James O’Hanlon has a cool post up right now on his website about the strange things that scientists do for science. It made me think about some of the weird things that I’ve done in the course of doing some of my research projects.
The first funny experience comes from when I was doing my Ph.D. I had discovered the enzyme that I work on, alternative oxidase (AOX), in animals for the first time using bioinformatics. I wanted to do some wet lab experiments in order to confirm that AOX was actually present in the DNA of an animal and that it was transcribed. At that time, I had AOX sequences from three animals: the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis, the nematode Meliodogyne hapla, and the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas. The sea squirt is an invasive species on the east coast of Canada, so getting my hands on tissue would have been tricky. The nematode is very tiny and a plant parasite, so that would have been a difficult sample to obtain. Pacific oysters are commonly eaten by people and I figured that would be the way to go. I called a wholesale seafood supplier to confirm the availability of Pacific oysters and drove about 1 hour to go and pick some up. When I arrived there were no Pacific oysters in the store front, so the owner had to take me into the warehouse to get them. It was pretty intimidating as this involved walking through several large pieces of plastic sheeting that separated the store front from the warehouse. I felt like I was in an episode of the X-files or a murder mystery and that I was being led to my doom. We got to the bin that was housing the oysters and the owner asked me how many I wanted. I figured that 24 oysters would get the job done. He started putting the oysters into thick plastic bags and we started chatting. Was I running a restaurant? Nope. (I guess that it’s unusual for individuals to buy 24 oysters at a time). Was I having a large dinner party? Nope. Well, what was I going to do with these oysters then? I said that I was a scientific researcher and that’s when things got weird. The guy completely panicked and started going on and on about how the oysters were safe to eat and were o.k. for human consumption. It turns out that he thought that I was a government scientist who was doing an unannounced, random inspection for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency! In retrospect it’s a hilarious story, but at the time I paid for my oysters and ran! The project was awesome by the way.
The second funny story is from my time during my post-doc. The university where I was working had a great arboretum (collection of trees) and I’d obtained permission to take leaf samples for a project that I was working on regarding the taxonomic distribution of AOX in non-flowering plants. When I went out to sample I used an ice bucket, lots of little tubes, scissors, etc. It would certainly look weird to anyone walking by. A few times I had curious people come up and ask me what I was doing and I enjoyed talking to them about my science. It was a great and unexpected opportunity to do some public outreach.
Head on over to James’ blog or follow the #strangethingsforscience hashtag to hear about some great science adventures!