Okay, so maybe I lied in the title — this melano-disaster actually occurred last Friday, and was named according to the fact that it was a minor disaster involving Drosophila melanogaster, everyone’s favorite model organism. Someone in the lab coined the phrase in response to a particularly disgusting incident in which some flies were incorrectly disposed of and multiplied silently in the dark room until one of the post-docs opened the door to a literal swarm (and swallowed more than a few). Fly traps suddenly became a very hot commodity. The term also applies to my experience last week, which I detail in this week’s blog.
I spend most of my time working with one of the post-docs in my lab on social isolation experiments, which is what I will be presenting on in two weeks at our research symposium. However, I have done two behavioral assays for another post-doc studying death perception’s effect on lifespan. She was kind enough to entrust me with another experiment last week and wrote out some instructions for what to do each day to prepare my flies. It was simple enough, mostly just scoring flies based on sex and then sorting them into vials. Our experiment involves exposing some of our flies to dead flies, and I took this step a bit far: I accidentally exposed every experimental fly to death, instead of half.
I didn’t notice until one of our PhD students and undergraduates were helping me prepare for the final assay on Friday and one of them asked, “Okay, now where are the unexposed flies?” Oops. My post-doc had just left for a soccer tournament in Chicago and was unable to respond to my text while she was driving, so eventually I had to call her and hope that she wouldn’t be upset that I had just mindlessly ruined our experiment. She was extremely gentle and gracious and agreed with me that there was no way to salvage the experiment, since “un-exposing” the other flies would require at least 48 hours and it was currently 2:00 pm on a Friday.
Of course, I was worried that I had disappointed her. I had only worked for her a handful of times, and almost all of my mistakes had occurred while doing experiments for her. But I was also worried about how much time repeating the experiment would take the following week, when I also had full days of work cut out for me with my social isolation studies. The result has been a week of many hours at the scope: all morning, and then usually the afternoons. I don’t have much room to complain, though. I learned the hard way that I need to be more conscientious, no matter how tedious the fly work can sometimes be.
I am also continually grateful for encouraging coworkers. The PhD student who noticed my mistake was immediately sympathetic and tried in vain to help brainstorm possible solutions besides scrapping the experiment. My usual post-doc offered to use some of his own unexposed flies, but didn’t have any that were age-matched to the experimental cohort. One of the other PhD students shrugged and said, “It’s easy to do. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve made stupid mistakes that I realized too late.”
Science is a lot of mistakes. We try our best not to make them, but with a lot of moving pieces, some things are bound to be forgotten. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be meticulous or that we should simply accept error, but I am thankful to have a space where I can safely make mistakes and learn from them. Plus, I guess I got some good practice in on professionally owning up to mistakes, apologizing, and making it right.
Melano-disaster? Yes. End of the world? Of course not.