Engineers would make (and probably are – I just don’t know any) great lab researchers. They have the theoretical tools and know how to solve practical problems with which many “pure” scientists have difficulty addressing. I am one of these “pure” scientists, so I have much respect and envy towards engineers. If they want to measure something, they build an instrument from the ground up. If it were me, I’d pester my PI to write a small equipment grant to NSERC to buy an off-the-shelf instrument, or contact another lab that already had the instrument and convince them why they should want to care about my project (in exchange for academic currency – co-authorship on any publications that might result from the work).
Nevertheless, I take pride in the small feats of engineering that I occasionally accomplish, no matter how trivial they may be. For example, I need to filter 8 samples simultaneously for an upcoming experiment. In order to do this, I needed a filter manifold – i.e. an apparatus to hold filter holders upright – that I can quickly disassemble between each batch of samples that I filter in order to remove the old filter and replace it with a fresh one. Unfortunately, I need this manifold ASAP, so I couldn’t just buy one.
So, I spent my Saturday afternoon making a filter manifold out of 8 swinnex filter holders (numbered above), tubing, and a ice cube tray that happened to be hanging around the lab. I drilled holes into the bottoms and sides of the cubes, thereby allowing each swinnex filter holder to sit upright while connected to my tubing (the tubing goes into the side of the cube and connects to the bottom of the filter holder). This simple set-up was designed and built with reused materials, and will ultimately be invaluable to my research over the coming months.
This sort of shoe-string set-up is fairly common in my field, especially when in the field. When on a ship with only the resources on board, numerous problems arise that must be dealt with quickly with what you have on hand. Otherwise, the months of prep (and many research dollars) go down the drain.
During my last expedition, I used a ratchet set to prevent my incubators from falling apart. I’ve also spent countless hours with my colleagues sewing incubator covers (to filter out some of the light) in our bunks, made out of screen door material and pink string or fishing line to tie the material together. Oddly enough, many of these solutions that are, at the time, seemingly temporary, become standard protocols (I still use the screen bags I helped make in 2008 and 2009).
In hindsight, these shoe-string solutions are surprisingly useful, economical, and more environmentally friendly than buying new materials. Have any of the lab-locked Terry scientist readers come up with a similar fly-by-night solutions?
I suppose I should thank my ice cube tray and screen door mesh in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation.