Jobs from Hell: Biology Lab Prep

I’ve had a lot of jobs from hell (mostly because of incompetent or maybe even insane supervisors), but the one that makes the best “I can top that” story for late-night drinking sessions was prepping biology labs as a grad school teaching assistant in Honolulu. Our department must have been grossly underfunded — plus it’s expensive to have preserved dissection specimens and such sent from the mainland — so we had to do some creative collecting for our 400+ students.

Bufo marinus toadFor the following week’s anatomy lab, our Thursday evening TA meeting consisted of driving out to various cemeteries to collect toads. For some reason toads preferred the cemeteries to other park-like locations in Honolulu; perhaps this had something to do with it being before the current zombie infestations. Anyway, armed with latex gloves, flashlights and large plastic garbage cans, we formed teams and wandered amongst the tombstones. The team with the smallest number of toads had to buy the beer and pizza afterwards. Occasionally we would totally freak out a caretaker who thought we were ghosts haunting the graveyard (to be honest, there ARE ghosts in Hawaii). The toads were then kept in a pen on the roof of the biology building until needed. (Aside: after a few semesters the TAs revolted and students had to provide their own specimens for dissection, which led to a lucrative toad black market on campus.)

We used cow intestines for a demonstration of osmosis and semi-permeable membrane chemical diffusion during the lab on the digestive system. These were donated by the local slaughterhouse, so the unlucky TAs in charge of lab prep had to drive to this facility and stand around while the guys working there did their best to gross us out by sawing cattle in half with chain saws and pretending to drink the blood (or maybe they weren’t pretending).

The circulatory system lab prep was pretty mild, although I had sore fingers all week demonstrating how the AB clotting test worked because most of the students — a high percentage of whom had Asian ancestry since this was a course for pre-meds — were type O.

Trineustes sea urchinThen there was the fertilization lab where the students got to try their hand at making baby sea urchins. This was more fun as we TAs could take a scuba diving field trip (stopping at Leonard’s for malasadas on the way) to collect specimens off the reefs at Waikiki — or Makaha if the waves weren’t too big and the sharks were out of town. Waikiki was fun because curious tourists would always ask what we were doing and we’d demonstrate eating the urchins raw. (My friend John is in a lot of home movies somewhere in Iowa; he loved this bit.) We also set up a microscope displaying a specimen of human sperm. You could tell which guy was prepping that week’s lab because he took a lot of naps during the day. It made me feel very lucky to be female.

Eleanor Farrell
Biology TA Survivor

This essay was originally published on the Grady Hendrix web site as part of a series promoting his book Satan Loves You. Index