Debbie Knight

Lost bits of research history: Smallpox

In observation, research issue(s) on July 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm


Two news articles I read today told of several vials of Smallpox dating back to the 1950’s that were discovered in an unused National Institutes of Health storage room — in an unauthorized lab space.

A little scary, yes.

But you might wonder how could that happen?

In the past couple of years, I’ve personally cleaned out several laboratories of researchers who have moved on or retired. I can tell you that a box of vials could easily find its way to the back of a cabinet or deep in the permafrost of an ultra-low freezer.

Now when I cleaned out these labs, I didn’t find anything so dangerous as vials of freeze-dried highly restricted human pathogens. Thankfully!

But what I did find was a combination of disgust and amazement. Rusted cans of disinfectant, plastic containers of formalin-fixed mouse bits, microscope specimens that might have dated back to the turn of the century, chemical bottles with peeling labels and rusted lids.

Many years ago, when my department allowed researchers to scavenge equipment (perhaps a better term would be “upcycle”?) from a retired researcher’s lab, I found a long-dead octopus named Cornelius floating in a jar of murky formalin. He was circa 1980’s — not quite the 1950’s like the specimens found in the NIH lab.

Had these things not been removed from the defunct labs, these lost bits of research history might have passed unwittingly to the next researcher to take possession of the lab space.

A prime example of this can be found in a news story from three years ago. A researcher discovered a dusty old box containing experimental samples dating back to the 1950’s of his mentor who previously occupied the lab space. And the researcher found a wonderful new finding waiting to be discovered.

So, the discovery of long-forgotten vials of Smallpox in an unauthorized lab IS big news. If not, disturbing news.

But how those vials from the 1950’s wound up in a rarely used cold storage room may not be as sinister as it might sound.

Clearing the dust…

In lab safety on February 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm


Usually when we weigh out chemicals in the lab, we use a little brush to clean off the balance. But now that we work with nanoparticles, the brush is not the right tool for the job.

Nanoparticles are tiny – in our case, really tiny particles, measuring  one hundred nanometers or less in diameter.  To put their size in perspective, they are roughly the same size range as many viruses, including the common cold virus. They can are much smaller than a bacteria (one hundred to a thousand times smaller). And, in terms of a typical human hair, you would have to line up a thousand or so nanoparticles (each one hundred nanometers in diameter) to span the width of a human hair.

When we weigh nanoparticles, they are like a really fine dust.

And this dust doesn’t really clean up very easily, at least with a brush.

So, we’ve resorted to using small squares of Swiffer Dusters™ dusting cloths.


And let me tell you, they work great!

And not just for cleaning up nanoparticle “dust.”

It works great for cleaning up standard lab chemicals as well – especially dyes like crystal violet which are notoriously difficult to clean off an analytical balance. I’ve weighed this dye out, thought I’d cleaned the balance thoroughly, only to find I hardly made a dent in cleaning it up.

I can’t believe my lab didn’t discover these little gems earlier!

Swiffer Dusters™ dusting cloths, not just for house cleaning any more.

Greener pastures for unwanted lab equipment ?

In research issue(s), Uncategorized on June 12, 2013 at 2:12 pm


My department has had some faculty turnover. Some have retired. Some have found positions elsewhere.

This means there have been several labs I’ve helped clean out.  And I’ve seen quite a bit of laboratory equipment, much of it functional, taken to “surplus.”

Now in concept that sounds pretty good. You send stuff to a surplus warehouse where other labs can go and possibly acquire the cast-off equipment. The ultimate in recycling and reusing, right?

Well, the reality is that at my institution the surplus warehouse only takes office furniture and office equipment. The lab equipment is sent to the landfill – even if it’s functional.

When I found this out a few months ago, it was a major reality check.

I thought back to how many things my department has sent to surplus in just the last few months. Had I known, I would’ve tried harder to find a lab that could’ve used it.

So, this week, a faculty member who is moving to a smaller lab space said to me, “Oh, we’re sending that to surplus.” And he had absolutely no idea what it really meant. The landfill.

One of the items was a perfectly functional biosafety cabinet. (For those who don’t know what this piece of equipment is: it’s sort of a big metal cabinet with a filtered ventilation system that allows you to safely work with cells, tissues, viruses, and other possible biohazardous materials .)

I couldn’t see one more senseless disposal of an expensive piece of equipment. These things, new, can cost thousands of dollars.

So, I used my connections and managed to find it a new lab home.

I’m also trying to find a new home for a big floor-model centrifuge. I’ve had a couple of nibbles, but so far no takers. But I’m hopeful that I’ll succeed. Research money is tight and someone out there must need a centrifuge.

I wish there was a way to easily put functional lab equipment up for adoption at my institution. A centralized warehouse, a website, I don’t know.

And for the equipment that no longer works? Maybe that could be put up for adoption as well. It could be cheaper to repair broken equipment than to buy new.

Or maybe functional or not, unwanted equipment could be sold on eBay and serve as an additional source of revenue for my institution.

Update: Good news! Found a new lab home for the centrifuge. I may have cast my net a little too wide because I’m still getting emails from various labs saying they are interested in taking this centrifuge. 


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