Field of Science

Back to blogging as usual

But I can't resist first posting this fabulous photo-mashup of a face-off between myself and Felisa Wolfe-Simon (from Gizmodo):

Now, where was I?  Last week's transformation experiment worked quite well.  I didn't get nearly as many NovR and NalR transformants as I had expected, and some of the plates had contaminants, but I ended up with five independent pools containing between 5,000 and 50,000 independent clones each.  So I diluted each pool to about 3 x 10^9 cells per ml, added glycerol, and froze four aliquots of each pool in nicely labelled tubes, all ready to FedEx to London (England, not Ontario) on Monday.

Well, it's Thursday, and the cells are still in our freezer.  Actually they're back in our freezer, because we shipped them out yesterday afternoon, thinking we had met all the requirements, and this morning FedEx brought them back.   (But we still have to pay them for this on-shipment!)

The problem is that these are infectious bacteria, and the shipping agencies enforce very strict regulations about packaging and labelling.  I think some central agency (government) must make the regulations, and packages must be prepared for shipping by a person who's taken a special training course in transport of hazardous goods.  I probably should have realized this, but I didn't, and we had a really hard time finding the information we needed.  (We haven't had to do this in the past - we've usually just sent people DNA rather than cells.)

Our Shipping and Receiving office originally told the RA to talk to Health and Safety, and Health and Safety didn't return the RA's call or her email.  So on Tuesday I talked to FedEx, and then I called up Health and Safety and found out that (1) the shipper had to have taken a course; (2) it's not the kind of course you can just take in an hour online; (3) a technician in our building had taken the course and might help us.  Then she told us that the manager of Shipping and Receiving had the training we needed, and sure enough he did. But it was too late to do it then.

He was busy Wednesday morning, but yesterday afternoon we took the frozen cells inside the special o-ring sealed plastic container inside the specially labelled cardboard box (we had received the container and box when someone else had shipped cells to us) inside the big styrofoam box.  He got us the dry ice, checked all our paperwork and labels, signed the forms, and put his cell phone as the emergency 24-hr contact number.  The RA had already set up the shipment online and printed out the waybill and commercial invoice (3 copies) and the Dangerous Shipment declaration (3 copies, each printed in colour on the lab next door's printer).  She taped the styrofoam box shut and put in the special FedEx pickup place, and we both heaved sighs of relief.

But this morning the box came back.  Once it had reached FedEx's central clearing house they'd gone over it with their 900-point checklist (I exaggerate only slightly) for hazardous-goods shipments, and it had failed.  Not just one point - there were Xs in about ten of the boxes.  We had forgotten to write the weight of the dry ice on the form.  The shipping guy had forgot to sign one of the forms in one of the places, and to resign at somewhere a change had been made.  Our styrofoam box needed to be inside a cardboard box, which must be labelled "OVERPACK".   The Dangerous Shipment form must describe the contents with very precise wording.  And it must not be completed by hand - of course we don't have a typewriter, and it's on a pdf form that can be typed into but not saved, so we'll ask the lab next door to let us borrow one of their computers as well as their colour printer - we can't just complete the form on one of our computers and send it to their printer because we're in different departments and thus our computers are on different networks.

Because the shipment will probably take longer than overnight to get to London, we didn't want to send it on a Thursday or Friday and risk having it sit around getting warm all weekend.  So we're getting everything ready again to send it on Monday.


  1. Back to blogging as usual, because the MS media has gotten bored of the As-life story so there is no internet-hits-hay to be made there. I'll wait until the next hard working group of researchers publishes ground breaking research and the continue to make my name off of pointing out potential errors rather than contributing something on my own. Keep reading me, Slate!!!! Next time someone discovers something I'll be here to naysay it to the MS media until the scientific media puts the smack down on me! I have no data only my BLOG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. @ Anonymous

    Wow - calm down. Scientific debate is all about claim and counter claim and makes science better for it. It was an interesting blog AND she's going to submit the letter to Science (i.e. MS media contribution). Anger and rudeness don't contribute anything.

  3. Couldn't you just send stabs, rather than having the headache of sending a frozen shipment?

  4. @Jim: We can't send stabs because H. influenzae is a wimp. To send pure strains we can send slant cultures or colonies on a plate (though these need almost as much paperwork). But in this case what we're sending is large pools of cells with diverse genotypes, so we need to send vials of frozen pooled cells.

  5. Heh, very well. I work with Staph, and they're frankly bulletproof.

  6. Actually, Cassandra, scientific debate is all about data. This isn't like politics where everyone's opinion weighs equally or the loudest person wins the debate. Claim and counter claim doesn't mean a thing. Everyone is talking out of their a** until someone presents some data. Only one side of this debate has done that.


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