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The Upside of Troubleshooting

Hi UndertheC readers! My name is Olivia, I am a new grad student at UNC and will be contributing periodic posts. Anyone who has done field work knows that even simple projects can easily go awry (not familiar? Check out Marooned at “C”) . For my first post I want to share some knowledge and insight I gained this summer about how to cope when problems crop up in the seemingly safe confines of the laboratory.


For my research I am investigating Lake Mattamuskeet. Let me pause here for a bit of disclosure, despite working at a marine science lab and this being a marine science blog I actually study freshwater. Stenohaline readers, turn back now! Lake Mattamuskeet is a really interesting study site for a lot of reasons. In 2013 there was the sudden disappearance of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), and no one is sure why. Part of my work is to measure the amount of algae in the water. To do this I actually measure the amount light absorbed by chlorophyll in the water, counting algae takes a long time I hear. While measuring chlorophyll levels one day this summer, the results I was getting began to look suspiciously low. Even more suspect was that samples I had run mere minutes earlier, samples collected at the very same spot of the lake, had been much higher.

What do you do when you can’t even replicate your own results? After eliminating every other possibility I decided it had to be a problem the piece of equipment I was using – a spectrophotometer. This conclusion started a weeks-long process of equipment troubleshooting. Sure it is annoying, and prevents moving forward with research, but there are some upsides as well.

You get to know your equipment inside and out. Every piece of lab equipment, from a printer to a spectrophotometer, comes with manual. Maybe you thumbed through the first few pages to learn where to stick your samples, maybe it is languishing in dark corner of the lab, now is a great time to kick off the PPE, cozy up with a large cup of coffee and get to reading.


You make new friends. As a grad student it can be hard to get out and socialize. After a week of exchanging daily emails and phone calls, product specialists start to feel like pen pals. It was a thrill to get to work every morning and see what new tests the specialists had recommended in the endless quest to to diagnose what was wrong with our machine. It is also a great time to make friends with other labs. You never know who has had similar problems, and if you ask really nicely they might let you run samples on their equipment.

You get to try creative solutions. After trying every test, every recommendation from the professionals, what comes next? If replacement is the only option, it’s time to get creative. I got to this point a few weeks before the end of the summer. The spectrophotometer was still giving inexplicably low values but had no broken parts or obvious problems. I had abandoned my labmates to run all of my samples in a neighboring lab. After a conversation with my PI about the cost of a new one, I decided to try one last ditch effort to save our spec. I disassembled it for the last time and took to it with a can of compressed air. After blasting out every last spec of dust it was good as new. After all these weeks, victory was pretty sweet.

Compressed air might not be a silver bullet in every situation, but before you despair and overturn the lab bench, just remember troubleshooting can be fun! If nothing else, you should sleep easier just knowing something is wrong. It is better than finding out midway through an experiment, or not at all. Now that I have caused all of you to have nightmares about faulty equipment…
Happy troubleshooting!


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