Science always has a broader impact

Scientists love science. It’s true. Most of us are in the business of science because we love it. We eat, breathe, sleep it. We bring it home at night. We take it on date night. We tweet, blog and instagram about it.  We even name our furry friends after it (Hi Bif aka Banded Iron Formation aka newest member of the Yeager-Rongstad household). But we don’t just love science.

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This is Bif. He likes rocks just as much as I do. And he has an instagram (follow him @bifbarks)

We love sharing our science too. It’s not just about the doing. Our findings are meaningful. We present them at conferences, to advisors, to peers, to classes, and at invited talks. We publish them in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Our findings are interesting. Teachers teach them. Researchers build on them. Ideas are grown from them. The world learns from them.

But scientists don’t just love sharing their science with other scientists. We want to share our science with everyone. Our grants may require us to share our science with the broader non-scientific community, but most of us would do it regardless. We want the public to be engaged. We want to make our science fun and understandable. We want everyone to care about what we do. Science matters, and we want you to care about it too.

Which brings me to this: Science always has a broader impact. The National Science Foundation defines broader impacts as “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” In short, science should always matter to more than just the scientist doing it.

Scientists are tasked with learning from, understanding and solving the world’s most pressing problems. Whether our research findings will contribute to saving an endangered species, stamping out breast cancer, or understanding how the planet will respond to future rapid climate change, our science means something to the world. And it is our duty to share it with the world. We may have to speak louder and work harder so that our work is heard outside of our field, but we must do it.

And while sharing science is a good first step, scientists shouldn’t stop there.

Scientists should engage the public. We may be the experts, but we’re not the only ones on this planet. We can get the community involved through public forums, hands-on activities and solution implementation. We can involve local communities in fieldwork. We can encourage change in our local communities and governments.

Scientists should mentor. Our excitement and expertise can inspire others. We can embolden young students toward a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). We can provide opportunities to minorities and underrepresented students that would not have otherwise presented themselves. We can even teach older members of the community who are eager to learn more.

If I can do it, so can you: A scientist mentoring case study.

lensonclimatechangelogoLast month, I had the opportunity to start my own broader impacts journey. I participated in a fantastic week-long outreach program, Lens on Climate Change (LOCC), that brought high-school-aged Upward Bound students to the CU-Boulder campus to engage in a film making project documenting the effects of environmental and climate change in their communities.

The students were divided into small groups and each student group was assigned a film and science mentor. My job was to serve as a science mentor to a group of four students interested in STEM from diverse backgrounds and communities. Essentially, I was there to make sure that the students (1) thought about the scientific process and (2) stayed true to the science of their chosen topic throughout the entire film making process. The film mentor’s job was to give the students a solid introduction into filmmaking and to oversee the entire filmmaking and editing process. While both the film mentor and I were there to keep the group on task, it was totally up to the students to brainstorm video topics, research facts, create a story, film their story and edit their film to a final cut.

While my group of students came from different places and diverse backgrounds, they were able to agree that green technology was something they believed their communities could benefit from. Check out their short film below!

Now, you may think my mentoring duties ended with this wonderfully creative short-film. But honestly, I think my most important mentoring came while I ate lunch with my students on filming day. While timid at first, the students began to ask my lots of questions: What do you study? Why does it matter? Why did you become a scientist? What can you do after school? What did you leave consulting? How did you decide to become a geology major? After awhile, they were on a role, and I was soon telling my whole science journey. But perhaps the most important thing I told them during that short lunch was “Don’t let anyone dictate your future.” I never had anyone tell me I could be a scientist, and I struggled until I stopped trying to fit the wrong mold. I wanted those young STEM students to know that no one should control who they become, and I hope that at least one of them took some of my words to heart.

 

#broaderimpacts

 

“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.

mount_everest_as_seen_from_drukair2_plw_edit

“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)
starsand2

forams even make star sand!


 

Image sources

Photo 1: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/media/?i=10419480

Photo 2: http://www.geo.uni-bremen.de/forschung/bilder/106-2big.jpg

Photo 3: http://www.sjvgeology.org/geology/fossils/forams.jpg

Photo 4: https://carriekravetz.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/starsand2.jpg?w=460&h=333

 

 

 

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?

GEOCHEMISTRY!

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.

#HappyENSOing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why the Earth’s past has scientists so worried about the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation – The Washington Post

Because here’s an article that says all the things I want to say on this topic and because I didn’t have time to write something myself this week… Marine geology is important guys!

***Ocean circulation changed many times in the last 70,000 years, according to new research.

Source: Why the Earth’s past has scientists so worried about the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation – The Washington Post

Scientific literacy: Lessons from The Martian

As I was walking out of the theatre after seeing The Martian last Friday, I noticed a tweet by one of my favorite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which summed up the movie (and by relation, the novel) so well that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t though of it before: “The @MartianMovie — where you learn all the ways that being Scientifically Literate can save your life.” Besides the fact that I love almost everything Neil deGrasse Tyson says (it’s all relevant, I swear), this tweet hits on something that goes much deeper than a quirky blip about a popular new movie. Scientific literacy.
Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 5.54.23 PM

What is scientific literacy?

The long definition: “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

The short definition, scientific literacy is the “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” (National Science Education Standards)

To summarize, scientific literacy implies that one has been thoroughly educated in the scientific process and can apply the things they have learned to real life situations.


Scientific literacy is the "knowledge and understanding of scientific 
concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation 
in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." 
(National Science Education Standards)

Why is The Martian so important?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (but seriously read it too)—READ/WATCH IT! As a scientist, I can’t think of a better example of scientific triumph in the world of fiction. The author, Andy Weir, is a software engineer, who set out to write a novel grounded in scientific truth. He did amazingly well–I’m only aware of one scientific mishap/exaggeration regarding how Martian weather is depicted (and forces the Hermes crew to evacuate and thus leave Mark Watney behind). However, the rest of the novel is filled with the scientific success (and blunders) of Mark Watney as he tries to wrestle his survival from Mars.

After Mark Watney is mistakenly left on Mars by his team, he has no choice but to “science the shit out of this.” As the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, his abilities are admittedly perfectly suited to his stranded on Mars situation (i.e. he must figure out how to make his food last until he can be rescued and he must rig equipment for new uses); however, much of the work he does need to complete to survive is beyond his normal comfort zone, and he must rely on his ability to use science to solve problems. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie, you know how this ends–I won’t give it away for those who have not, but the message is the same–Mark Watney’s life depends TOTALLY on his scientific knowledge and ability to adapt using the tools he has around him.

Now, not everyone on this planet is astronaut material. Mark Wartney and the rest of the Hermes crew were the best of the best (just like all those super-human real life astronauts) and they were likely picked for the mission because of their specific skills. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of us stuck back down on Earth should be able to avoid our worldly responsibilities because “science isn’t our thing.”


Okay… but we’re never going to be stuck on Mars right?

Chances are no. But our planet is currently facing its own “struggle for survival’, which is only being hindered by the general public’s lack of scientific literacy.

Struggle for survival, you say? On Earth?

You might be tempted to think that scientific literacy has absolutely nothing to do with human survival on Earth, but I strongly disagree. Our planet is currently faced with with a rate of warming likely unmatched in its geologic history. Anthropogenic CO2 is being rapidly released into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels and disturbance of other carbon sinks, such as the world’s forests and permafrost in arctic and alpine regions. Glaciers are melting and sending a large amount of fresh water into the oceans causing changes in ocean circulation. Species are being lost at an incredible rate. The only way to lessen or reverse these effects, is for people to understand and accept these changes and to move into action to do something about it. Without action, humans (and everything else living on this planet) face an extremely uncertain future in a rapidly changing world–evolution takes millions of years, and humans may not be able to adapt to these changes quickly enough. Like Mark Watney, humans must “science the shit out of this” for survival.


So why aren’t more people jumping into action?

There is a terrifying lack of scientific literacy in the United States and other countries around the world. People misunderstand the scientific process, and therefore misunderstand the consensus among climate scientists in term of anthropogenic climate change (for the record, 97% of scientists AGREE that anthropogenic climate change is real—see Skeptical Science – Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism). These misunderstandings lead to a feeling that science is bad or inaccurate. They lead to the thoughts that scientists are radicals who just want attention. They even lead to complete ignorance about how important the scientific process is (i.e. what it means to have something published in a peer reviewed journal vs. just somewhere online). And when politicians and people of power use their lack of scientific literacy to spread false information about climate change, nothing gets done.

We all need to do better. Not all of us are scientists (and most of us will never set foot on Mars let alone get anywhere near space), and that’s fine. But America (and the rest of the world) needs to work harder to improve the scientific literacy of its citizens. Without a general understanding of science, people will continue to doubt everything about it. If people continue to doubt science, they will never trust it to save their lives. If people don’t trust science to save their lives… well, that doesn’t leave a very shiny, bright future for planet Earth.

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.

IMG_5012

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, http://www.phdcomics.com

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

#cleanroomproblems