Thursday, January 05, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Here's a tip to all you scientists, great and small, to keep in mind for the New Year. It applies to everyone, from Nobel Prize winners to 10th grade general science students who will never measure anything again:


If you aren't analyzing what you think you're analyzing, you won't be able to draw a whole lot of meaningful conclusions from your experiment.

Now, y'all might be thinking, "Duh," but sadly, in the ten years I've been a paid lab worker, I've seen way too many cases where mislabeling has occurred. Anyone can do it, and the results are often heartbreaking.

For example, I know of someone who collected rocks from one of the most inaccessible areas on the planet- the sort of place that makes Greenland seem crowded and accessible. After collection, the scientist then spent several years carefully separating his rocks into their component minerals. He carefully packaged these minerals for international shipment, paid a substantial (yet internationally competitive) fee to have the analysis done, and then put the same sample number on all of the separates.

Kids, don't do this at home.

Be careful. Don't rush. Double check. Better yet, devise a system that allows you to recheck and catch mistakes as you make them. Write everything down, and save all of your primary notes, even if they somehow end up being written on a Kim-wipe, instead of the notebook you ought to be using.

A hint about rechecking, though- It only works if your checks are truly independent; if you label a vial, put it in a bag, and label the bag using the vial, and not the original source, you're just propagating the error. In at least some of the mislabeling cases I've seen, it looks like this is exactly what happened.

I suspect that the medical industry has come up with all sorts of clever and fool"proof" ways of preventing mislabeling, since in their field the real-world consequences are a lot more severe than just mixing up a couple of rocks. Of course, I also suspect that a lot of their systems are also very expensive, given the amount of money in the field. But even if you can't afford to blow huge sums on computers and scanners and such, it might be worth looking into their systems just to see how they work.

So don't get complacent. Don't get sloppy. Don't get lazy. All scientists will flatly deny ever having mislabeled a sample, even once. But that doesn't mean that it never happens. It does. And it could happen to you.

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