My first co-op placement was in a research lab, four and a half thousand kilometres away from my home university. For the first week or so, it was like taking a really intense lab for a university class, except the prof was just judging me instead of grading me. He would ask me questions to probe my knowledge and get me to think hard about things, but the environment and topic were so new that this usually just made me feel silly and lost. I did learn things, but not very quickly.
Soon enough, I was set up to do cell culture on my own. In a biology lab, this means sitting in front of a metal table with a box over it, all sterilized and ventilated, with room to put your hands in and manipulate things as you look in through a glorified sneeze guard. This is where you grow cells in petri dishes. But no one really calls them petri dishes anymore. You sound really foolish if you call them that. They all just called them plates.
The idea was simple enough. Put the cells on the plate, and cover them with a pink nutrient-rich liquid, and put the lid back on. Then put them back in the incubator. A few days later, if you looked under a microscope and saw that there were a lot more, you could take them back off the plate with chemicals, dilute them in more pink liquid, slaughter most of them, and put the rest on a new plate. You can do this with cancer cells pretty much forever.
Every day, I would stress over these tiny, loathsome critters. Most of them were actually human cells, but you don’t think of them that way. You’re too busy feeling like a ham-fisted klutz to think about it. My arms were too short to reach the back of the workspace, my hands would tremble, and sometimes I’d almost, almost forget not to put bleach in the yellow bag, because I still hadn’t internalized the fact that a tiny garbage mix-up could literally kill me and all of my coworkers. Shit’s intense.
Mercifully, finally, I started getting the hang of it. It was now about two months into my placement, and at this point I felt comfortable enough in the lab to show up feeling mildly grumpy on Mondays. I was settling in nicely, and so far, nothing horrible had happened.
Anyway, on one particular Monday morning, I was getting ready to start growing a new kind of cells – the same type of cancer, but a different cell line, so it had different nutrient requirements. I dug around in cupboards briefly for supplements, before remembering that a previous student had grown these cells before. He had finished his honours thesis and left shortly before I started, so his stuff was still in the fridge.
This is the thing about cell culture… you’re basically putting sugar and vitamins on a plate. We keep these nutrient liquids in plastic bottles in a fridge, sealed up, and only open them in sterile containment, because there are a lot of tiny things that would be happier than a pig in shit if they found themselves in there.
Evidently, something got into this one.
The next part is a bit of a blur. As I pulled the bottle from the back of the fridge, I held it to the light to see if there was any mold growing in there. That’s typically what we’d find… mold. I don’t think that’s what this was. It was almost a perfect sphere, maybe a bit oblong like an egg, and a bit yellowish in colour. It was about the size of a tangerine – I’m not kidding. It seemed solid. I shook the bottle a bit, and it bounced off the sides.
All I could think was… oh god. It’s human.
Listen, I’m sorry. I know it’s gross. That was honestly my best guess, because the bottle was last used to feed a human cell line, and sometimes if people aren’t paying attention they’ll put the glass pipette back in the bottle after touching the plate. That’s all it takes to move cells around. This thing had been growing undisturbed for at least two months, probably more. Bacteria would make the liquid cloudy. Fungus would probably look like tendrils through the bottle. I don’t know. I panicked. It looked like a damn kidney.
So, here I am, Monday morning, holding a tumor in a bottle in one hand and spinning in circles to see if anyone else was around. It never registered in my mind that this wasn’t my fault. Really, the last guy was the most likely culprit, but I was still new enough that I was convinced I would get blamed. That’s kind of how it works in labs: the lowest on the pecking order gets blamed if no one else can be directly implicated. So, having accepted that this was now my problem and I only had moments before other people started arriving for work and discovered me, I did the only thing I knew to do when dealing with a biological contamination.
I got the bleach.
I poured off some of the liquid into the sink and bleached it a bit, then topped up the bottle with more bleach.
And then I shook it. Hard. For quite a while.
This thing was so big that it wouldn’t have come out of the opening on its own. And there was no way I was about to stick something in there to break it up. I wanted to kill it, fast, not risk pissing it off.
I shook, and shook, and sweated profusely, and hyperventilated a bit, and shook. I’d pour off a bit, rinse, bleach, repeat. Until, at last, I had broken it up into a suspension, bleached the last of it, and poured it all down the drain. I was shaking worse than at senior prom, but at least this time no one was around to see it.
So, there you have it. Terror. Stupid, weird, messed up terror – not the kind that will get you a book deal after the fact, but definitely the kind you get to inflict on other people over beers.