The yellow laboratory

What color would you like the cabinetry to be? I was asked that autumn after I turned 26. It was going to be my laboratory, and I had to get the design right. But the color should reflect something else, something fun and exciting. I would be the only woman in the department, something that did not change for more than 20 years. But then I had the color to think about, and I wanted it to be bold. I might have chosen pink, and they would have let me, but I’ve never much liked pink. Blue was the standard, so not for me. The greens looked too medicinal, institutional. So I chose yellow, bright bold yellow.

How can I explain what a laboratory means to a scientist? It is living room, garage, kitchen, pantry, and workshop, all combined into one. It is where we are most likely to have great ideas, where we can try new things, where our team spends most of their time. OK, back in 1979 I was mostly a field biologist, and used the laboratory for projects ancillary to the field, but that flip-flopped about 20 years ago when we started using DNA to understand genetic relatedness among individuals, be they wasps, or amoebae. After that we spent some time in the field, then brought back wasps and videotapes, putting the two together to answer our questions, as we have described here and here.

They say that a kitchen should have a magic triangle between the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator for most efficient use. Similar principles apply to laboratories, but they are more complicated, partly because there are always multiple cooks. The common areas get messy, and someone always ends up doing more cleaning than others. The group goes through stages where everyone is helpful and neat, and others when there is a lot of conflict over who left what mess where.

Usually each person has their own bench for a lot of their work, and we share areas for mixing up the stuff we pour into the Petri plates so the bacteria our amoebae eat can grow. We autoclave that medium and nothing seems to break more than the autoclave, unless it is the automated sequencer. We autoclave because just boiling doesn’t kill all spores, particularly in the soil. It was enough for Louis Pasteur to boil, but only because he was using airborne bacteria, not the soil Bacillus that some of his detractors used. We could boil, let things hatch, boil again, until all was sterile, as Tindall recommended, or just autoclave.

This yellow lab that I designed back in 1979 was great at the time. The yellow bench below was in case I did any physiology (I didn’t continue that line then). There were small rooms to keep caged wasps in. There was a huge double sink that could wash those cages, or that one could take a bath in, like the one Dan Janzen had at University of Michigan when I was an undergrad. There were benches for dissecting and measuring wasps and their ovaries.

The space was fairly flexible, and Rice was good about adding things as my research changed, and our needs changed. Electrical outlets, laminar flow hoods, and many other things came later.

Sharing is important in a laboratory, and makes things fun. We share with others in our department, across the street at BCM, Baylor College of Medicine, and with visitors from around the world that come to learn techniques. We also go to other labs. Having others in the group enriches everyone. It was great when we had Marcus Kronforst in the group, working on his butterflies, and collaborating with us. Some places are now building huge open laboratories that are shared from the beginning, making it easy to add a few benches or lose a few as lab work and members in a group wane or wax. We need some separation between our sterile work and our “farm” with soil, so I don’t know how well that would work for us.

We’ll have amazing lab space at Washington University, with much better windows, and a wood theme, but Rice has also been great. If you’re not a lab biologist, try to find one, and get them to give you a tour of their lab. Tools, ideas, and people make up a research program, but the lab is the most visible part of it, and everyone loves to show off their lab.


The yellow lab, not pink, not blue, but yellow, chosen back in 1979.


We use a lot of Petri plates!


We call this the DNA lab, and it’s where I discovered many wasp microsatellites in the 1990s.


We’re all for recycling benches and countertops, even if the colors don’t match.


This freezer holds a priceless collection of wasps, some from 30 years ago, from nearly all continents.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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