Technophobia: A Survivor's Guide

Are you the sort of person who has trouble finding the on/off switch on computers? Do you quiver with dread at the sight of a new piece of equipment or machinery, which you not only need to turn on but actually have to use? Have you given up all hope of working out how to programme the video machine? If the answers to the last three questions are yes, welcome to the world of the technophobe. Most technophobes can get through life undetected by finding either a partner or flat-mate who is a techno-whizz. If, like me, you have chosen a career in science, you're a disaster waiting to happen.

As a graduate of the Frank Spencer School of Machine Maintenance, you may have guessed that I answered yes to the first three questions. To technophobes over the age of 30, the master of disaster has been an inspiration, or at least a reassuring figure. A natural technical dyslexic, Frank would have found the scope for misadventure in the lab quite breathtaking.

There can be no other piece of lab equipment with greater potential for calamity than the humble centrifuge. At first glance the principle seems simple enough. Place two balanced objects at equal distances apart within rotor, set speed and time, close lid, and wait for substance to spin down. The reality is never thus. Anxiety levels rise on a sliding scale depending on speed, rotor size (size does matter!), and noxiousness of substance to be spun.

Whenever radioactively labelled cells are being spun, the plastic test tube will usually conspire to crack, spraying radioactivity over the walls and sending the radiation safety officer into a spin. On more occasions than I care to remember, I didn't close the lid properly and while assiduously preparing for the next step/sneaking a quick cup of coffee (delete as appropriate), the centrifuge failed to start. On returning, I would gaily throw the cells (which I had diligently spent all day preparing) straight down the sink. It is one of life's certainties that the greater time spent preparing cells the greater the likelihood they will get chucked away. Rule number one: Always check that the centrifuge is actually spinning. Rule number two: Always check that there is a pellet at the end of a spin.

My fear of centrifuges is as deep-rooted as my fear of dogs, and the similarity doesn't end there. The minifuge, like the Jack Russell, is small, produces bursts of high-pitched deafening noise, and runs at high speed if pushed. The bench-top centrifuge, the Alsatian of centrifuges, can growl menacingly, but responds well to careful pampering.

But the Rottweiler in the pack has got to be the ultracentrifuge, which has a big rotor capable of spinning at speeds of more zeros than I care to think about, not to mention a capacity for wreaking havoc equalled only by aforementioned dog. I remember vividly the trepidation with which I placed my carefully prepared sucrose gradients into the ultracentrifuge. In the desolate sub-basement the only noises were the whirring and humming of machinery and the thumping of my heart. I anticipated disaster with every jolt as the machine gained speed; however, the red light never flashed, the alarm bells remained silent, and the Immunology Building remained standing.

However, the new kid on the block that leaves me in a state of apoplexy is the PCR machine. Like video recorders, these machines require to be programmed, and like the former no two PCR machines are ever the same. In the last lab where I worked three sat side by side, though you would never have guessed on first impression that they performed the same task. As soon as you got to grips with one operating system, you'd have to master another one. Why do up and down arrows have to perform so many functions? At times I thought I would have more chance of operating these machines if the instructions were in Morse code.

Power packs are another perilous piece of equipment guaranteed to send the technophobe into a dither. Anything carrying that number of danger signs should be studiously avoided. Initially I adopted the damsel in distress approach to electricity, but felt I was letting the sisterhood down if I didn't tackle the problem head on. However, my fear of power packs diminished the day I realized that the sockets and leads were colour coordinated with the technically challenged in mind. Of course I've managed to have the current running the wrong way through my gel so that my samples ended up in the buffer, but hasn't everyone done that at least once?

Despite my fears, I can honestly say I have never had a serious mishap with a power pack. However, a lab friend who I have always categorized as a bit of a technophile confessed that the first time she ran a gel she set the power pack to 400 volts instead of 40 volts and burned it out (oops!). The same friend also witnessed an unfortunate incident involving a homogenizer, human liver samples, and a missing lid--I don't think I need elaborate further.

I think this illustrates that underneath the cool exterior of even the most confident scientist lurks a secret technophobe. The problem for scientists is that we are supposed to be clever, ergo infallible. It's important to be in control at all times. Admitting you don't know how something works is tantamount to admitting that you are thick. It will come as no great surprise to the men in the audience that I am a woman, because we're traditionally meant to be hopeless with all things mechanical/electrical. If this is true, then maybe someone can explain to me why men have such difficulty operating washing machines, dishwashers, and irons?

I haven't even confessed my greatest fear yet, as I find it hard to mention the C word. They're found round every corner, attached to just about every piece of equipment, and there's no way of hiding from them. At times I think I have conquered the technological Goliath, but every time I look another one has appeared. Unfortunately it's never the same as the last one and the software has been updated. Just when you think you've mastered the Windows environment, you move to another lab where they use Macs, which you thought were extinct. This is one area of technology that just moves too fast for the technophobe.

So if, like me, the sight of the latest gizmo arriving in the lab sends shivers down your spine, here are some handy lab survival hints:

  • Approach machine with confidence. I'm convinced that, like dogs, machines can detect fear at 10 paces.

  • When first being shown how to operate the machine, write copious instruction notes (including where the on/off switch is located). Don't think that you will remember next time round--believe me you won't.

  • Never write your name in the machine logbook as instructed. This avoids later humiliation when the machine is found blocked or jammed.

  • Be prepared to look stupid sometimes (or all the time if you are particularly technophobic). It's better to ask for help than risk the wrath of your colleagues when the machine is out of commission for weeks on end.

  • After adopting the above survival strategy, I've managed to get to grips with centrifuges, cell harvesters, beta and gamma counters, ELISA readers, FACS and PCR machines, sterile flow hoods, incubators, weighing balances, and power packs to name but a few. I've even managed to word process this article and send it via e-mail to Next Wave. Admittedly, programming the video still eludes me and I end up recording Match of the Day instead of the latest episode of Friends, but you can't win them all.

    I have a poster on my wall of a climber clinging precariously to the edge of a precipice. To the technophobe, working in a lab can sometimes feel like you are living on the edge of a knife with disaster just around the corner. The caption above the poster reads: NEVER LET YOUR FEARS STAND IN THE WAY OF YOUR DREAMS. I can't think of a better message for all you technophobes who want to join science's Hall of Fame.

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