Course 1: Making Yogurt the Scientific Way

Lesson Goals

  • To think about how labs are gross and covered in chemicals.
  • To consider the culture of safety that helps scientists protect each other.


 Key Terms

  • Taboo



Hi everybody! Welcome back to Synthetic Biology One. Today I want to talk about the yogurt that we made in the lab. It looked delicious didn’t it? All thick and creamy? But unfortunately we couldn’t eat it.

We had to take all of that delicious yogurt that we made and dump it in the biohazard waste disposal. And we did that in spite of the fact that it was probably perfectly safe. I mean after all, there was nothing in it besides a yogurt starter culture and milk. It is the same recipe that people have been using in their kitchens forever to make perfectly good yogurt. So why did ours have to go to waste?

Well the short answer is, because that’s the law. Depending on where you live, the laws might vary a bit but the idea that no food is allowed in the lab is very universal. Typically a lab space will have regular inspections by whatever government agency is responsible for lab safety. If they see any food, or any signs of food, the lab gets huge fines. I’m talking something as simple as a coke can in the lab garbage. Maybe you didn’t even drink it in the lab, maybe you just threw it away. Doesn’t matter, you’re busted.

If you work for a university, then the university will probably also do inspections, because they want to catch safety violations before the government does. Universities won’t go easy on you just because you work for them. They also fine labs, and they are not screwing around. Between the university and the state, it is not uncommon to get inspected every couple of months.

So good, we obey the law and we don’t get fined. But there is also another reason that is really a part of lab culture. If you are new to a lab, it is good to pick up so you can fit in with the other super smart professionals that work in your lab. Basically food in the lab is taboo. Every scientist that I’ve met has an instinctive fear of food in the lab that goes beyond the rational. You could put have like a big scary spider in the lab and put a candy wrapper next to it and the scientist would be like “Aah! a candy wrapper! get that out of there!” It is a reaction that comes from the gut, not from the head. So it doesn’t really matter what the law says, or if you can get away with having food in the lab, if you do it, it will freak out the other scientists and you will look like a weirdo.

And of course, the rule makes sense. Every lab, even a biosafety level 1 lab has weird chemicals everywhere. And you never really know where they might spread to. So you basically have to treat every surface in the lab, even freshly washed glassware, like it was covered with a thin layer of toxic poisons.

At least that’s how I think about it. It is why I always wear gloves in the lab, always wash my hands, and never even think about eating. Until next time: bon appétit.


Course Curriculum