Turning genes upside down

Last week I was asked to stop by a genetics lab to help solve a problem. I was told that the need was urgent and a lot of time was expected to achieve a solution.

The lab does various genetic tests on banks of DNA. To help speed up the process they have a special robot to extract genes and redistribute samples to other storage media to run experiments on. The robot gets loaded with a freezing cold palette containing 96 samples which each have an associated database of information. It’s very important which tube goes were, so each one has a bar code and a labelling printed on it.

The problem was that 25 palettes (2400 samples) contained mismatched bottoms to the tube, some were pointy and some were round. As a result, the robot couldn’t hold some of them correctly as was unable to automate the genetic distribution. The head of the lab wanted me to somehow chart which tubes where pointy and which ones where round. He proposed taking each of the 2400 samples out of it’s pallet to visually inspect the bottom so I could log “round” or “sharp” in the corresponding database entry. His lab manager had told him it was about a months worth of work. I didn’t plan on spending the next months looking at bar codes so I had to come up with a better solution and got to work.

A couple of hours into the afternoon I got a call on my cell from the head of the lab. He reported that security had just contacted because the alarm system was showing that freezer 96-A was too warm. He asked me if I’d left the fridge door open. I went to check and it was closed. He continued to ask me how the work was coming. “Fine” I said, I’m almost done. “What?” he replied.

It had occurred to me that I wouldn’t have to take each tube out to inspect the bottom. All I’d have to do was flip the box upside down and inspect it through the clear material ( being careful not to spill the samples ). I guess I’d been processing them so fast that the freezer door had spent more time open than usual making it loose a lot of heat. He wasn’t too concerned about the low temperature alarm but was pretty happy that work had been completed so fast.

I love getting paid to work smarter rather than harder. It just makes sense.

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