I want to tell you a story about pipettes, specifically micropipette tips, and how a few boxes of pipette tips made me feel like an outsider.
This story begins more than a decade ago, in a grocery store. It’s an odd place to start a story about pipette tips, I know, but it’s important for understanding what comes later.
My family hosted a German exchange student for a year when I was in high school. Lena and I shared a room and would often talk about the similarities and differences between our two countries. She was amazed by the number and girth of overweight Americans, she was horrified by pink lemonade, and she was surprised by the size of our grocery store – small by American standards, but larger than what she was used to, and with an overabundance of goods for sale.
An American grocery store rarely sells just one kind of a thing. Even in the produce aisle, you’ll probably find at least three kinds of carrot. We have long aisles of cereals with every possible combination of flavor, shape, size, color, and calorie count. Even in my rural hometown the grocery store stocks dozens of kinds of olive oil.
When you stop to think about it, this cornucopia of grocery goods quickly appears excessive, even wasteful.
Now about those pipettes.
I remember the first time I used a micropipettor, in organic chemistry lab my sophomore year of college. I don’t recall which reaction we were doing, or what we needed to pipet, but I do remember that there was one pipettor and one pipette tip for 20 students to share. (I’m sure the TA had a box of tips stashed somewhere. We were just told to be careful and not waste the one we were given.) Pipette tips (and paper towels, as I recall) were somewhat scarce, even in research labs.
My first summer of graduate school, I needed to measure a small volume of some liquid, and I started looking around the lab for a graduated cylinder or a volumetric pipette. A senior undergrad asked me why I didn’t just use the pipettor, then pointed to the shelf stacked with boxes of pipette tips.
In my memory, there were boxes and boxes and boxes of pipette tips in a variety of sizes and types: with filters and without, long tips and short, and on and on.
I think I saw what my exchange student friend saw, staring at aisle after aisle in the grocery store: an overabundance of goods and a propensity to waste.
I felt like an outsider.
Of course I could use a disposable pipette for a one-off measurement; it was inconsequential. Here was so much stuff, so much wealth, casually on display. It wasn’t the expensive and custom-made instrumentation in the labs, the endowed professorships, the reams of paper hanging off the walls declaring the achievements of the researchers in each group, or even the sheer number of scientists toiling away in the building that made me feel like I had left Kansas for Oz.
It was the pipette tips: small, cheap, everyday items in a chemistry lab.
Eventually, I got over my hesitation to waste pipette tips. Working with microbes, I had to – sterile tools were more important than worrying about waste. But I didn’t get over that culture shock.
The culture of academia (especially R1-flavored academia) feels foreign to me. I have lived in it for years, surrounded by others equally immersed, but I still wonder if I belong.