Dr. Butterfingers

by Dr Sylvia Hsu-Chen Yip

So I was quite the butterfingers scientist. There was one memorable conversation that I had with my professor:

“So, Sylvia… Can I ask something? Are you a little bit on the clumsy side?”

Taking a deep but short breath, I then heaved a sigh of defeat, “Yeah… I admit so…”

He nodded and pondered, then went on to say, “I’m not trying to be mean and really, it’s totally fine, but I can’t help noticing the number of equipment that has broken down over the last couple of years since you joined my lab.”

“Um, yeah. Unfortunately machines and I never quite got along well.”

During my years as a research scientist, mishaps caused by yours truly were so frequent that they eventually became no longer newsworthy. During my postdoctoral training, the first significant blunder I made was forgetting to turn off the brand new, expensive ultraviolet (UV) transilluminator. The bulbs blew out, and the entire department could not visualize DNA post-agarose gel electrophoresis for more than a week.

Then, there was one weekend afternoon in the lab that finished with the lid of a tabletop centrifuge split into two halves. And of course, a shaker inside the 37°C incubator room that had been faithfully serving the department for over a decade, ‘perished’ after liters of bacterial culture spilled inside the electric circuit because I’d failed to fasten the flasks properly.

Sylvia (centre) and several coursemates who majored in Biochemistry. They graduated in 2006.

Sylvia (centre) and several coursemates who majored in Biochemistry. They graduated in 2006.

During my PhD, I once attempted a stylist post by resting my arm on a shelf while engaging myself in an exhilarating scientific discussion with a colleague. The shelf gave way to my weight, about a dozen 1- and 2-liter measuring cylinders fell, and a mountain of glass debris piled up on the floor. It must have been, this cursed clumsiness and lack of adeptness and passion for benchwork that partly led to my ultimate departure from research. Really, it was for the good of the scientific research community!

As an undergraduate, I cruised through coursework and exams effortlessly. However, I struggled with subjects that encompassed compulsory practical work. One such subject was General Genetics (or Genetik Am; course code STBP 1043). The weekly practical sessions in the lab for General Genetics were intense, but there was one afternoon that was even more so, where we first-year students were required to complete two classic genetic experiments within 3 hours. The first experiment was to study Mendelian genetics using three generations of fruit flies or Drosophila melanogaster. To examine the various phenotypes of the flies under the microscope, the organisms had to be transferred into a jar containing ether in order to be anaesthetised or “knocked out”. I’d inadvertently inhaled ether vapour while doing so.

Our group rushed to finish the Drosophila experiment in order to start the second one, the blood grouping experiment. Using a blood lancet to prick my fingertip was an absolute personal challenge – I am trypanophobic, after all. There I sat, at the lab bench, by myself, sterilising the tip of my left pointer finger over and over again with alcohol swabs and opening one lancet cover after another. I poked, and kept poking, but just couldn’t bring myself to go all the way. Fine, I’m a chicken.

At the 16th Intervarsity Biochemistry Seminar with Sylvia’s lecturers and coursemates. Sylvia (centre) served as the treasurer in the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Biochemistry Club.

At the 16th Intervarsity Biochemistry Seminar with Sylvia’s lecturers and coursemates. Sylvia (centre) served as the treasurer in the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Biochemistry Club.

Our lab technician was a congenial, bespectacled, cuddly Malay gentleman whose name I wish I could remember. He witnessed my struggle, came by my bench and volunteered, “Mari! Abang tolong cucuk ya?” [“Come! Big Brother help to prick?”]

I was grateful for Abang’s offer and surrendered my left hand to him immediately. He aptly took charge, sterilised my fingertip and pricked it just once. There, tiny drops of blood oozed out. Abang and I smiled at each other triumphantly but before we could drop any of my blood onto a glass slide, my mind was canopied by a black curtain and my whole body slipped off the stool onto the floor. With the potent combination of ether-induced light-headedness, fear of needles and chronic hypotension, my body just couldn’t take it anymore.

I awoke from my syncope to find myself surrounded by a few anxious lab technicians in their office. One of them had innovated a hand-fan from a stack of magazines to provide me with ventilation. Abang was on tiptoe with his hands trembling. When he saw that I’d regained consciousness, he succumbed to catharsis.

“Adik OK?” [“Little Sister OK?”]

I nodded weakly, with my newly rebooted brain gradually morphing into the simultaneous realisation and disbelief that I had, actually, passed out during a scientific experiment.

“Adik mabuk darah! Kenapa adik tak cakap?” [“Little Sister is haemophobic! Why didn’t you say so?”]

I smiled, and it was a smile of both helplessness and slight embarrassment. Needless to say, that incident was the talk of the Faculty for the whole semester. Today, I still reminisce about my wonderful days in college, which also happened to be my final years in Malaysia.

About the Author

SYLVIA HSU-CHEN YIP was born in Ipoh, Malaysia. She holds a BSc (Biochemistry) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and a PhD (Chemistry) from Australian National University. At Emory University, Atlanta, she continued her postdoctoral research while simultaneously pursuing an internship at the university’s technology transfer office. Sylvia now resides in Washington DC where she works as a patent agent in a boutique intellectual property law firm, representing clients to obtain patents in biotech/pharma/chemical technological arenas. Outside her profession, Sylvia serves in the national committee of Women in Bio (WIB), a non-profit organisation for women in life sciences. Sylvia can be reached at [email protected] Find out more about Sylvia by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian. com/members/chopin1810sy