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My first work-study job was part-time in Bemidji State University’s News Bureau, where I had applied because I was thinking of majoring in journalism. My main task was to call up an array of form letters on our word processing machine and fill in the blanks. These form letters dealt with student accomplishments, and they all read the same way: So and so from such and such a town has … joined the women's volleyball team. Has been accepted into the honors program. Has finally graduated and is currently living at home with his parents in the Greater Nimrod/Sebeka Area.
There wasn't much excitement to it, and often I wanted to break out of the mold and write something different, something that would end up being more than a faded newspaper clipping in a parent's album: “Susie Oppenheimer was observed administering a blow job to an unknown man on a couch in the middle of a keg party on ninth street” … “Mark Sundahl no longer has hair or eyebrows since passing out and being abused by his roommates on a couch in the middle of a keg party on eighth street” … “Becky Olsen’s magenta-colored vomit is frozen as an icicle beginning on the ledge outside her third-story dorm room window. Becky’s vomit is expected to remain frozen and available for viewing through April.”
Of course, I never wrote anything like that.
Since the News Bureau job was only ten hours a week, I wanted a second part-time job for the extra cash and an additional resume line. The first opportunity came in the science department: chemistry lab assistant. I knew nothing about working in a lab, and science of any kind had always been my worst subject in high school. I had only taken chemistry during my senior year because the only other option, physics, seemed even more daunting, and I only passed chemistry because my lab partner was a kind-hearted geek who didn’t mind doing all the work if I let him tie my lab apron in back. To complicate the lab-assistant situation, I had to rely on the recommendation of my sister’s father-in-law’s second cousin to get the job, who was a dean at the time—he was happy to help me out. The lab job wasn’t even in chemistry though.
It was in biology.
I knew less about biology than any other topic in the history of mankind. But I still got hired.
As the part-time work-study biology lab assistant, my main task was to inoculate test tubes full of agar with various strains of bacteria so that the biology students would have something to study during their lab experiments the following morning. I remember on my first day, somebody showed me how to mix up agar, sterilize the test tubes, and insert bacteria into tubes so that it would grow and multiply. I also remember being shown how to clean up, and was given a key to lock the lab door behind me when I left each evening. My schedule had me inoculating test tubes from five to seven p.m. Monday through Thursday.
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One of the main problems with the lab assistant job was that I worked alone. Admittedly, it only took one person to accomplish all that needed to be done, but if anything went wrong, there was no one to ask for help. At that time of day, there weren’t even any spare professors or grad students left in the department, so if I had questions or concerns, I did the best I could.
The first indication that my best wasn’t good enough was the evening I showed up for work only to be greeted by this sign: “LAB ASSISTANTS: TEST TUBES MUST BE COMPLETELY STERILIZED IN ORDER TO AVOID UNWANTED GROWTHS IN THE CULTURES. MAKE SURE AUTOCLAVE IS SET TO FIVE JILLION DEGREES…” blah blah blah. I knew this note was meant for me because I was the only lab assistant in charge of growths, wanted or unwanted. I had a feeling that the biology professors for whom I was preparing the test tube cultures had no idea that an eighteen year old journalism major wearing yellow eye shadow, a friendship bracelet and legwarmers was working behind the scenes as their germ supplier. I wondered what they would think if they saw what was really going on.
Every evening when I arrived at the lab, it was full of that day’s dirty lab equipment: thin slabs of observation glass, Petri dishes, test tubes, test tube trays, tweezers and other small utensils. There was no dishwasher, so I ran soapy water in a sink and washed each piece by hand, letting it all air-dry on paper towels. After that, it was time to sterilize trays full of empty test tubes in the autoclave, and mix up batches of agar on the stove. When the test tubes were sterilized, I would take them out and put my agar in so that it would be sterilized too. After the agar was nuked and cooled, I would carefully pour liquid agar into each test tube and wait until the agar gelled.
On the days that my agar did not gel completely, I would sprinkle extra ingredients into the test tubes and stir the mixture carefully with a pencil until it thickened. While this may have had adverse effects on the next day’s biology experiments, I cared little; leaded agar was better than no agar at all. They should be happy with what they got.
Recipes for each type of agar were taped to the wall (though, as I said, a few of them were flawed), and directions for using the autoclave were posted right next to it. Only occasionally did I fail to run the autoclave for the required length of time, and that was only when it would start rocking back and forth and emitting high-pitched hissing noises as if it was about to blow. These episodes would frighten me, and eventually resulted in the “unwanted growths” sign.
The only aspect of the lab assistant job that didn’t come easy to me was the inoculating part. While the vials of bacteria and other microorganisms were clearly labeled, and I understood that I was supposed to introduce a minute amount of these substances to the gelled agar environment inside the test tube, I could never determine how much bacteria was enough or too much. This was especially difficult when the bacteria, germs, mold, cells—whatever lived inside those vials—were invisible. I would take my long slender sterilized inoculating stick with the tiny metal loop on its end and wave it around inside a vial, not knowing if I had picked up five of five million organisms. I would then carefully uncork a test tube of agar and jam my stick deep into the agar, twisting it around just to make sure that enough of the invisible germs made it inside.
This jamming-and-twisting technique that I developed for the invisible organisms apparently did not impress the biology professors, for soon enough another sign was posted for “the lab assistants”: “DO NOT BREAK SURFACE OF AGAR WITH INOCULATING STICKS! THIS IS UNNECESSARY! LIGHTLY TOUCH SURFACE OF AGAR WITH STICK TO INTRODUCE ORGANISMS.” I didn’t understand how you could know for sure if invisible organisms had been introduced to the agar or not, but who was I to argue. I wasn’t a hostess. I was a lab assistant.
Jamming and twisting the stick into the agar wasn’t necessary with bacteria and germs that were visible. To inoculate test tubes with visible substances, I used the fragile metal loop at the end of my stick more like a spoon and scooped up as much of the substance as possible, then shook it onto the surface of the agar. If it didn’t come off right away, I would smear it around the sides of the test tube until it did. I employed this procedure several times over the few weeks that I served as lab assistant, until yet another sign was posted for “the lab assistants”: “TEST TUBES ARE EXPLODING BECAUSE TOO MANY ORGANISMS ARE BEING INTRODUCED TO THE AGAR! INOCULATING STICK SHOULD HOLD A BARELY VISIBLE AMOUNT OF ORGANISM. ORGANISM WILL INTRODUCE ITSELF WHEN GENTLY APPLIED. NO FORCE NECESSARY.”
At this point, I was getting irritated with the situation. If the organisms could introduce themselves to the agar, then why did they need me? Just as those two little words that I had never spoken in my life started formulating in my mind…I quit…the department head came to my rescue. He stopped by one night while I was making a new agar recipe—I called it “Funeral Agar”, after a recipe for hotdish my mother had given me—and asked me if I would like to transfer over to the English department, as there was an opening. I jumped at the chance, not knowing and not caring what had brought this new opportunity to my laboratory door. If somebody wanted me out of there, so be it. The oft reviled “lab assistants” had left the building…or at least the biology wing.