T H E   N I H   C A T A L Y S T      S E P T E M B E R  –  O C T O B E R   2004




by Howard Young

Laboratory of Experimental Immunology



Maintaining positive interactions between laboratory personnel is a crucial aspect of managing a laboratory.

As laboratories become more crowded, personality conflicts invariably arise and when they do, the entire laboratory can suffer from the increased stress and tension that may occur.

I report here a novel and unique method for reducing stress in the laboratory. This method, termed a food offense, has been used by my laboratory for many years and has proven successful in defusing the occasional stressful laboratory incident.

I first published "Food Offense" in 1993 in a now-defunct technology newsletter and again in a newsletter of which I am the editor. It has been sighted taped to a wall in a laboratory in Rome and paraphrased in a business section article of a major metropolitan newspaper. Here it is updated for the 21st century.

The Offense

A food offense is defined as a situation in which the actions of one member of the laboratory lead to the disruption of the work of other members of the laboratory. While there may be a strong debate regarding whether a specific act is a food offense, a majority vote in the lab is sufficient to declare a food offense. Examples of food offenses are as follows:

1. Using up a common lab reagent (such as gel electrophoresis buffer) and not remaking it before the next person needs it

2. Leaving common equipment (such as a tissue culture hood) so messy that the next user must clean it before it can be used

3. Using isotope and not recording its removal–so that the next user winds up not having as much as expected

4. Stripping a blot for someone, but forgetting about it–so that the blot burns after the buffer boils away (this actually happened in the older days when people actually did blots)

5. Providing the wrong restriction map with any plasmid (or not providing any restriction map at all)

6. Tearing a journal article out of a journal before anyone else has read it

7. Providing the wrong control sample for the latest microarray experiment

8. Scheduling a lab meeting but forgetting to show up despite the fact everyone else managed to remember

9. Neglecting to tell the lab that the cell line you work with is contaminated with Mycoplasma

10. Starting a gel for someone but plugging the electrodes in backwards

11.. Forgetting to turn off a gel for someone

12. Spilling radioisotope and not cleaning it up or telling anyone that a spill occurred (extreme)

13. Leaving a big, heavy rotor in a centrifuge when you know the next person to use it is 5' 2" tall, weighs 90 pounds, and needs the smaller rotor

14. Breaking any piece of equipment and not telling anyone

15. Leaving the flow cytometer on all night

16. Not showing up for two days and never telling anyone that you were going to be away

17. Holding a manuscript that you promised to review well beyond its due date

18. Playing really bad music on the lab CD player (this is often subject to a major debate)

19. Falling asleep in a lab meeting when a member of your group is presenting data (people over 55 may be exempt from this rule)

20. Borrowing a reagent from another lab and either never replacing it or replacing it six months later

The Offering

When a food offense is committed and the individual is identified, the individual is given two options:

Option #1. Start looking for another job.

Option #2. Bring in food for the lab.

Because choice #2 is the preferred response, the type of food that satisfies a food offense is somewhat restricted. The rules are as follows:

1. Homemade food, preferably containing chocolate, is desirable but not absolutely required.

2. Certain foods, such as Vegemite from Australia or gefilte fish, do not satisfy a food offense.

Howard Young


3. Healthy foods might qualify but only if they taste like something fattening.

4. Trying a recipe for the first time should generally be avoided unless you are absolutely sure it is wonderful.

And Furthermore

There are a few additional rules that apply to a food offense.

1. New students are exempt for the first two weeks in the lab because they are generally expected to mess something up.

2. Food offenses only apply to incidents in which other lab members are affected. If you use up the isotope, but no one else in the lab uses it, that is not a food offense.

3. No one is exempt from food offenses, including the head of the lab.

4. Poverty cannot be claimed as a reason to avoid providing food. A dozen doughnuts will not break anyone.

5. The person who commits the food offense is allowed to partake in the eating. In fact, one might well be wary of food that is avoided by the individual who provided it.

6. One cannot prepay food offenses. However any food brought for the lab is always welcome.

7. If the food offense payment is really bad, the individual committing the food offense should be required to try again.

Finally, if your laboratory has any individuals who commit food offenses but absolutely refuse to cooperate, it might be well to invoke option #1.

Anyone who cares so little about the other members of a laboratory and constantly creates stressful situations is probably more trouble than they are worth and might be better off somewhere else.

I wish to acknowledge all the past and present members of my laboratory who have cooperated fully with me in reducing stress and tension in the lab. However, I cannot imagine I could ever have committed any of the food offenses with which I have been charged.




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