Seven deadly sins: Bad chemistry

When your lab partner is an obsessive compulsive, not even the data is safe.

By Lori Gottleib
January 13, 1999 3:51PM (UTC)
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"Don't worry," an acquaintance who works in pharmaceuticals told me when I
showed him the safety disclaimer form I had to sign for biochemistry lab.
"I've been working with these chemicals for years, and look at me, I seem to
be OK."

I looked at him. He did not seem to be OK. He had chronic colds, his skin
appeared sunburned even in the dead of winter and recently his speech patterns
had begun to resemble those of Forrest Gump. Nor was the safety form itself
particularly reassuring. It described the substances we'd be using and their
potential effects -- benzene (leukemia); ether (explosions); sulfuric acid
(severe burns); carbon tetrachloride (liver/kidney damage and/or impotence).
Then in fine print on the bottom it added a few details that I'll paraphrase:
"If you're pregnant, don't take lab. Otherwise, sign the form. And if you
croak, don't blame us. Welcome to Biochem 1L."


Biochemistry lab and I were not a good match. I'm just not good at mixing
things together, heating them and producing a final product. As anyone who
has tried my cooking and then spent the night in the bathroom will attest, my recipes never turn out the way the cookbooks promise, no matter how hard I
try. Tracy, who sat at the next lab bench all semester, seemed to enjoy my incompetence. While my work space was always soiled with various liquids and occasional pieces of broken glassware, hers was immaculately arranged with test tubes matched by size and marked with neat white labels. And while she dressed in a starched white lab coat, double-gloved hands and professional lab goggles, my only concession to lab attire was a pair of ski goggles I once wore in Aspen, because they looked cooler. My rationale: It's hard to pipette when you're dressed like Dustin Hoffman in "Outbreak."

Needless to say, Tracy was not particularly pleased to discover that we would be partners on our final project: a four-week analysis that would count as an exam. And although I was glad to have such a meticulous partner, I wasn't looking forward to the experience either. Tracy irritated me: She shouted out answers, thanked the professor for answering her questions and casually mentioned that she'd outlined textbook chapters a week in advance. Her most annoying quality, however, was her constant need to moralize publicly: "Anyone who cheats is only cheating him- or herself." Then she'd look around the room to spot any potential cheaters, as if she were conducting her own personal witch hunt. As bad as lab had been, I knew the next four weeks would be a disaster.

Week 1


Tracy arrives with a laminated, color-coded, 10-page outline of the
procedures. "Where's your outline?" she asks as I unpack my gear. Learning that I don't make outlines, that I just use the book, she lets out a
huge sigh and launches into a lecture about never placing a textbook on the
unsterile lab table. "You can share my outline this week," she says, "but from now on you'll have to bring your own." I watch while Tracy, humming an off-key Barry Manilow tune, washes and rewashes the test tubes, lines them up and labels them. I offer to go get the stock solutions, but Tracy stops me in my tracks. "Where's your lab coat? You can't work without a lab coat!" I protest that Banana Republic cotton is probably of a higher quality than lab cotton, but she will have none of it. "Proper laboratory etiquette," explains Miss Science Manners as I walk away, "requires proper laboratory attire."

When I pick up the tiny, numbered packets of white powder lined up at the front of the classroom, I recall a story about a guy who was stopped by a cop for driving erratically. When the police found some prescription medication that resembled cocaine in his back seat, the cops arrested him and kept him locked up for days before the lab verified his innocence. I fantasize about planting some chemicals in Tracy's car. I picture her in jail, telling her cellmate that it's proper etiquette to make up your bunk in the morning. I imagine her cellmate responding, "You want proper etiquette? I'll give you proper etiquette."

"This one's No. 13," she says matter-of-factly, pointing to the packet of powder. "It's bad luck. We'll never get an A with that number." I think she's kidding at first, but when she stares me down I realize she's dead serious. We're only 30 minutes into the first week of the project and I'm about to have a nervous breakdown. I decide that I must not let Tracy's compulsive behavior drive me mad. Vowing not to indulge her obsessions, I begin pouring buffer into the test tube.


"STOP!!" she screams, almost causing me to spill sodium acetate all over the place. The class stares, the professor comes running over.

"YOU'RE CONTAMINATING THE STOCK!" Tracy yells, looking to the professor for support. "You need to pipette the solution into a beaker, then transfer it into a test tube." The professor smiles at Tracy and compliments her on her knowledge of proper laboratory techniques, and everyone returns to work. "Go get us a packet that's not labeled 13," she says, making no effort to conceal her gloating smile. "And put some gloves on, while you're at it."


Reluctantly, I march back, exchange our packet for one labeled No. 17 and sign it out. But in the space where our names go, instead of writing "Tracy and Lori," I write, "Felix and Oscar."

Week 2

Driving to school, I decide that I will let Tracy run today's experiment. She can be a control freak, I'll get good data and we'll both be happy in the end. So after she finishes humming "Mandy" and performing her test tube ritual -- washing, rewashing, drying, arranging, affixing tiny white labels -- I become her personal valet. She barks out orders from her laminated outline of an outline and I fetch chemicals or read off concentrations while she records them on her chart, an elaborate spreadsheet she's concocted that resembles a quarterly report from IBM.


I'm squinting through my ski goggles, calling out numbers. "The concentration is 10.215," I say. "OK, 10.213, 10.212 and 10.21." "Ten point two one ZERO," Tracy declares loudly. "Don't forget about significant figures, Lori. It's bad form." From across the room the professor nods approvingly before announcing: "Class, I'd just like to remind you to be aware of zeros in your data. Thank you, Tracy, for your attention to accuracy." Tracy blushes under her goggles.

Two hours later, I have verbalized unnecessary zeros 37 times, resisted the urge to crack swan-shaped glassware over Tracy's head and controlled myself from "accidentally" spilling concentrated hydrochloric acid on her double-gloved hands. What's even worse, I notice that according to Tracy's chart, our data isn't looking good. The one thing I have on Tracy is that I'm smarter than she is. She might be more coordinated with a turkey baster, but I know what I'm doing. And I realize that if we use this data, our results will be flawed. When I tell Tracy that if we increase the concentration of each of the substrates we might obtain the desired results, Tracy consults her outline of an outline. "But it says here to use ..."

"I know what it says," I interrupt. "If we want the experiment to work, we need to use a higher concentration." Tracy squints at me as though I'm David Cash and I have just bragged about witnessing a molestation. "I don't know how you grew up, but where I grew up, that's cheating. And if there's one thing I will not do, I will not cheat."


"Fine, have it your way," I shrug, "but if you use this data, you're not going to get a four point zero ZERO!" Tracy and I don't talk for the rest of the lab period.

Week 3

Tracy takes out an even smaller outline of the outline of the original outline and washes the test tubes, but today she's not humming. She seems mildly distracted, which is good for me, because I've already decided to triple the concentration of substrate, which would probably give her a coronary if she
found out. Eventually she will find out, when we include this information in
our lab write-ups, but for now I decide to keep quiet.

Tracy's surprisingly quiet. She doesn't bother to criticize my
measurement techniques or my failure to use the proper instruments. (As
opposed to last week, when I used the side of a glass rod instead of a spatula
to scrape off some precipitate and Tracy chided: "Would you go to a
restaurant and use a steak knife to butter your bread?") So I'm relaxing a
bit, using my fingers, doing my usual mix-and-match approach -- a drop or two
of this, a fingernail or so of that, an extra few micrograms of this -- when
Tracy finally speaks up.


"How do you know the data aren't good?" she asks, staring at her outline of an outline of an outline. I try to give her the big picture of the experiment,
the theory behind the project, and show her what we'd see if our data abided
by the theory. It amazes me that she can freak out over an extra zero yet
have no understanding of the experiment itself. I tell her that if we
multiply each substrate concentration by a factor of three, we can include
this information in our lab reports, and then we won't be cheating.
"Besides," I add, "we have no choice. I think the stock solution must be
diluted because all of the other groups are getting bad data too."

"How do you know they're getting bad data?" Tracy asks, eyeing me

"Because I looked at their lab books," I reply, but then Tracy calls me a
cheater again and says that people like me will never, ever change.

Week 4


This week Tracy has laminated index cards outlining each step of the
procedure. They are coded in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and
violet to mirror the visible spectrum. She thinks this is hilarious.

"OK," she announces, "we're going to do the whole experiment over again to
figure out what went wrong." I tell her that we can't possibly repeat the
entire experiment because we have only five hours, and that we should just use
the data with the tripled concentrations and make a note of it in our write-ups, but she looks at me as though I just asked her to join me in killing the
pope. She walks up to the professor to inform him that out of diligence, we are redoing the experiment to generate better data. The professor beams at Tracy's dedication.

Four hours later, with only a third of the experiment repeated, Tracy asks me to analyze the new data. "It's still useless," I say, "but the numbers with
the tripled concentration look better." Tracy studies her watch, sees that we
have only an hour left and goes back up to the professor. "Excuse me," she
practically chirps, "I'm sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if
we're being graded on the quality of the data or on how we analyze the data."
The professor replies that both are equal factors in the grading process, and
Tracy, of course, says, "Thank you so much," before sashaying away.

"How good is the data with the tripled concentrations?" Tracy asks me back at our lab bench.


"Well," I reply, "it's OK, decent at best, but at least you can see
distinctive maxima and minima. If we really want good data, we'd have
to change the numbers completely. Like this." I sketch out a graph that
might be generated from near-perfect data -- data we most certainly don't

"But we're being graded on the quality of the data! Isn't there something we can do?" she asks, a hint of desperation in her tone. "I mean, there must be something we can DO!" Her voice is becoming high-pitched and childlike, like she's just sucked on a helium balloon.

"Maybe if I do an Indian chant or something we'll get different results," I joke, trying to calm her down. "I've seen it happen on late-night TV."

Tracy doesn't laugh. Instead, something seems to snap in her. Crack,
like a broken wishbone. Suddenly, and with maniacal intensity, she starts
erasing numbers, replacing them with values from my made-up graph. Next she
whips out her scientific calculator and asks me if numbers like 8.761 and
2.568 will yield the desired curves. I'm speechless.

"Well?!" she demands. "WILL THEY WORK?!" Time is running out and she knows it. She's on the verge of hyperventilating, caught between not wanting to cheat yet needing to get an A. She's creating her own data in a furious frenzy of forgery.

"They'll work," I reply, "but ..."

Within minutes, Tracy has generated a beautiful graph from falsified data. I tell her that I'm using the real data, the data with the tripled
concentrations, but Tracy looks me right in the eye and says, "This is the
real data, Lori. Don't you remember?" Then she winks awkwardly at me, like a private eye in a bad detective show. I've created a monster. My lab partner has gone from Felix to Frankenstein in less than an hour.

When time is up, Tracy brings her data to the professor. "Did it turn out
better when you repeated the procedure?" the professor asks. Tracy smiles and
nods. "Well, you certainly worked efficiently," the professor remarks. "I
don't know how you got it done so fast."

"You just have to be diligent," Tracy replies, then she turns around and winks at me again, her eyelashes fluttering up and down like those of a mental


Lab is over; it's winter break. I feel lucky to have survived. The other
day, I went to check the grades posted up at school. Tracy got an A after
having given the professor a Christmas gift. I got an A after having been
admitted to medical schools. Tracy isn't applying to medical schools until
next year, which consoles me. I wouldn't want to be stuck as her lab
partner in gross anatomy. God knows what she'd do with a human body.

Lori Gottleib

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