Custom-built pipette station: a vision for increasing lab accessibility

(Photo credit: Richard Blenkinsopp)

Dr. Michael Babechuk is a geochemist in the Department of Earth Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. His research group focuses on studying trace elements that have moved in mud or water, to understand how Earth’s surface, climate, and atmospheric composition have evolved over geological timespans. Gabriel Sindol was a master’s student in Babechuk’s lab and now works as a mineral exploration geologist. It was his passion for geology that led him to contact Dr. Babechuk, looking for an opportunity to learn more about iron ore.

As they started working together, it became apparent that the laboratory’s requirements presented challenges for Sindol, who was born with retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that left him blind in one eye and extremely nearsighted in the other. While using a pipette to transfer liquids, such as acids, safely and precisely from one vessel to another was a difficult task, Babechuk and Sindol saw this as an opportunity to design a more accessible pipette station.

We sat down with Babechuk and Sindol to ask them about their experience and lessons learned.

Gabriel, how did you end up working in Dr. Babechuk's lab?

I wanted to work on a research project, specifically studying iron ore formations. I completed my high school in the twin towns of Labrador City and Wabush, where active iron ore mining operations are underway, and I was curious to learn more about how the local iron deposits formed. I simply approached Mike and asked if he had a project that I could work on.

Michael, what was it like bringing Gabriel into the lab and getting him involved in this project?

What struck me about Gabriel is that he was a bit of a rarity, in the sense that he came to me and said: “I've seen that this is what you work on, and I’d like to work with you on this specific topic.” I had not taught Gabriel any courses, at the time we first met. There was a lot of synergy, in terms of what Gabriel was looking for and what I worked on – I was happy to welcome him as a student in my lab.

What were the challenges faced when working in a lab?

Gabriel: When you can only see with one eye, depth perception is more challenging. In environments such as labs, where work surfaces, sample vessels, and liquids are all colourless or bland colored – usually a mixture of white, beige, off white – depth perception is even more difficult, due to the absence of color contrast.

Michael: Laboratory plastic materials are white or colourless for a reason: these are usually the purest plastic you can use, and we're measuring elements that are at concentration levels almost imperceptibly small. Every little contact, any invisible speck of dust can compromise our measurements. We were faced with this conflicting situation where our lab requirements became an obstacle to embracing accessibility. How do we keep that workflow, and at the same time, make it as accessible as possible? Initially, we didn't fully appreciate how the challenges would manifest for the required lab tasks. It was a little bit of a trial-and-error situation, where Gabriel was able to start with some of his lab work and then we saw that specific tasks such as pipetting were challenging. The work needed to be very precise, taking a pipette with a small volume of liquid, moving it from one vessel to the next. For Gabriel, aiming over that next vessel couldn't be done as readily.

Michael, can you explain the process for creating the accessible pipette station?

It started with our paper sketches that Gabriel turned into a computer graphic image, including what materials are compatible with our type of lab and features it would require. We took the design to our very capable tech services team, here at Memorial, and they were very receptive. In almost no time, they produced a very functional pipette station, including a pivoting arm to guide pipetting and cradles that can be swapped out for a variety of pipette shapes and sizes. Additionally, it was fully adaptable and collapsible: Gabriel could take it apart, put it into a plastic bag, and transport it wherever he needed to go. Gabriel visited a colleague’s lab in Germany and was able to bring the pipette station in his luggage.

Gabriel, how did your workflow change?

It became a lot more efficient! While using the pipette does take a little more time than free-handing it, it still became more efficient as there are less spills – which means less time cleaning up hazardous liquids. Less spills means safer working conditions and less waste: more consumables available for other people to use and fewer expenses for the lab.

Michael, what’s your hope for the pipette station?

One of the motivations for putting it on my blog, when we solved this barrier for Gabriel, was to broadcast it. If this can help anybody else solve the same or a similar situation, why not share how we overcame this? If sharing the design details and our experiences can make lab work more accessible to other people, I would be very happy.

Gabriel, you're now working in mineral exploration. Have there been accessibility challenges in your current position?

I don’t think there has been any major challenges, and I would say that good communication is key. I need to let my coworkers, field partners, and supervisors know what the limitations are of what I can do, and what I am able to accomplish. When there are tasks that I am uncomfortable with, for instance, driving a truck in low light conditions, they are understanding and will offer to drive! Overall, my experience has been great and I think it all boils down to honest communication and being proactive regarding tasks that I am capable of doing.

Gabriel Sindol received an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship – Master’s.

Michael Babechuk has received an NSERC Discovery Grant. Consult the Babechuk Research Group’s website to learn more about his research.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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