Geology is hard

I’ve been a busy, productive graduate student the past month with my first set of samples coming in (whoop, whoop!), learning some new foram taxonomy, trying to make a pretty map in Matlab, and trying to get a class full of students uninterested in geology actually interested in geology (…it’s still a work in progress). While busy doesn’t excuse my blog neglect, it did bring to light some pretty blog-worthy topics, including some serious winter sports FOMO and more ridiculously wonderful undergradisms. Which brings me to the topic of the week (rather month, since I’ve neglected this blog so thoroughly over the last 28ish days) straight out of the mouth of a frustrated intro geology student (who had just realized he forgot to do his pre-lab): “Geology is hard.”

“Rocks for jocks”

Or rather, Geology 101.
When I walk into syllabus week, crossing my fingers that I have at least one student in each of my sections the teeniest bit interested in my scientific obsession, the first thing I tell my students is that geology is not easy. It’s an interpretive science that pulls and gives knowledge to a vast array of other sciences. Answers are not always cut-and-dry, we don’t always put things into an equation and get out what we expect, and only practice (lots and lots… and lots of practice) can produce a productive, fully functioning geologist. I tell them that I struggled through geology classes, and that I still struggle through lots of geologic subjects today. I say absolutely everything I can to impress upon their syllabus week minds that no, this class will not be a total walk in the park, and yes, I will make you work for it. I don’t really think any one them really believe me… until they actually hard-core struggle through the first lab.

de093810cff2c87e1447ebe1f229fa75I may have a different teaching philosophy than other introductory level geology TAs, but I don’t like handing out participation grades. Whether a student is a geology major, somewhat interest in geology or just taking this class because it’s required, I still expect my students to put effort into each and every lab. And while I don’t expect them to remember every single word or definition they learn while taking the intro class, I do hope that they walk away with a bigger understanding of what the science of geology is all about.

The core classes

Even for us lucky few who embark on an undergraduate career in geology, struggle is still the name of the game. Mineralogy. Petrology. Structure. Sed/Strat. Geochemistry. Maybe even Geobiology and Geophysics…. the list goes on and on. My core major classes were some of the hardest classes I took in undergrad. Time spent on labs in many of these classes could border on 5 hours OUTSIDE OF ACTUAL LAB TIME, and there were lab days where I would sit there completely perplexed by symmetry blocks or what-the-hell-grain is this on my slide or understanding a ternary diagram with all sorts of minerals in solution or even trying to figure out my aqueous geochemistry computer program. Geology is hard, but it’s just because we need to know so much more than everyone else.

I don’t TA any of these classes at CU-Boulder, but I’ve heard plenty of things from those TAs to know that my experience is not unique. Geology students struggle, but it doesn’t mean we don’t love every minute of it (expect maybe finals filled with every mineral formula you were told you wouldn’t have to memorize).

Field camp

Survive all your core classes only to realize you still have field camp to conquer? Yeah, I’ve been there. For all of you non-geologists (and all you geologists who managed to finagle your way out of this one), field camp is a comprehensive field mapping “experience” typically held sometime over the summer (usually somewhere cool like Utah) that lasts around six weeks. Sure, six weeks hiking and exploring in the glorious mountain-ridden wilderness doesn’t sound too bad to a geologist, but you’re forgetting the whole needing to remember all the minerals, rocks, structure, sedimentology, stratigraphy, ternary diagrams, paleoenvironment, brunton compass using and general just don’t fall on your ass while trying to find an outcrop geology skills.

Field camp is hard. Like throw your map board off a cliff (did it), lose your mapping partner (happened), leave your rock hammer on the top of the mountain (almost), leave your mapping partner to fight the snake in the outcrop alone (sorry Ben!), have an epic face-off with the worst gnats to ever exist (see above), stay up all night coloring your map and praying to the rock gods that your cross section will just magically look perfect in your professor’s eyes (hahahaha), and yes, even cry (saw it happen) hard. Your professor will probably give you some version of the “it’s not about the final product, it’s about the journey” speech, but that still won’t heal your poor I-just-mapped-these-rocks-totally-wrong-for-three-whole-days heart. But as expected with a crazy group of people obsessed with rocks, there will always be a shoulder to cry on (hi, friends), silly juice to drown your sorrows in (whatever your taste buds desire), and unbelievable stories to remember (remember that time?).

Field camp was hard. But damn, can I do it again?

“The one”


And by someone, I mean geology. And by geology, I mean paleoceanography ❤

If you make it through everything above, (congrats) there’s usually the one subject that just gets your little rock heart going; that one subject that makes you want to learn more (or to devout the next large chunk of your young life to school) and to not care about how much you struggle doing it. For me, it was geochemistry. Everything started to make sense during/after that class. Complicated mineralogy and petrology subjects suddenly clicked, and all the chemistry based diagrams I had been staring at for two years suddenly seemed so simple. Sure, a lot of geochemistry just made intuitive sense to me, but lots of it was definitely still a struggle. Struggling (and loving) geochemistry got me to where I am today… so I guess I can’t complain too much.

Everyone here with me in grad school found their one (or hopefully are busy finding it right now), but there isn’t a single day that I don’t walk into the geology building or INSTAAR and hear about someone struggling with something (e.g. research, lab work, time constraints, comps, classes, writing, teaching). Geology is still hard because graduate school is a-whole-nother level of struggle. But geologists, especially graduate student geologists, are crazy, so we love it.

In summary: Geology is hard, but we seem to like it that way. (Otherwise everyone would do it, right?).


“The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone”

As a geologist, I often take for granted the years of practice I’ve had comprehending geologic processes and time. Earth is not the same as it was 4.54 billion years ago (birth of Earth), 65 million years ago (Dino extinction) or even 21,000 years ago (the Last Glacial Maximum), and it’s not easy for humans to grasp changes that occur on timescales much, much longer than our lifespans. Things have changed: oceans once existed where there is now land; strange animals, like t-rex, [giant] megafauna beaver, and my personal favorite, the terrifyingly large megalodon, once prowled the planet; and Antarctica once played home to tropical plants and animals. And things will continue to change.

My mind was blown when my Geology 101 “rocks for jocks” professor stretched a piece of string across the 200-seat lecture hall with ticks for important events in Earth’s history illustrating that earthly human habitation barely stretched one cm at the end of the string. While not exactly the same, the clock below may serve to similarly blow all your minds (or not, if you live and breathe this stuff everyday). But if you react anything like me, this kind of analogy is a strong eye-opener for how little our species has experienced on earth.

But geologists don’t shrink away from that realization–we thrive in it. Geology is a science because, well, humans simply don’t understand very much about Earth’s history. We know a hell of a lot more than we did 100 years ago… For example, scientists once believed a great flood was responsible for the appearance of marine fossils and rocks on the summits of the world’s highest mountains, but we now know that these rocks and fossils were deposited in ancient oceans and then uplifted through plate tectonics… But there is always another piece to the puzzle to sink our crazy geologist teeth into, and we can’t wait to see what we find next.

I think we all have an innate curiosity about the world around us (geologist or no), and John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World is a perfect example of geologic curiosity spilling over into the non-geology world. Annals of the Former World is a non-fiction masterpiece about the geologic history of North America. When I first picked up this book, per the requirements of an undergraduate course, I was admittedly a bit grumbly. But McPhee’s writing was incredible and, while not a geologist, his ability to write about geology in an extremely approachable way astonished me. I was already a geology major, but McPhee’s writing would have sent me running to geology faster than a One Direction fan running to a meet-and-greet.


“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, 
they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived 
in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly 
as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains 
had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the 
movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict 
all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The 
summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” 
--John McPhee, Annals of the Former World

The passage above is one of my favorite’s from McPhee. After spending a paragraph explaining, in great detail, how the summit of Mt. Everest evolved through time, he very bluntly [and humorously] sums it up: “The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” McPhee does this throughout Annals of the Former World, and I love him for it. Geology is serious business, but we do like to have some fun.

Fun with Forams

hqdefaultOHHHHHHHHHHHHH….Who lives in a carbonate shell under the sea? Forams. Forams do.

I work with forams (but really the forams are working for me) so that I can reconstruct some pretty crazy cool paleoceanography. They’re not as sexy as t-rex (big head, little arms) or as terrifying as the giant North and South American terror birds (google it, they were terrifying), but they play a major role in some of the coolest geology every done and obviously, in the science being done by my advisor and me now. Forams are pretty awesome, and so of course I had to share.

The live ones

Forams are little critters (protists if you want to get specific about it) that live (and have lived) all over the world’s oceans. Forams are generally quite small, but some can get as large as tens of centimeters in length, and can live anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years. There are around 4,000 living species of forams in the oceans today, but only 40 of those species get to spend their gloriously short lives floating around in the water (this is what we call planktic foraminifera). The rest of these guys spend their lives living in or on ocean sediments, rocks or even plants at the bottom of the ocean (this is what we call benthic foraminifera). Many species are pretty picky about their habitats (the shoe has to fit, right?), but they can be found pretty much anywhere.

What does something that small eat, you may ask? Well, some forams eat algae that  grow inside their shells (symbiosis!) and others eat organic molecules or even brine shrimp. Forams “catch” their food with their whisker looking pseudopodia, which they also use to float around in the water. And since I know you’re dying to watch a foram feed on a brine shrimp… I found a fancy video by a famous foram scientist, H. Spero, for you to do just that (really, it’s awesome though…so watch it).

Very little is understood about live foraminfera. Even species that are relatively well studied show such a variety of characteristics that makes it difficult for scientists to determine a pattern in characteristics. In [FUN] fact, scientist have never been able to successfully reproduce a foram in the lab. We can catch them. And feed them. And keep them alive. But we can’t make them reproduce. This is a huge barrier for understanding the mechanisms behind shell creation, and there’s obviously still a lot to learn.

The dead ones

Live forams are cool and all, but I care more about the dead ones. To get really specific, I care about the once floating dead ones that lived between 29,000 and 14,000 years ago whose shells have been preserved in marine sediments in the equatorial Pacific. These lucky bastards, lived through some very important climate variability in the recent geologic past and their glorious carbonate shells recorded it all!  I suppose I owe these little buggers a great big thank you, because without them there would be no PhD for me.

Besides being useful for the geochemical climate information recorded in the shells of long dead bugs, forams are also extremely useful for determining relative ages of marine sediments. Different species are found at different times, and as I mentioned before, they are found in marine sediments from around the world making forams a fantastic universal tool for relative dating. This is why oil companies love forams…and love people who love forams. Oil formed at specific times in Earth’s history. So when someone who loves forams can tell oil companies when their sediments contain forams from the oil window age–money gets made.

Dead forams (well, really their shells) have also been used to reconstruct past geography and ecology. Specific species are found in specific geographic and ecological “niches,” and therefore can be used in the geologic record as a proxy (i.e. recorder) for those conditions. Scientists can then pick forams from ancient marine sediments, and tell a story about how a single location has evolved through time with respect to sea level, temperature or even acidity.

So yeah, forams are cool(er than t-rex and terror birds…and PhD students stuck in a basement office)

forams even make star sand!


Image sources

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ENSO (is taking over my life)

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted some hard-core science (and I’m totally a day late on my Wednesday post-day), so I felt this week was as good as any to let you all in on my not-so-well-kept secret of a PhD project that has been taking over my life. The topic: paleo-ENSO.

To start, let me define what the heck that means. Paleo = ancient. ENSO = El Nino Southern Oscillation…so I will be studying ancient El Niño Southern Oscillation. Still have no idea what ENSO is? Well for one, you should. And two, ENSO is the leading mode of climate variability on Earth today. In non-ENSO-studying-PhD-student terms, ENSO is incredibly important for short term changes in climate and has a massive impact on weather, precipitation and drought patterns around the world, including the current drought and resultant fires slamming Indonesia (click here for good review on the variable impacts of El Niño around the world — I promise it’s not a trap). ENSO is initiated in equatorial Pacific (you know, the region in the Pacific ocean that’s closest to the equator), but that doesn’t stop it from dipping it’s selfish hands in everyone else’s business.


Diverging from the paleo for a bit, let me explain a bit more about ENSO.

ENSO includes two very prominent phases, which I’m sure you are at least somewhat familiar with in the deepest parts of your brain: El Niño (“warm” episode) and La Niña (“cold” episode).

El Niño

El Niño is the “warm” phase of ENSO. I put warm in quotations because the warm refers to sea surface temperature anomalies (the difference between observed sea surface temperature and average or normal sea surface temperature) in a very specific location in the eastern equatorial Pacific, which is referred to by all us fancy scientists as the Cold Tongue (named because under normal conditions, this area is cool). Simply put, during an El Niño event (like the one that we are in right now), the water in the Cold Tongue warms up.

Now, this sea surface temperature warming doesn’t just sit there all by itself doing nothing–the atmosphere wants to play too (sometimes). And when the atmosphere decides to play ball, that’s when things get interesting. Anomalous warming in the eastern equatorial Pacific (often, but not always) triggers a response in the atmosphere, which results a shift in atmospheric circulation. This shift in atmospheric circulation brings rain to the southwestern US and northwestern South America, and drought to Indonesia, parts of northeastern Australia and even South Africa.

La Niña

La Niña is the “cold” phase of ENSO. Again, I put the cold in quotations because the cold refers to sea surface temperature anomalies in the Cold Tongue of the eastern equatorial Pacific. During a La Niña event, the water in the Cold Tongue gets colder (yes… it does that). The atmosphere feels these cooler temperatures (just as it feels the warmer sea surface temperatures during an El Niño) and “cool” stuff happens. An opposite shift in atmospheric circulation brings rain to Indonesia, northeastern Australia and South Africa and drought to the southwestern US and northwestern South America.

Some final notes on ENSO before I move back to the paleo side of things:

(1) Not all El Niño or La Niña events are the same–there is a lot of variability in how these events present themselves both in the ocean and the atmosphere and in what impacts are felt around the globe.

(2) If the atmosphere doesn’t want to play ball, a full blown El Niño or La Niña event is highly unlikely. (Case and point, last year’s failed El Niño).

(3) El Niño events tend to me much stronger in amplitude than La Niña events, and therefore tend to gather more interest in the popular media. (There are also scientists who believe that La Niña events are simply just a slight amplification of normal conditions, and therefore not a “real” event… but that’s a discussion for another time).

Okay, now back to the paleo.

Why study paleo-ENSO?

(1) Paleo for paleo’s sake.

It’s interesting! The Earth is cool, guys, and studying everything about it is super exciting (#geologyrocks). But sad-face, I had to pick one topic to focus on for the next few years and ENSO just won me over.

To get more serious: The way in which ENSO presents itself today in the modern is likely not how ENSO presented itself in the past. Studying ENSO in the past can help us better understand the phenomenon itself. (But really, it’s just super cool).

(2) Paleo for the future’s sake.

Scientists have no idea how climate change will effect ENSO. Models disagree about how variable (i.e. how often El Niño and La Niña events occur) ENSO will be in the future. One way to resolve this issue is to test models against data collected from ancient time periods to observe how well these models simulate paleo-ENSO (i.e. run these models for a time period we understand well in the past and compare the model outputs to non-model data from the same time period). Any divergences between these models and robust (i.e. accurate, precise and thoroughly vetted) ancient data would suggest a huge misunderstanding of the basic physics of ENSO in the models. However, in order to do this you need really, really good data. And for anything older than ~10,000 years, we don’t have that. And this is where I (super-paleo-ENSO-PhD-student) come in.

To condense that whole paragraph down into one sentence: Understanding ENSO in the past is vital for understanding how ENSO will change in the future.

Okay cool, but how do you study paleo-ENSO?


Specifically carbonate geochemistry (see my about me bonus for a lengthy discussion). I’m not going to get into all the dirty details, but simply put, scientists can extract a glorious amount of climate information from carbonates. One of these things is sea surface temperature. And when sea surface temperature data is collected from ENSO affected regions in the equatorial Pacific Ocean (particularly those regions which are being used to monitor ENSO today)–BAM, you have a way to reconstruct ENSO. Now of course there a lot of complicated things that go into this sort of analysis, such as the need for high resolution records (i.e. a record that preserves the short-term variability of ENSO) and incorporating other proxy data results from around the world, but it can AND has been done. (And I’m going to do it–for a period of Earth’s history for which we have absolutely no idea what in the world ENSO was doing).


I’ve spent most of this semester learning all things ENSO. I’ve written a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program proposal on it. I’m collecting all the papers I can find about it. I’ve been talking to members of my PhD committee about it.

And the best part… I get to do this for five years.








If cats were geologists

Cats are magnificent beasts. And so are geologists. And because my brain is too fried to write anything else (thanks Matlab and fellowship applications and grading and life), I present a photo montage entitled: If cats were geologists.

The oh my god I just did something horribly, horribly wrong and my data is so, so wrong geologist


The please give me money for science geologist


The eat all the things in sight (including the mystery meat) after a long day in the field geologist


The trying to take a group photo geologist


The just lost your mapping partner and start hearing scary noises in the woods geologistsurprised cat

The freshman geologist cat


The grad student geologist


The after being stuck in the rain all day mapping geologist


The I’m so tired I think I could die after weeks of fieldwork or proposal/grant/thesis writing geologist


The I’m just going to sleep here (after a night of magical liquid consumption) geologistdrunkcat

The you can’t make me go back to the lab geologist


The I’m very skeptical about this data geologist


The how out of shape you feel after months away from the field geologist


The just tried to take a picture of a rock but the selfie cam was on geologist


The this is my rock, this is totally my rock geologist


Things you should know before befriending a geologist

Us geologists are a special breed. We definitely aren’t like everyone else. So, if you’re thinking about befriending a geologist, there’s probably a few things you should know:

You can’t take us anywhere. Well, you can, but you’ve been forewarned… Geologists are distracted by everything. And when I say everything, I mean rocks. Rocks are everywhere. And we’re very good at finding them. And spending forever looking at them. And talking about them. And boring you with all the details about them. And debating with ourselves and each other about them. So like I said, you can’t take us anywhere.

We collect all the rocks. Okay, so not all the rocks… but definitely MOST of the rocks. When we hike, our packs are heavier coming down than they were going up. When we move, we have boxes of just rocks–so beware of agreeing to help a geologist move… we’ll probably make you carry all the heavy stuff. Every space we can claim as our own is filled with our rocks. Our kitchens, our living rooms, our bedrooms, our offices, and yes likely even our bathrooms play home to at least one of our magnificent rock finds.


Mike (still) rock hunting on the final day of our trek in Nepal

We will make you hike with us. And it won’t be just any kind of hike, it’ll be a geologist hike, which means we’ll make you stop every five seconds to look at rocks or we’ll race you to death up the mountain. We also have perfected the art of hiking in torrential downpour, or damning heat, or snowstorms, or up (and down) scree… and it won’t stop us from babbling away about the rocks or yes, even taking notes on our glorious homemade map boards. And if you dare ask us a question about geology, you’ll have opened a whole rabbit hole of topics that you probably will wish you hadn’t.

We make lame geology jokes. And like them. And think you like them too. Are you cummingtonite? That’s a gneiss schist. Rocks rock… you get the picture. We may roll our eyes when someone resorts the geology pun game, but deep down it makes all warm and fuzzy inside.

We like adult beverages. A lot. It hasn’t been a successful day in the field without some sort of liquid wonder. Beer is a major staple of our diet. We don’t go anywhere without a beer plan. And when we go to Utah, we make sure to stop in Colorado… or Wyoming to get the good beer before we go back to 3.2 land. And yes, some of us are fancier than others, so wine is the adult beverage of choice. However, don’t ever ask a group of geologist to agree on the best kind of liquor because consensus you won’t find (my vote is still gin guys).


We love to talk geology. Seriously. If you ask us a question, we won’t stop talking about it. And we LOVE when people ask us questions… because it lets us show all you “normal” people just how wonderfully smart and insightful we are. But when you bring us concrete and ask us to identify the rock, you should probably cross your fingers that our rock hammer isn’t within reach.

We love to hate bad geology movies. The Core. Dante’s Peak. Journey to the Center of the Earth. San Andreas. We love to hate them all. And we’ll probably make you watch them. And make you listen to us grumble about how horribly inaccurate they are. And we’ll definitely try to teach you everything the right way (whether you asked for it or not).

Field season is our happiest time of the year. Camping, getting dirty, rock hunting, mapping, researching, [working hard and playing hard]… we love all these things. Field season is the time of the year when we get to do all these glorious things. But sorry, we can’t invite you. It’s an exclusive club kind of thing. And for those of us whose fieldwork is a one-time deal or whose fieldwork has already been completed, we just hope and pray that one of our rock loving friends will let us tag along on their own field adventures.

We ALWAYS remember that one time at field camp. You know that time? We have absolutely no shame constantly reminding all you normal folk just how awesome our field camp/field trip/field season experience was. And when our field groups reunite, SO MANY INSIDE JOKES.

And last but not least… We will try to convert you. 

Lab life: the cleanroom, the machine, the clothes, the work, and the fun

Last week was all about me, but this week is all about the lab. As I dove into in my About me bonus, I am a paleoceanographer, paleoclimatologist and a geochemist. Specifically, I use certain elements, mainly Mg/Ca ratios, to reconstruct past oceans and climate. To do that, I need a lab. But not just any a lab; I need a lab with a (very) cleanroom, a very nifty inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), some wonderfully fashionable and functional clothing, and of course, a lot of interesting and exciting work. Here at INSTAAR, we call that lab the ICP-MS Trace Element Lab. And it’s in this lab where all my PhD dreams will come true (or explode catastrophically).

The cleanroom

What’s a cleanroom? Well, a cleanroom, is a room that limits the introduction of contaminants (i.e. dust, airborne particles, pollutants, etc.) through engineering controls to preserve process or sample integrity. Why do I need a cleanroom? The samples I work with are very specific to a source (where the sample came from) and a time (when the sample was “made”). This means that all the elements stored within a sample will be different from a sample taken somewhere else. The elements will also be different from the environment, let’s say, in a geology building. If a processing or dissolved sample (i.e. a sample that is being prepped for analysis on a machine) sits out in the un-protected geology building environment, it can uncontrollably “take in” or react with the set of elements its composition differs from because of its vulnerable state. This isn’t good. A contaminated sample will no longer accurately represent its source and time, thereby possibly changing the history the geochemist (i.e. me) will try to discern from said sample. This is where the cleanroom comes in; it limits sample contamination by controlling the environment.


A cleanroom to a geochemist is like a operating room to a surgeon; IT’S VERY IMPORTANT. It’s where we work our science magic (or sometimes where our dreams are crushed). Without getting too technical, my samples need to remain as clean (i.e. not contaminated) as possible through crushing, cleaning and dissolving steps (i.e. prepping for analysis) in order to accurately represent its history. Engineering controls, such as air filters, negative room pressure, laminar flow benches, and even coated metals (or better yet, metal substitutes) are used to limit sample contamination. Because we’re scientists, we have all sorts of checks to determine if contamination did indeed occur, such as: running a acid blank (no sample) test prior to using said acid to dissolve a sample or analyzing acid blanks during a sample run to determine if contamination occurred while dissolving samples. However, even in a cleanroom, contamination does still occur.

The machine

What’s an ICP-MS? It’s a mass spectrometer with energized plasma that ionizes a dissolved (liquid) sample to analyze a set of specific elements. Decoded: an ICP-MS will take a dissolved sample, analyze it and report a specific suite of elements. The suite of elements the ICP-MS reports depends on a couple things, mainly: the analytical precision and sensitivity needed to complete a run (some samples are smaller than others and thus require more precision and sensitivity to be successfully analyzed) and the interests of the researcher using the machine. I could go into all the physics behind this glorious machine, but as I myself am still learning them… I won’t. Just know this: Mg/Ca are the elements I’m mainly after and I will use this machine to find them. I will also analyze my samples for other elements, but that is a discussion for another day.

The ICP-MS is housed in an adjoining room to the cleanroom, and like the cleanroom, is a vital part of the lab I will be working in throughout my entire PhD career.

The clothes

IMG_5010I’ve been talking a lot about the air contamination, but contamination doesn’t just come from the air; it can also come from particles trapped in clothing. Because outside clothes and shoes, are well, from the outside, they must be covered at all times when in a cleanroom. In most geochemical labs, the coverings include a stunning white tyvek suit and booties. This makes us cleanroom geochemists the most stylist of the geology bunch.

Fashion joking aside, personal protective equipment (PPE) is a huge and vital part of any lab. The main function of the tyvek suit and booties is to protect the cleanroom from outside contaminants, but a secondary function is that it can protect one’s body from minor chemical spills. Gloves and googles/glasses top off the glorious cleanroom ensemble to protect our dainty hands and seeing organs–safety first. My PPE is designed to handle less hazardous material as the chemicals I work with are very dilute; however, I do still handle chemical stock solutions and other concentrated chemicals, so I still have to be very careful in the lab.

The work

Of course, working in any lab requires a significant amount of training (and often a very large learning curve). From safety training, to process training, to day-to-day maintenance, to just finding the damn pipette tips… a new labbie could spend anywhere from a few weeks to an entire year getting comfortable in a new lab. When a lab contains a cleanroom, one must follow an even higher level of scrutiny. Lucky for me, I worked in a similar cleanroom setting as an undergrad, so some of the basic concepts (i.e. upkeep, storage, cleaning, safety) are review for me. Unlucky for me, lots of other parts of my new clean lab (i.e. anything and everything foram and ICP-MS) are completely new to me, and it will still take some time (and lots of mistakes) for me to get 100% comfortable.

Lab Hazard Rating System

Via “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham,

My PhD will likely be lab heavy in the first couple of years. Some days, I won’t leave the lab (probably not by choice, but hey, when in PhD mode, one must PhD). Others, I’ll run far, far away from it (hopefully to be super productive reading and writing, but more likely I’ll be looking for beer). During my PhD, my lab work will include all sorts of tasks: foram picking, crushing, cleaning, dissolving and analyzing; chemical dilutions; lab cleaning and organizing; beaker/cup cleaning; ICP-MSing (i.e. sweet talking the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer); and many, many more. The foram tasks will take by far the longest, and most of those tasks require use of the cleanroom. Use of the ICP-MS will also be somewhat time consuming, especially when the machine is being difficult (as I write this, my advisor and I are trying to keep it from overheating so we can finally run some samples). However, I’ve spent my summer learning a lot about the machine, and hopefully by the time my own samples are ready to be run, I’ll be a super knowledgable (or at least semi-knowledgeable) ICP-MSer.

The fun

But life in the lab goes beyond the lab, the clothes and even the work; you learn along the way to have a little fun and to make a little fun of your mistakes or tragically embarrassing situations. To let you in on the “fun” part, I’ve decided to write about some of the funny situations you could find yourself in while working in a cleanroom. So, without further ado, I present:

You know you work (or have worked) in a cleanroom when…

  • You can replicate the delicate dance of putting on and (the often more difficult task) of taking off your tyvek (“bunny”) suit and shoe coverings in your sleep
  • You’ve fallen over trying to get your limbs out of your tyvek suit (probably in front of your advisor or professor or a very important world-renown scientist)
  • You’ve made the mistake of completely suiting up after drinking five cups of coffee… and not running to the bathroom first
  • You’ve found the “slippery” part of the cleanroom floor and know first hand what it’s like to feel as if your life is about to end (since you’re holding very delicate samples, and/or scary acids, and/or your advisor is standing right behind you)
  • You don’t care what you wear to work because nothing’s more fashionable than tyvek white
  • You’ve tried to sit down on a normal office chair while donning your tyvek suit and have gone flying off the chair Christmas Vacation sledding style
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes on the wrong side of the cleanroom and not realizing it until after removing all your fancy cleanroom clothes
  • You’ve made the mistake of leaving your notes in another room and not realizing it until after completely suiting up
  • You know what it feels like for people to think you’re about to get into some serious shit… but you’re really just going in the lab to clean some beakers
  • You look like a giant marsh-mellow… and like it
  • You know the struggle of trying to get your cell phone out of your back pocket once you’re already suited and zipped up
  • Your favorite time of the week/month is when you get to rip off the nasty sticky pads at all door entrances to reveal the brand new sticky pads underneath
  • You know what it’s like for something to come up in the lab where you need help from your more experienced advisor, lab manager or the lab’s grad-student/postdoc extraordinaire and have the internal debate about whether you should completely un-suit to hunt him/her down… or shamelessly text him/her until he/she comes to your rescue
  • You get angry over someone using the tyvek suit CLEARLY labeled with your name