17 Scientists Share The Worst Mistakes That Have Happened In Their Lab.

Scientists of Reddit were asked: "What is the worst thing that has happened in your lab?" These are some of the best answers.

1/17 I spilled a load of 35% NaOH solution over myself. Burned right through my coat, overalls and pants. Quickly pulled down my pants, and ran half naked to the showers. The pain and humiliation... I've never been more angry with myself.


2/17 During my masters work we had this completely incompetent person in a lab that shared offices with our lab. She was getting her PhD in material science but did not understand ANYTHING. She had to be walked through how to save files on the computer, what chemical to use, how to not mix certain chemicals, etc. To make things worse, she had this shit head friend that always hung around with her who would tell her all the wrong things.

Well one day she wanted to clean some crucibles and shit head told her to use acetic acid, since you know, it's in vinegar so it can't be that strong... Our offices were in a larger lab (read cubicles in a corner of a chem lab... not so safe) so we heard her go to the sink run some water and then we begin to get this extremely strong acid smell. Like burns your nose strong. We all look around and walk out to the sink and she has poured a large volume of concentrated acetic acid into her crucible and is attempting to wash it with paper towels, which are melting into her nitrile gloved hand. She has tears pouring out of her eyes and the smell near the sink is an incredibly strong putrid acid smell.

Of course we pull her out of there and ask her what the hell she was doing. She just says shit head told her she could do it because it was just vinegar acid. She still got her PhD and I lost faith in humanity and my department. I ended up changing schools after I got a masters.


3/17 A girl in my lab forgot to turn the blower on in the hood and inhaled a small amount of an e. coli toxin we were supposed to put in solution. Didn't feel well, went to the ER, got pneumonia, then got an intestinal infection. Her mom had to fly to the east cost from California to take care of her when she couldn't leave her apartment for two weeks. It's a month later and she still hasn't fully recovered.


4/17 Grad student left a hot plate on, burned down his/her advisors' lab, entire floor of the building destroyed by smoke and water damage. Nobody killed but the advisor's rare collection of butterfly wings went up in. smoke - he'd been studying evolution of butterflies and had to abandon that. Took about a year to rebuild everything and get back on track.

That was 20 years ago and I still have a big sign in the lab where people will see it when they leave: "IS THE HOTPLATE OFF?"


5/17 It was the second week of my PhD, so my supervisor was still hovering around, making sure I wasn't disastrous in the lab. I was making viral stocks, so I was growing up about 10 flasks of virus-saturated RK-13 cells. I'd taken a load out of the incubator and put them in the hood, when suddenly my supervisor says "Why is there media all over the floor?"

I check all the flasks lay down in the hood - no leaky lids, no puddles in the hood, but one flask has a huge crack on the front. That's when I feel a bit damp. I look down, there's media ALL down the side of my lab coat. Shit. my second bloody week and I've potentially infected myself.

Luckily it hadn't soaked all the way through as most of it was on my lab coat pockets so double layer, and my normal clothes weren't contaminated. Also luckily, I work with Vaccinia virus, and, as one of my previous supervisors once put it "If you're going to accidentally infect yourself with anything while you're here, the smallpox vaccine prooooobably isn't the worst thing in the world to do it with". So it wasn't that bad in the end, but I was mortified at the time, and I spent 3 weeks examining myself for pox pustules.


6/17 Postdoc ordered a pizza and ate part. Put the rest in the -80 C freezer. Next night, wants a snack, puts in microwave on defrost for a couple minutes. Cheese looks melted so he takes a bite. The center is still frozen solid and he gets ice burns on his tongue, mouth, and lips.


7/17 Grad student decided to boil HF (hydrofluoric acid) for some experiment, decided to do it on the multi-liter scale, and decided to do it in a fume hood that had nowhere near the capacity or the construction to safely evacuate with the fumes. He then left it over the weekend with no notes about what it was and no nearby placement of the calcium paste. The fumes escaped into the lab and hallway, luckily no-one was hurt. Clean-up was intense as the excess fumes had condensed and left a few centimeter thick HF film over the entire hood. We ended up using about 20L of sodium bicarbonate solution in spray bottles to finally neutralize and clean the thing.


8/17 Grad student decides to use an ultracentrifuge, needing to spin at about 1,000,000g (~9800km/s2). Decides to load it with all his samples on one side of the drum (unbalanced). During spin up, the drum rips itself off the motor arm and shreds the interior machinery as it bounced around. RIP ultracentrifuge. Luckily it failed during spin up, as if it had failed at max speed it probably would have shot out of the housing and gone through the wall or killed someone.


9/17 I was working in a Food Science/Microbiology lab for my Masters, and we had this undergrad working with us....lets call him Gaston. Because like the Disney character, no one could do the stupid things he did as good as he could. Keep in mind, the lab worked with Vibrio species (Vibrio cholera, and Vibrio vulnificus specifically). If you don't know these, they could potentially make you very sick, even die. But as long as you handle them with a shred of common sense you are cool. Oddly enough, none of Gastons antics involved the potentially deadly bacteria.

We had glass spreaders in cups of ethanol used to spread bacteria on plates. Well, you are supposed to take the spreader out, run it through a Bunsen burner, and let the ethanol burn off so you have a sterile spreader to use on your plates. Well Gaston went through the motions, but as soon as he passed the spreader through the flame, he realized he forgot something, and put the FLAMING glass rod back into the ethanol solution.....setting the beaker on fire. So now he has about 500 mL of flaming alcohol. What would a normal lab person do? Put something over it and let the flame die out from no oxygen. But not Gaston! Gaston decided to grab it barehanded and run to the sink and throw the whole beaker in it. Well this broke the beaker, and now the flame had a full 500 mL of alcohol to react with, instead of just the diameter of the beaker. This caused a fireball that was just shy of hitting the ceiling, and burning everything in/around/above the sink. Also, all of this happened while no one was around. The kicker, was when the rest of lab got back from lunch, he pretended like nothing happened. Like we would not noticed scorch marks around an entire part of lab. Nope, Gaston went on his merry way with a burnt hand and no sense of the danger he just put himself through.


10/17 Ph.D. student didn't have any pipette bulbs so he sucked the chloroform into the pipette with his mouth... For months until someone saw it.


11/17 Someone cleaned out a lab, found a jar filled with oil, in the oil was a big lump. The jar had no label. They took this and put it in the queue for the autoclave. Anyone with some chemistry knowledge is probably cringing right now.

So yeah, the oil was there because the lump was reactive metal, best guess sodium. The autoclave heated the whole thing up to 121C, and when the operator opened it, it exploded like a bomb in their face. They suffered terrible, terrible injuries. It is a terrible story, and reinforces what you learn in the basic safety classes. Labels, labels, labels. Treat everything like it's dangerous until you know better.


12/17 A (really dumb) postdoc in my previous lab placed an unrinsed bottle in the bleach bath to be picked up by the glassware folks. She didn't sink it; just left it floating. When the glassware guy got up there, he sank it to rinse/clean it. Too bad the bottle had a bit of HCl in there, and created chlorine gas when he sank it into the bleach water. A staff scientist found him passed out next to the sink.


13/17 I was an undergrad, getting some experience in a mosquito genetics lab. I heeded my copious amounts of safety and PPE training, and always made sure to wear pants, close-toed shoes, gloves, and goggles. However, contrary to what my professors had always told me, absolutely nobody else gave a shit about wearing PPE. After a decent while of being teased by my supervisors and fellow undergrads, I decided to cast off my previous training, and wear shorts and sandals.

On that very day, we were moving some (glass) mosquito cages around the lab. The bottom fell out, shattering not only glass, but also a swarm of live mosquitoes all over the floor. And my feet.

I wear PPE again now.


14/17 I had a really thick suspension of a nasty mixture of bacteria (non-pathogenic but still gloopy and grim) in a syringe. The needle got blocked, and like an idiot I tried to push harder on the plunger and force it through. It exploded. Luckily I was working in a cabinet so my face was ok but everything in the cabinet got coated in this nasty shitmix of bacteria. It took me an hour and a half to clean everything, and even longer to sterilise the place. Nobody got hurt so it wasn't too bad in that respect but it made a mess, contaminated (potentially, so I had to assume it did) an ongoing experiment which set me back a few days, and was generally pretty nasty stuff to have sprayed all over you.


15/17 So I was preparing a 300L batch of cell culture media and I added the wrong solution at the end. I was suppose to add a manganese based chemical and added a magnesium based chemical by accident. All the medium was to be used for a high visibility and quality study. Also, some of this medium was given to cell molecular biology so they also had to repeat experiments there. My senior scientist at the time caught my error from comparing batch and lot numbers of chemicals I was using maybe 2 weeks after our experiment was finished. Mind you these experiments take 4-6 weeks to fully complete. Even if my senior scientist did not see the error, we saw the untypical results from analytical studies another department perform.

Because of this, we had to redo the entire experiment and I had to create a plan to get this experiment fully grown and finished within 2-4 weeks rather than 4-6 weeks since the timeline was already delayed due to my error. Mind you, with all the operations costs, labor, and amount of consumables, repeating this experiment probably cost over $150,000 to do. All this because I added the wrong chemical (and mind you, this is just < 1mL that was to be added in a 300 LITER solution).


16/17 A student taking a biopsy from a mouse for the first time, held it gentle, tried to massage the biopsy punch into the anesthetized animals back, somehow misjudged the pressure and drove it through the animal, which sprayed her with urine and blood. I had to grab it and snap the neck before it even came close to waking up.


17/17 3rd year chemistry student chucked a lump of sodium in the aqueous waste (chemicals dissolved in water that can't go down the sink) by mistake. Blew the container apart, and ignited at least one of the more flammable waste containers it was next to, which blew the fume cupboard apart and a hole in the wall.

After that everyone in the university had to fill in a full COSHH assessment for every single lab, no matter what it involved.



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