Allison Mackay conducted his research at Queens University. He is now a laboratory technician at Ontario Veterinary College.
In the late 1990s, I was a fourth-year undergraduate student at Queens University in Dan Lefebvre’s laboratory. For my senior research project, I worked with potatoes and their genetic clones to extract and purify DNA from a genomic library.
Much of my work involved running DNA gel electrophoresis. I was new to working in the laboratory, and you practically had to tell me not to make my running buffer with tap water. But I was eager to do science!
One day, I placed my gel into the buffer and loaded all of my samples into the wells. When I stepped back to appraise my work, something was wrong. A wave of despair washed over me as I stood frozen; I had loaded my gel backward. This experiment was already a disaster!
I took a deep breath. I couldn’t turn my gel around without losing my samples, so I decided to do the next best thing to salvage my experiment; I reversed the black and red electrical leads at the power supply so that my samples wouldn’t run off the gel.
Feeling content, I set my timer and left to drink coffee. However, the rollercoaster of these events was far from over. When I returned to check on my gel, I realized that a well meaning colleague had fixed my “mistake” in connecting the electrical leads, unintentionally running my samples backwards into the buffer. My colleague apologized for this mishap, and thankfully we did not lose any expensive or rare samples in the accident.
Even though this is a common mishap, it felt like a major disaster in that moment. Consequently, the lesson that stuck with me throughout my career was empathy. Everyone did what they did with a good heart, but mistakes happened.
Now, I work as a laboratory technician in the reproductive biology laboratory at Ontario Veterinary College. I interact with students often, and empathy helps me reassure them whenever something goes wrong that feels like the ends of their worlds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.