On the hoarder PI and channeling MacGuyver

Mar 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My new PI, it turns out, is a little bit of a hoarder. He recently inherited some new lab space, and with it came decades of equipment, supplies, and reagents from its previous inhabitant. He kept all of it. There are solutions dated from the first term of the Bush administration, boxes of unidentifiable and ancient-looking apparatus parts, and drawers full of vintage pipettes, power sources, and surgical tools.

I recently remarked on new PI's mild hoarding tendencies to one of the techs. "I don't think it's really that he's a hoarder," he said, "it's just that he thinks he might one day have a use for these things." Aha! But that is the EXACT hoarder line of thinking, is it not? This is my understanding, at least, from the one time I watched Hoarders. I feel it's worth noting that this is not a show to be watched while one is eating.

One of my tasks has been to get a particular technique up and running for the lab, and new PI was hopeful that I'd be able to piece together the setup for this technique from one or more of the magical boxes of parts lying around the lab. After much brow-furrowing, nose-wrinkling, and confused, desperate Google Image-searching, I finally came to the conclusion that the pieces just did not fit together in the way we wanted them to. Turning to my razor-sharp logic and well-honed powers of persuasion (I did, after all, just negotiate a startup package), I convinced PI to spring for a shiny new setup.

The cloud that lay within this lovely silver lining, however, was that the setup wouldn't arrive for another three weeks. Not acceptable! Three weeks is approximately 1o% of the total time I'll spend in this lab, and I'll be damned if I'm wasting it waiting for my fancy apparatus to come in. So I did what any good scientist does in such situations: I got all MacGuyver on that box of parts.

It's amazing what you can do with a little lab tape, styrofoam, tin foil, and a 24-well plate, is it not? When I showed my PI the final product, his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas. In fact, I think it made him happier than he'll be when the new setup comes in. Naturally, I'm quite pleased with myself, not only because I made PI so happy, but because I'm able to be much more productive.  Once the new setup comes in, I'll be ready to haul.

27 responses so far

  • sciencegeeka says:

    My post-doc PI was a hoarder. He hoarded foam so much so that there was a dedicated drawer for it. He also had glass cell culture bottles.

  • bam294 says:

    As a fan of Hoarders and MacGuyver, I scoff at your need for tape. Gum. MacGuyver would have pulled it off with gum kiddo. 😉 Funny stuff.

  • physioprof says:

    My post-doc mentor also inherited a lab filled with all kinds of old physiology equipment in it. He wanted to keep *all* of it. I made a deal with him: if he couldn't tell me what the fucke a piece of equipment even *is*, it was gone. 90% of the shitte ended up gone.

  • I scoff at the first Bush administration. A few years ago, I worked at a place that had chemicals dating back to the Ford Administration. And that shit worked!!

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    "Aha! But that is the EXACT hoarder line of thinking, is it not?" Busted! That's what your PI is - no foolin Dr. Becca!

  • Dr. O says:

    This is my understanding, at least, from the one time I watched Hoarders. I feel it’s worth noting that this is not a show to be watched while one is eating.

    My understanding too, but I don't watch that show anymore. Hubby loves it and has it on during the weekends. And I can't eat for hours after it's on. 😛

  • qaz says:

    Yes, but did your PI go and get stuff from another PI when they retired? When one of my colleagues retired, he sent out an email saying "anyone want anything?" and within half an hour, I showed up with several of my graduate students and several carrier carts. We hauled off a mess of stuff. Including some electronics equipment from the dark ages. We've found it very useful. Especially when a new one (of fill-in-the-blank) would have cost thousands of dollars that we don't have.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Yes, in fact he did! Apparently he and co-PI filled a whole van with old equipment from a retiree. Hilariously, co-PI was bragging this week about how one piece of said equipment is 50 years old, and still works--the next day, it broke.

  • darchole says:

    When one of the old* emeritus profs finally gave up his lab, he had some electronic equipment (old fuses maybe?) that from the price tags still on them, must have come for the 60's or 70's. 5 cent unknown item anyone?

    *There should be a age limit on researchers doing dangerous research. I think this one did some type of physiology research, but the prof that is 80/90 and doing research with drug resistant bacteria? Please retire.

  • chezjake says:

    Let me introduce you young folk (I speak from well beyond retirement age) to an old but still very serviceable word to describe that old but still potentially serviceable "stuff" of which you are speaking.

    Every farmer and most craftspeople in northern New England has a pile in the corner of a barn, tool shed, or workshop where he/she tosses anything that has no immediate use but which might be useful in some way at some future point. This is known as "the cultch heap," and everything in it is a "piece of cultch."

    Rejoice in your cultch heap; it's the first place to look when you need to jury rig anything. 😉

    • Dr Becca says:

      Chezjake, this is one of my favorite comments ever! Gerty-Z and I are going to work hard to bring "cultch heap" into the popular academic science lexicon. Absolute genius.

  • MRW says:

    I actually miss that about grad school. Most of my research was grabbing stuff out of some drawer and building something. Now, I have to order the pieces, and it (A) slows things down and (B) doesn't provide nearly as much inspiration as looking at a drawer full of random stuff did.

  • geeka says:

    So, my work did something that's supposed to help with productivity, called 5S. It's some Japanese manufacturing theory that we are supposed to follow. We seriously threw out over $50,000 worth of stuff that was just hanging about. Then there were a few of us that kind of went through the pile and hoarded some things, because we felt guilty about throwing them away (like regulators, even though we have central Co2, or vacuum pumps, and a freaking thermocycler because no one had used it in 2 years).

  • I have nothing useful to say other than realizing that (a) I loved MacGuyver (b) the new young lab mate who didn't know what Dungeons & Dragons, was really really will not know who MacGuyver is. (c) I really really am old to be a grad student.

  • gc says:

    Why do you have chicken from 1998 in your fridge?!!

    Hoarder: "I like chicken."

  • I am immediately introducing the word "cultch" into my daily vocabulary.

  • I feel compelled to join the fun. When I joined my new lab, I found some of the most ridiculous things. We just recently dumped mouse legs that had been stored in formalin at room temp for years. No one-not even the PI-knew whose they had been or why they were still there. Some of the bottles of chemicals were so old that the plastic literally cracked when I picked them up. A couple of gems I found (w links to pics) were a bottle of phenol red with an actual cork and an early cordless pipettor or an early model of the original Starship Enterprise.

    On a serious note, though, labs (especially those in Boston, NYC, or New Haven) that have functional equipment they don't need should check out Seeding Labs, which uses such donations to equip research labs in developing countries.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Thanks for the link, bb! What a great organization, perhaps I can convince PI to do a little donating, and there will actually be room in lab to get some work done!

      Also, mouse legs??? Ew.

  • anon says:

    "It’s amazing what you can do with a little lab tape, styrofoam, tin foil, and a 24-well plate, is it not?"

    Everyone knows that no experiment can be successful without the use of tape.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Lexan, ABS tubes, aluminium plate, some galvanized hardware, a drill and a hacksaw.


  • icee says:

    My (young) advisor is a MAJOR hoarder. He has a special word for going to labs and taking all the stuff when people retire: lootenanny. I don't want to tell you the specifics of the extent of his hoarding because I feel like somehow it would reveal his identity and people would make fun of him. Let's just say it involves a dedicated storage facility on his home property.

    We have some of the oldest, weird glassware you've ever seen, the largest collection of bungs, chemicals that are decades old, and we're a veritable polygraph museum. When I first joined the lab I kept looking for some of the common lab items and couldn't find them because they had always been able to use all the random and plentiful stuff laying around to MacGuyver everything. It was definitely easy on the startup fund.

    It's because my advisor can turn a pile of crap into functioning equipment better than anyone I've ever met. Guess whose lab everyone comes to when they need something they don't have!

  • I *love* to throw shit out.

  • fcs says:

    Most computer scientists and engineers I know are notorious for hording. Mostly because to buy new small stuff is such an administrative nightmare, and sometimes you just want a cable or headphone jack or keyboard and don't want to have to fill out a million forms to get it.

  • expat group leader says:

    At the last place I worked, the yearly overhead of the PI was determined by square meters of lab space that they occupied. That stopped hording space/stuff quite quickly.

  • [...] was but a few short months ago that I was gently chiding my current PI for his hoarder-like tendencies, and now...now I see that I have the gift as well. It is strong in [...]

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