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Death in the lab

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As a scientist, I spend my days in the lab trying to tease out little truths about how the cells in our bodies behave. The full picture is still unknown and, along with hundreds of thousands of others like me, I’m gradually filling in the pieces.

As a novelist, I spend my nights spinning about scientists, writing in a genre I call “lab lit” – not science fiction, but mainstream novels featuring scientists plying their trade. These stories, too, are unknown, until I fill in the pieces with a blend of fiction and fact. Like most novelists who deal with science as a subject matter, I try very hard to make the science realistic. And if I make up a gene or a protein or a disease for the purposes of the story, I take great care to give them a realistic grounding of what we already know.

So I was intrigued when I first got the email from thriller novelist Mark Edwards, saying that he and his writing partner, Louise Voss, needed some advice about viruses for their latest book, The Antidote – a sequel to their Kindle best-selling novel Catch Your Death. This, I thought, would be a very bizarre experience for me, falling somewhere in the middle of my two main pursuits.

Their first email arrived: a long wish-list of characteristics that their fictional virus must have in order to satisfy the plot. Talk about highly specific! I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but to suffice it to say that even an Intelligent Designer would struggle to fit every last desired attribute into one humble little virus particle – let alone good old-fashioned evolution. It was time to call in reinforcements: I collared one of my office-mates, Joe Grove, who is currently working on HIV but has recently penned a nice review article of a lot of different sorts of viruses. We poured ourselves a few mugs of strong coffee and sat down to brainstorm how to make it work, drawing on our knowledge of bad-assed bugs from adenovirus to Zika fever.

So far, so good: Mark and Louise liked our ideas. But then they wanted to know if I’d let them see my lab, so they could get a feel for the setting.

Anyone who works in a biomedical research lab knows that there’s nothing like a visit from the outside world to make you realize how incredibly messy your working space actually is. What a dump, I was thinking to myself, suddenly worried that the authors would take one look and change their minds about writing about science altogether. Dirty beakers, overflowing biohazard bins, dye-stained lino floors – miles away from the space-age glittering glass and metal spaces you see in Hollywood labs.

I needn’t have worried: the duo were entranced. I showed them the fruit flies swarming in their vials, cancer cells lurking down the microscope, freezers full of colourful plastic tubes. Louise started snapping away furiously with her camera. They didn’t get the most excited by the things I thought they would: the plasma cleaner, the centrifuges, assorted other machines with flashing lights and buttons. Instead, Louise was transfixed by the industry-standard shelving structures above the lab benches.

“I had no idea these even existed,” she murmured, scribbling down something on her pad.

Mark, meanwhile, had a hand on the tall, freestanding wheeled metal shelves that house our clean glassware in neat rows.

“Do you think,” he mused, “that if you were being chased by someone, you could pull this thing out quickly enough to block someone’s way?” He gave it a tug, but it was too heavy to move more than a few millimetres. “It would be spectacular, if all the glass broke.”

The conversation then turned to the best way to thwart someone during a chase scene.

“What’s the deadliest thing you’ve got in here?” Louise asked, all business.

“Well, I guess it would be the poisons,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my departmental colleagues who I hadn’t noticed working nearby give me a really funny look. I opened the cabinet with its rusty little key and pointed out the small vials in turn. “We inherited these from the lab’s previous owner – they’re ancient.”

“But probably still deadly?”

“I expect so.”

“How about something more unusual?” Mark said. “Something fast and immediate.”

“I’d go for sulphuric acid.” I said, tapping the corrosive cupboard with its blazing danger symbols.

“Hmmm,” Louise said. “That’s a bit too…horrible, somehow.”

“Liquid nitrogen, perhaps?” I explained everything about cryoburns that I could remember from a long-ago health and safety briefing. Later, I sent them some photos of unfortunately disfigured lab workers I’d found on Google. “Or, if you just wanted to temporarily slow someone down, you could splash out a trail of alcohol behind you and set it on fire.”

Eventually they said their goodbyes, and promised to send me chapters to check later. I can’t wait to see how the tools of my trade end up being harnessed by their fertile imaginations.

But for a few days after the visit, their spell lingered: seen from the eyes of strangers, my familiar lab wasn’t just a mess – it was a death trap.

Image by LabLit on Flickr.

Jennifer Rohn About the Author: Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London, UK. In her spare time, she is a science writer, broadcaster, activist and the editor of, a website devoted to illuminating the scientific life and promoting the use of scientist characters in fiction. She has also published two novels about scientists, Experimental Heart and The Honest Look (both from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press). She blogs at Mind The Gap and tweets as @jennyrohn. Follow on Twitter @jennyrohn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ricardipus 4:09 pm 12/19/2011

    Ha! I often lead lab tours here, and non-scientists are frequently most impressed by… you guessed it… the REALLY REALLY COLD freezers.

    Not by the millions of dollars’ worth of fancy sequencers, or the computers, or the liquid handling robots… nope, the freezers.

    I’m awaiting this book full of cryogenic, caustic and/or acidic, and shattered glass disasters. Sounds fun. ;)

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy New 5:26 am 12/20/2011

    Cannot resist: stagnation of Western world is best seen by the lack of spectacular evils escaping from the labs.

    Where are raging cloned tyrannosaurs? Where is the Jetsons flying car? Where is even smallest evil, artificial intelligence lurking in the cyberspace, heh?

    I am reasonable, I can accept no immunization against aging and no serum making people like Superman. But I demand at least a manned space mission to discover all these mysterious artifacts which aliens left in the Solar System.

    Well, maybe there is a light in the tunnell. Faster than light object was just discovered. So, at least a chance of Star Trek starship is on the horizon.

    Link to this

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