection track marks going up his whole arm. Fortunately, being from 1918, the bacteria didn't know much about penicillin. But, remember kids, clean your lab benches, or you might kill someone.


There was the time I was changing out the bottom drain valve on the empty tank we normally used to store ammonium hydroxide (a very strong caustic—we had to transfer it in and out of the storage drums with respirators on). The valve was sticking and I was yanking back and forth on it to pull it off and unfortunately my mouth was (apparently) hanging open while I was doing this—the valve finally popped off but a few random drops of fluid stuck inside it flew out and landed on my tongue, and of course immediately started to burn. I jumped up and ran over to the eyewash and was flushing my mouth out—my shift supervisor happened to walk by just then, stared at me and then said, "You know, if you're really THAT thirsty, you can go outside and get a drink from the water fountain—" and I was like, through gurgles, "OMG DO YOU SERIOUSLY THINK I'M STANDING HERE WITH MY FACE IN THE EYEWASH BECAUSE I WAS SUDDENLY UNCONTROLLABLY THIRSTY?!"

An unexpected reaction:

Samuel M.

I once washed out an empty drum Phosphorous Oxychloride with water, which is normal practice. I do this all the time, however this one time it had some left in it. A small enough amount that I didn't notice any weight difference. The reaction of the water hitting the stuff sounded like a jet engine for a couple of seconds. Lucky for me I followed my procedure for how to do it safely and there was a closed steel door in between me and the reaction. It blew the hose which was braided steel, not light stuff, out of the bung. It gave me an all new respect for the stuff.


Mineralogy lab in college. Supposed to be identifying unlabeled minerals from the mineral cabinet left over from the ancient days of yore (we had already been prewarned not to touch the asbestos minerals, so who knows what else was in there). One team picked a nice reddish mineral and tried using the (rather out of date) technique (which they got from an equally out of date lab book) of burning the mineral to figure out what it was. As they're doing this, sans fume hood, another geology professor walked on by and completely freaks out. Turns out the mineral was cinnabar. Which releases mercury gas when burned.

We all got a very strongly worded email the next day about lab safety.

Contents May Be Flammable:


This is not necessarily my best story, but rather a cautionary one.

I was showing a student how to properly disinfect her tools and perform some basic bacteriology. I lit the Bunsen, dipped my small spreader in 70% alcohol and flamed it. Not proper procedure, I grant you, but it gets the job done. Unfortunately, I had not shaken off enough of the alcohol and it burst into flames, resulting in drops of burning alcohol falling onto the bench. Startled, I jumped back, knocking over the container of alcohol which promptly burst into flames all over the work top. Luckily, there was no absorbent pad on the bench and the flames quickly died down without causing much damage.

'And that's how you don't do it' I said, trying to save the small amount of face I had left.

Zap Rowsdower lives!

Not a real lab, but years ago, in my high school chemistry class. I had been told by the teacher to straighten up the chemical storage room (basically a large closet with shelves and a sink). As I was moving things around, there were two, rather large fire extinguishers sitting in the middle of the room. So, I grabbed the handles on both to pick them up, not realizing some other student had already pulled the pins on them. Suffice to say, within seconds, there was a loud whoosh, a closet full of white vapor that was spilling out into the classroom and I never realized my teacher could cross a room THAT quickly.

And, finally, a rare lab accident that actually worked in someone's favor:

Chip Overclock ®

A long time client asked me to come in for an afternoon in the lab to help debug some cellular telecom equipment that had been returned from the field and for which I was one of the principal platform developers. We sat at the lab bench watching log messages scroll by on a laptop connected to the unit while a technician got the unit to go into its failure mode.

"Okay", I began, "this is likely to be a hardware problem. There is a failure with the connection between the ARM processor and the PowerPC processor. It sure looks like an intermittent solder joint failure."

"Oh, no", said the technician, "we think this is a software problem. We were thinking you could..."

As he spoke I slammed my hand against the side of the cabinet and the problem went away.

"... oh. Okay, I'll mark that one down as a hardware problem."

Of course, I had no idea what was going to happen when I hit the side of the cabinet. I was just doing that as a diagnostic step.

But it did make me look like a fraking genius.

Image: PhotoSky / SHUTTERSTOCK



Contents May Be Flammable:

Thank goodness my chemicals are inflammable.