What defines the worst or best day? Is it based on whether or not you cried, or whether you made money or lost money? Maybe its based on how much work you have been given, or how stressed that made you feel. Well, for me its based on how I feel when I lay my head on my pillow at night. So, here’s my story on a very interesting day in academia but this isn’t an abstract, you’ll have to read the whole story to work out if it was the best day, or the worst…

In my old lab, a lot of the machinery was communal, meaning that we all had access to them, and it needed to be booked beforehand. Being valuable, you needed to be trained on these machines before using them by yourself. So let me introduce you to my favourite machine, it has multiple SEPARATE parts, extremely FRAGILE syringes, glass and THOROUGH cleaning processes, I present to you…the ITC machine! Or, in full, the isothermal titration calorimeter. This machine is important in understanding the nature of biochemical reactions.

The ITC machine is old, it’s got its own issues too. For instance, its handle is attached to a part that holds its fragile syringe. Let me draw a picture for you. Its silver, and thin. Think of a lollipop stick, but much thinner. So, its handle is always getting stuck and being gentle is the only way to get around it. That means, no twisting, pushing or pulling. Seriously, this machine should come with its own warning book.

Picture: The syringe, gets inserted into handle.

After being trained on this wonderful machine, which I might add, is the ONLY machine that everyone used for this specific experiment, I started running my own reactions by myself.

Do you think you know where this is going?

On one particular morning, I decide to run an experiment and as usual, the machine and I were on the same page…UNTIL…it was time to insert the handle (which holds the “world’s thinnest syringe”). Now, I had been warned that if I feel like the handle is stuck, I should just pull it out and try and again. And what did I do? Exactly that. You thought I broke the handle, didn’t you?

So as suggested, I brought the handle back up and tried once again, but as soon as I felt an “obstruction” I brought it up again, my impatience growing as I attempted to go for my third time, but I stopped. I just stopped and froze, and my eyes widened.

When I looked at the syringe before trying again, it had bent! And it definitely was not bent when I inserted it into the handle. This is what I said, word for word in this moment, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”. It was like when you win a public competition, or you got an award, my heart started to beat faster, my cheeks started getting warm and my mouth, dry. Except, the feeling was the complete opposite. As I continued saying, “Oh my god” in a panicky voice, I lowered the handle and removed the syringe. It was bent. So, I should probably “unbend” it right? So, I did… And to my relief, I fixed it!

Yeah right, I wish that’s what’s happened.

No, I didn’t fix it. Instead, the “world’s thinnest syringe” which was bent, was now split into two pieces because I tried to UNBEND it!

And there it was, the worst moment of my academic career. I stood there, with these two tiny pieces in my gloved hands and stared at it until my vision got blurry and the tears started coming out. After a two-minute cry, I wiped my face and took the slowest walk to my supervisor’s office. Just my luck, the head of the unit was in the office too. I slowly approached, discussed the situation and apologised profusely. I like to think that they admired my honesty because they didn’t reprimand me, in fact they said it was okay and mistakes happen.

I used my puppy eyes filled with tears to tell the rest of my lab the sin that was committed, and again, was so appreciative for their support, they hugged me and said it was okay, BUT I’m pretty sure they were all annoyed (I would be too). Although I had butchered the poor syringe, I was lucky in 3 ways:

  1. My supervisor was supportive
  2. My lab co-workers were supportive
  3. There was an older, extra syringe 😊 (but I did not know this until after I broke the syringe). Seriously, thank God, because it costs approx. R50 000!

And that, was my worst day in the lab. When my head the pillow that night, so did my tears. I have learnt from this experience, even when you feel at your lowest, you remember the lesson (that is, pretend all machinery in the lab are like flowers, BE GENTLE) and know that life has to move on, that’s the only thing that makes it better.

I can laugh about this day now, but I guess that’s the beauty of life, right? You’ve got to have bad days in order to appreciate the good ones. Of course, I had “best days” too, but we’ll leave that for another time, spoiler alert, it involves a Masters degree and a distinction.

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