Zen Pipetting and the Art of Life

Last week in lab we were doing ELISA, immunoassay plates. We were running out of time, I was anxious and rushing, and I made two errors. Neither were irreversible, and they shouldn’t have affected my whole plate, let alone… The whole class. This week we reconvened, and the professor had us start over, with two changes. First, rather than trying to rush and cut back on incubation times and wash flying everywhere, we were to take our time, take a breath, and work methodically.

I had already walked into class determined to keep my calm. I cannot allow myself to get wound up. That leads to errors. Not just in lab, but life in general. The last few years, learning to drive, I have cultivated calm. Don’t worry if you miss a turn, another one is coming soon. Leave enough time before you must be there, and if you’re stuck behind a train, take a breath and knwo you can’t change it.

The other change the professor made was in how he’d told us to handle washing (detergent solution to eliminate nonspecific binding of antibodies). He had given each lab bench a squirt bottle… And that had knocked samples into the wrong Wells. Now, we were to pipette gently. I sat at my bench, shutting out everything else, slowly pouring wash into Wells 300 microliters at a time. Nothing else mattered, only this. Zen pipetting.

We get too busy. I know I get too busy. I lose track of commitments, I keep multiple lists, I worry about timing and obligations and finances… But for this moment, all of it is behind a closed door. Only the flow of the wash into the well matters. I have another class – and an hour drive before that – but now it’s antibodies and antigen.

Life is like that. If you hurry, you risk making mistakes. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath and just focus on one thing, the task at hand.

6 thoughts on “Zen Pipetting and the Art of Life

  1. I have always thought that there is something seriously wrong here. Humans (some of us, anyway) only seem to learn the lesson of slowing down when we have less life ahead of us.

    Really should be the other way around…

    1. If I slow down any more, not only will there be no more writing, but I will be going backward on everything else. That’s what it’s like to live way too close to the edge, and not by choice.

      Hope it’s temporary, because it is no fun.

  2. I was fine on a medication for 15 years. It went out of patent, they sent me a generic – I didn’t even notice (though I knew it was coming). The next generic didn’t work – PAIN. They sent me another generic – that one didn’t work, either – PAIN.

    Finally, I got them to send me the original thing – pain went away (down to its usual dull roar).

    Now it will be ME who has to do paperwork and more phone calls and doctor visits – and because the supervision of the generics isn’t what it should be (I guess – how would I know?).

    Non-working reagent – quite possible. That should be the forensic scientist’s first concern: is my test equipment working properly – and how do I know?

    1. There’s a reason we use standards in experiments. In this case, that’s what was wrong – our negative control was showing positive, which shouldn’t happen. As a scientist-in-training this ‘failure’ was an important lesson in how vital standards for comparison are, and how much of a check they are on the process. We would have assumed our samples were wrong, pipetting skills flawed… something. Or blithely accepted the results.

  3. As a hatchling, the Dragonette taught me the importance of slowing down. The more rushed and stressed I was, the more fussy and likely to urp she was. Some mornings I would just stop what I was doing, snuggle with her for a few minutes, then start the morning over. She still reminds me of this lesson by plopping down on my lap when I’m stressing too much.

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