Don't try this at home (you don't have the equipment for it anyway)
November 26, 2019 9:31 AM   Subscribe

I work in a molecular biology lab. I also sometimes find cool science demos for my friends and their kids to try out at home. There are tons of these! But what about cool activities that can quickly and safely be accomplished when a visitor stops by the lab?

Assume everyone's got the proper PPE, appropriate protocols are being followed, and I'm willing to bring in a few items to amp up the fun. (Also assume I'm fine on the explaining my own research and everyday life in the lab stuff.) There's got to be a few cool tricks or demos that benefit from say, access to a benchtop centrifuge? A high powered microscope? Etc. Give me some ideas so I stop bugging my colleagues with the glow in the dark zebrafish to let me show people their science.
posted by deludingmyself to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is this your own lab? As a PI, I have solid rules against lab members bringing friends in. It's in the contact people sign when they commit to the lab. I am not OK with this, and your should not assume your lab head is, regardless of protocols and PPE.
posted by Dashy at 9:37 AM on November 26, 2019

As someone who works with labs, but has rarely stepped foot in one, if I were a visitor (assuming your visitors are in a professional context), I would not want to see "fun". I would want to know how you analyze my samples, what the equipment and procedure looks like, etc.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:47 AM on November 26, 2019

[Folks please assume OP has a good handle on whether visitors and demos like this are okay in their specific lab.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:54 AM on November 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

Letting kids look at their own hair or pencil marks on paper has been mildly successful in the past, with a ~100X optical microscope.

(Usually I go straight to classic liquid nitrogen stunts when it's time for fun kid lab demos. If that's an option, it's worth considering.)
posted by eotvos at 11:00 AM on November 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you work in a lab with easy access to Drosophila, I would visualize Drosophila polytene chromosomes under the microscope, bc wooooo DNA and all you need is a brightfield microscope. Another easy one is extracting DNA from an onion (basically break up the onion physically & with meat tenderizer, then add cold EtOH to precipitate it out. If you stick a straw in there, they should be able to twirl the DNA around the straw.)

On the more physics side of things, do you know how to make balloon animals? You can make a balloon animal, and put it just by liquid nitrogen to cool it (hold it right above the liquid surface). Because PV = nRT, the balloon animal will shrink. Might take a little tweaking to get the right conditions, but it always wows people.

If you work in cell biology, people usually like seeing fluorescent cells move under the microscope. I'd express a plasmid with some GFP in it, and do a transfection at low density to get sparse labeling and look at it under a standard fluorescent microscope. Alternately, I'd ask the local cell biology lab for some fluorescent antibodies to label things like actin or ribosomes, and then mount some fixed slides in advance for people to look at under the microscope. Assuming a standard cell line like HEK or CHO, I'd go with 40x-63x mag.
posted by angst at 11:24 AM on November 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you have a dissecting scope, those can be more fun because you don't have to be as skilled at focusing and you don't have to mess around with mounting, it's easy to swap in new samples.

Do you have any software that makes fun visualizations? I visited my dad's workplace and designed a molecule as a kid. I still have the framed printout.

Agarose gels also tend to get a decent wow factor, gel documentation printouts are easy to explain.
posted by momus_window at 12:14 PM on November 26, 2019

You can demonstrate spherification (which is a really cool foodie trend now) easily by making a sodium alginate solution (colour this however you like), and dropping into a solution of calcium chloride with a syringe. We used to put the calcium chloride on a magnetic stirrer with a flea in it, then instead of a syringe and forming drops by gently pressing on the plunger, we'd set up a peristaltic pump with a restricted end to the tubing which only allowed drops of the alginate out. If you can get fluorescent dyes into the mix and some UV light, all the better for wowing them!

Another cool trick is to throw nitrocellulose filter paper into the flame of a Bunsen burner. It vanishes, poof!

Because I worked in a microbiology lab, we used to make our own glass spreaders (out of glass tube), but for visitors we used to demonstrate (and let them have a go at, just to show how hard it is) making spreaders out of long glass Pasteurs - this video shows what I'm on about, but we used a slightly different design. Good fun and a bit useful too if you find someone with a talent for it!
posted by car01 at 2:05 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I still love watching ponceau stain 'develop' on western blots. The slow part would be the blot transfers, but dot blots are quick to make (and you could use nitrocellulose scraps for that).

I've found that visitors generally are a little awed that there is supposedly dna or protein stuck on what looks like paper. And then voilĂ , you prove it to them.

Coomassie staining of gels too but toxicity /messiness there would make me favor the ponceau.

Also people love pipetmen and....repeat pipettors!
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:59 PM on November 26, 2019

Thanks LM. By protocols I meant institutional protocols about visitors vs. laboratory ones about procedures. I have fond memories of being given a styrofoam cup of liquid nitrogen at age 14 and being told to go play outside, but I will save that particular level of hands-offedness for when I have my own lab.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:39 AM on November 27, 2019

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