Lab rats, let’s face it. Sometimes, some of us in science sometimes sacrifice hygiene for extra time in the lab. Got a 2-hour incubation, why not go for a jog or catch a spinning class? Have to start your 12 hour ELIZA at 4:30am to make it to your 5pm seminar, why bother showering before you show up in the morning? Got soaking wet walking to the lab in the rain, why not dry out your shoes and socks on the heater? Had some funky smelling take-out 3 nights before, why not heat up the leftovers in the microwave right outside our lab? All of these circumstances have happened to myself or someone I’ve worked closely… perhaps too closely on that particular day… with. What I’m trying to say is that, on more-than-rare occasions, people in our lab stink. We’re a close group (5 female graduate students), and rarely mention to each other if we notice that each other smell foul. That would just be rude. But… if each of us has only one smelly day a week that could constitute a continual stench that no one would ever think to comment on.
Luckily, our co-op student, Paul “the boy” Heibert, isn’t quite so well mannered.
“Hey, do you guys smell something?” Paul mentioned one morning.
“Like what?” I replied.
‘Like something, I don’t know, died.”
“Ummm… no, not so much.” I replied glancing down at my gym shoes that I had stashed under my bench space. I nonchalantly squatted down to take a whiff, and they certainly didn’t smell good, but not enough to warrant “something died” status. I glanced across to my bench mate, Wendy, the only other one in so far this morning. Her slightly greasy ponytail suggested that she could have jogged to the lab this morning.
“Hey Wendy, did you go for a run this morning?”
“Nope, I was going to go after work. Why?”
“Oh no reason, just wondering.”
As Wendy reached for a new box of tips from the top shelf, she tilted her head to the side, into the arm coat of her lab coat, and inhaled. Her expression didn’t change, so she probably wasn’t the culprit. As I returned to study my lab book, I think I did smell something worse than usual. Maybe Paul was right, maybe something other than our co-workers DID stink. A few minutes later, Rani, another of our crew, came into the lab.
“Hey Rani,” Paul chimed, “do you smell something?”
Rani gave Wendy and me a once over. “Nope, not really, why?”
“Because something stinks. I’ve smelled it for 3 days now. How is it possible that you guys can’t smell anything?”
“I don’t know, Paul.” Rani walked over a grabbed a few old Starbucks cups from her secret hiding place behind the “NO DRINKING/EATING/SMOKING” sign, smelt them, and threw them out in the garbage can outside the lab door.
“Paul, I have no idea what you’re smelling.”
I took my eyes off my lab book and started looking around the lab… I hoped it wasn’t me that stuck. Did I shower this morning… yes… I think so. What did I have for breakfast? Granola. Granola doesn’t stink. Did I step in something on the way? I glanced at the bottom of my left shoe, nothing significant there… and the right shoe? Looks okay, too. Maybe it’s the emergency umbrella that we have rolled up, hanging on the wall between the 4* fridge and the bench that we run the gels for our Western Blots on. I slid off my stool and walked over towards it. The smell was certainly stronger over on this side of the lab.
Hmmm… maybe this umbrella stinks. It could be mildewy from not drying out properly. I opened the umbrella, and to my disappointment, it didn’t stink. I closed it, and decided to chance insulting someone.
“Hey, I think it smells worse over here.” I felt pretty safe saying this, as it was far away from all our bench spaces, thus ruling out that the unfortunate odor belonged to one of my co-workers. Rani, Wendy, Paul and Hongyan our technician, joined me in the smelly corner.
“Do you guys think someone could have spilled TEMED?” TEMED is this nasty smelling component that you add to Western Blot gels. The smell is comparable to dead birds.
“I might have spilled some β -mercaptoethanol when I was making my media yesterday,” Paul said. β-mercaptoethanol is also foul smelling; I like to think it resembles rotting rotten eggs.
Hongyan put her nose to the bench paper, and like one would look for radioactivity hotspots with a gigar counter, systematically scanned the area for TEMED or β -mercaptoethanol. She’s by far the bravest and inquisitive of our lot. “I don’t smell anything, but we could change the bench paper anyway.”
“I wonder if it could be the skim milk from my blots,” I pondered. We’ll keep skim milk in the fridge for weeks, rarely it goes bad, but when it does, it does! I took my tubes from the fridge and sniffed the outside of each one. “I don’t think it’s these.”
“Hey, has Dan been down to check the traps lately?” asked Rani.
“Traps?” inquired Paul.
Okay… time for a little background. We work in the basement of St. Paul’s hospital. St. Paul’s hospital is old. Really old. So old that the original convention heating has been replaced. Replaced, but not removed. There is an intricate network of pipes not closed off that used to supply heat to the building. The perfect breeding grounds for rodents. We often see little brown reminders of their visits in corners, under the lunchroom tables, on windowsills, and once on the ultra centrifuge. Never though have we encountered the real thing. At our request, Dan, our maintenance manager, placed numerous traps around our lab. It had been a quite few months, and he hadn’t bothered to check all the traps frequently.
“Traps… for the rats,” spoke Wendy, quietly. One of our deep dark secrets in the bowels of the hospital. If you don’t acknowledge the presence of the rats, they might not exist.
Now… all of us girls in the lab have extensive animal training. But there’s something different about rats and mice that aren’t in a cage in a sterile environment, never been exposed to the great outdoors or eaten anything that wasn’t processed, guaranteeing that they don’t have parasites. We know how to handle the little inbreeds so that they don’t bite us, and when we do sacrifice them, it’s done in a very humane, controlled, neat and tidy fashion.
“You guys think there might be a rat trap back there, behind the fridge?” Paul asked, with mild amazement.
Hongyan pulled firmly on one side of the fridge, pulling it out a few inches from against the wall. What was released trumped any potential TEMED spill… and what looked like a brown, fury, tail.
“EEK!” She screamed and jumped back into the bench.
Even though we’re scientists, animal surgeons, and future pathologists by trade, the double X chromosome phenotype prevailed.
“EEK!” “AHH!” “EWWWW!” “URG” “BLAAAAH”
Now there’s 4 screaming shuddering, shrieking women.
I couldn’t handle the smell, so I ran outside the lab. I was followed closely by Rani, Wendy, Hongyan, and a slamming door. We all watched Paul through the glass window of the door.
“What am I supposed to do now?” Paul mimed.
Rani cupped her hands up to the window of the door, “THERE’S BIOHAZARD BAGS UNDER THE SINK”
Paul grabbed a bag from under the sink, held it up for approval, which he got from 4 nodding heads.
It was my turn to direct through the viewing glass “PAUL, WEAR GLOVES.”
Paul put on gloves.
Wendy’s turn, “PAUL, DOUBLE GLOVE.”
Paul put on an extra pair of gloves.
He walked over to the fridge, took a knee, reached behind the fridge, and like a proud fisherman, held up his catch with a slightly amused, slightly disgusted expression. The only thing recognizable about the rat was its tail, ears, and toes. The whole torso had been sliced open, and semi-dried guts and blood and fur expelled out of it. No wonder it stunk so bad.
“IN THE BAG! PUT IT IN THE BAG!!!!!”
Paul dropped it in head first into the red biohazard bag. The tail and hind legs were sticking out. This was one big, stiff rat. He turned to us, and shrugged, “now what?”
We all acted out various versions of ‘tying a knot’ but that mini biohazard bags were way too small.
“I know,” exclaimed Rani, “I’ll go get the bags from the animal facility.”
While Rani ran to go get a carcass bag large enough to contain the source of our rat, Paul stared at us through the window.
“PAUL. JUST HOLD ON.” Poor Paul…. Wearing his double gloves and lab coat, holding a biohazard bag at arms length not knowing that we had sent out for help. By now the smell had amplified diffused out through under the door and we all had to step further from the door.
Eventually, one of the maintenance guys came down to our lab, put on a mask, removed the trap (apparently St. Paul’s recycles!) and helped out Paul with a proper sized bag for the carcass. We also called house keeping to help clean up the blood and guts that was left on the floor behind the fridge.
Finally, when the carcass was removed from the lab to be sent to the freezer, us girls were brave enough to re-enter.
“Phew… it still REALLY stinks in here!” I said, fanning the air in front of my nose in vain.
“Really?” said Paul, “I don’t smell anything. You guys ready for lunch?”