Many college level science labs require working with dangerous substances. But when I went into my Honors Biology and Chemistry courses in the beginning of this year, I never expected to be working so close with substances that are as deadly as what could have happened this week.
In my college, they offer a program where you can take “Integrated Biology and Chemistry for Life Science Majors” as a freshman. This allows your schedule to fit together nicely as you spend 12.5 hours of time in classes to earn the 8 total credits (4 for Bio207 and 4 Chem107). Because these courses are integrated, sometimes our lab work overlaps. For the next 4 weeks of classes, we will be using both our Chemistry and our Biology Lab periods to work on “The Biofuels Module”. This is basically a “create your own adventure” under a few restrictions. Last week, we practiced extraction and calorimetry techniques on pumpkin seeds. To keep myself safe, I chose to be my team’s scribe and so I simply recorded data and observations. After successfully completing this week without any issues, I didn’t think much of this lab module that we would be spending four more weeks on.
That is until I learned of our project’s future. Each lab team of three was given the opportunity to adapt the experiment to test whatever we wanted in terms of adjusting variables to the original procedure. We had all weekend to think about this with our groups, and then on Monday, we had to type our question into a Google Doc. My group was intending on testing the effectiveness of various catalysts on the reaction, so I didn’t think much of what the others would do. Until I saw later in the class period that many of the other groups were intending on extracting their biodiesel from almonds, walnuts, peanuts, coconut, and sesame seeds. I was so distraught. I felt like an idiot for not speaking up about my allergies when working with the pumpkin seeds initially.
On Monday night, I tried to find as much information and guidance as I could. I consulted my parents, left a voicemail at my allergist, and sent a message in the FARE College Food Allergy Support Group (10/10 would recommend btw). By the end of the night, I had a well-crafted email sent to the entire teaching team for Bio and Chem suggesting some accommodations. On Tuesday morning I met with the Chemistry teacher and one of the TAs and we decided that the they would send out an email to teams that intended on extracting oil from my allergens to ask them to choose a different variable for the experiment. Although this was stressful for the teams who had only 24 hours to choose and obtain a new substance, it was the safest way to prevent me from being in a lab covered in walnut dust. Since I was fine when dealing with the seeds last week, I said that they could continue using seeds in the lab. I only know of my seed allergy due to blood test results and there are only so many seeds that they can test IgE levels for, so I avoid all seeds even though I may not be allergic to all of them. This helped to keep options open for my classmates.
During my two lab days this week, I followed many precautions and remained perfectly safe. In addition to the required gloves and goggles for every lab, I wore long sleeves and sweatpants with pockets large enough for me to carry my epipen for both lab days. I told my lab group that I was carrying my epipen so they knew where to find it in case of emergency. I continued working as the note-taker during the lab so that I did not have to have any direct contact with the seeds. As an additional measure, I typed the notes on one of my teammate’s laptops so that my personal equipment wouldn’t get contaminated in the lab.
Overall, I’m really pleased with how this situation turned out in the end, since I have remained safe for two of the four weeks that we will be working with the biofuels lab. I have learned that professors are really willing to accommodate when you bring up problems regarding allergies. I also learned that I should probably inform each of my professors about my food allergies at the beginning of the semester to avoid facing problems like this in the future. I hope that you guys can learn from my experience so that you don’t have to worry about dealing with this too. Have you worked in a science lab where you had to handle your allergens? I would love to hear about what you did to stay safe in the comments section!