As a postdoctoral fellow in Peter Jones’s lab at the University of Southern California, I studied DNA methylation and nucleosome positioning in renal cell carcinoma tumors. For my project, I collected donated patient tumor samples and used chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) to study changes in their histone patterns. This was in the early days of ChIP, so there weren't kits that worked for my samples, and our in-lab protocol took about three and a half days to complete. 

A photograph of woman with brown hair smiling at the camera.
Elinne Becket, currently a microbial genomicist at California State University San Marcos, narrated her crushing mistake as a postdoctoral fellow.
Ciara Sanders

One day, as I finished the last elution at the end of this process, I dropped one of my samples. When I looked down and saw that the lid stayed closed, I breathed a sigh of relief. I started to step down to pick up the tube. Unfortunately, the chairs we used rolled at the slightest touch. As I shifted my weight, the chair rolled back, and my foot landed right on top of my sample. 

I was horrified. Luckily, I had planned to have extra replicates, so I didn’t ruin my whole experiment. However, I was mad at myself for wasting such a precious sample that someone was kind enough to let us use in our research. I don’t remember how my mentor reacted to the news, but I recall that my lab mates teased me for a couple of weeks about the accident, basically until one of them goofed, and the taunting transferred to a new target.

It still makes me cringe when I think about that incident. However, it serves as a good reminder to myself, and now my students, that mistakes happen, but steady lab hands and preparation will prevent most of them from occurring. What’s more important is that I learn from my mistakes so that they only happen once.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.