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Innovating in place
May 29, 2020

Innovating in place

Lab lessons from Ratatouille’s Remy

Written by Anu Thubagere, Moonshot Engineer at X

“Anyone can cook,” declares the great Chef Gusteau in Pixar’s animated classic, Ratatouille. The main character, Remy, is an adorable rat in Paris with a love of cooking, who consistently figures out new ways to use the tools at his disposal to prepare the finest meals. Case in point: he uses a lightning rod to cook a scavenged piece of chèvre cheese with mushroom, rosemary, and a dew drop from a blade of grass. Despite his talent, no restaurant wants a rat in its kitchen, so Remy crafts his own way to become a culinary star in one of the world’s great food cities by entering into a secret pact with an amateur chef. He has great skill, but it’s his resourcefulness that creates the opportunities to achieve his dream.

A night time shot of my home optical test bench. The green light is generated by the microscope’s laser

As a bioengineer running a range of early-stage experiments at X, I work with sensitive biological, chemical, and optical components in microscopic volumes — slightly different work than Remy’s! Stray dust, unwanted movement or light — either from the sun or from roomlights — can have adverse or unintended effects on the data I’m collecting and interpreting, which means I’m used to highly controlled environments. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work in labs that have the close-to-perfect setups and instruments needed to ensure precise data, but even in the most ideal lab environments, I’ve always been inspired by my favorite animated little chef to stay resourceful.

When shelter in place began, I took on the challenge of setting up my own “lab” station and channeled my inner Remy to figure out ways to use the tools I had at my disposal. I turned my dining table into an optical bench and went on a scavenger hunt through my kitchen and bathroom cabinets to find chemicals, chemical compounds, and anything else useful (and safe for home lab work) hiding in plain sight. I’ve been surprised that working from my dining table hasn’t been as incompatible with short term scientific work, as I worried it would be. Some of the home lab workarounds I’ve discovered include:

  • Coating my microscope slides with some supermarket gelatine to make them sticky so that they can capture microscopic particles
  • Using nail polish to create small channels and mixing chambers and nail polish remover to run chemical reactions
  • Working after sunset with the shades drawn so that I can give my experiments the darkness they need, as some chemical reactions are light sensitive
  • And just like Remy, I’m relying on my friends at work to 3-D print some parts I need to build my prototypes

My home lab using gelatine, nail polish and a variety of other kitchen and bathroom cupboard staples

Even though my current workspace is far from perfect, its imperfections has ended up being part of its unique and unexpected strengths. Most of the labs where I’ve worked have been outfitted with specialized equipment, like positive air pressure systems that prevent minute dust particles or gusts of air from interfering with my samples or with sensitive measurements. I’m also used to having access to a variety of specialty chemicals and using immaculately sterilized glassware so the contents aren’t contaminated. At home, without these controls, I’ve tweaked my experiments to collect more data points than normal to counter the possible effects of such “noise.” And though I typically work on the nanoscale, I’ve built my lab setup at home to operate at a larger scale. Similar to how architects use small-scale models to understand the dynamics of space and light in full-size buildings, I’m doing the inverse — building bigger stuff that mimics smaller stuff, to test if the physics and chemistry of my experiments work.

By adapting my lab setup and using what I had at my disposal, I’ve been able to be more curious and scrappy with my work. Instead of feeling slowed down, I’ve actually sped up. I had serious concerns that sheltering in place would bring my work to a standstill, but instead I’ll have a physical working prototype ready for one of my projects before the start of the summer.

Scientists often treat time as our most valuable resource, but this experience has made me realize I can think about time in entirely different ways. Instead of asking “What is the quickest way to get to the right outcome?” I’m now asking “What is the quickest way to get started?” Sacrificing some of my need for control has helped clarify the challenges I’m hoping to solve and the questions I need to ask to get there. I’m really excited to see how this change in perspective will help me when I’m back in my regular lab. Like I’ve always believed from Ratatouille — it doesn’t matter if you’re a rat, we can all benefit from stepping away from the normal rat-race and approaching work from a new point of view.

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