Danger, Danger Everywhere

Just yesterday I returned to MIT and began working in a new laboratory: The Laboratory for Noble Gas Geochronology. I’ll be working in this lab at least through June. I’m dating some rocks that were collected from old research cruises to Ninetyeast Ridge (NER), a 5000 km long chain of volcanic seamounts in the Indian Ocean. My advisor and I have a new research cruise to the NER this summer, so I’ll continue my geochronology work next year on the new samples.

Basically, my advisor and I are trying to determine if the NER is a hotspot track. A hotspot track is formed when a tectonic plate moves over a stationary hotspot, a source of magma, and forms a linear trend of volcanoes whose ages increase systematically with increasing distance from the hotspot. The NER marks the northward migration of India and its subsequent collision with Asia to form the Himalayas; it is analogous to the volcanic chain associated with the Hawaiian hotspot.
Very likely the NER is a hotspot track, but a progressive age sequence will greatly support this hypothesis. As of now, there are very few, if any, reliable age dates along the ridge.

I like working in this new lab, but I am in the process of adjusting to all of the new protocols and potential dangers. Until now, I had been doing most of my labwork in the trace metal clean lab down at Woods Hole. I’m comfortable working in clean labs. Sure, there are dangerous acids everywhere, but as long as you don’t touch or eat anything liquid, you’re fairly safe. Hydrofluoric acid is the biggest danger, but I just needed to suit up properly and know where the calcium gluconate gel was located.

The new lab in which I am working in also requires use of hydrofluoric acid for dissolution and cleaning. However, in addition to needing to worry about hydrofluoric acid, I need to worry about working with radioactive samples and residues and also need to worry about the powerful, eye-burning lasers in the lab. Laser safety goggles, regular safety goggles; gloves for acid, gloves for radioactivity; radioactive waste disposal here, acid wasten disposal there, mixed radioactive and acid waste in yet another bin. I’m not worried (too much) about my personal safety in the lab. I work slowly, carefully, and ask questions whenever I’m uncertain. However, I am somewhat overwhelmed by all the new protocols. I need to learn to do everything properly. So much to learn!

On the downside, I have two more safety classes to take. Safety training is important, but it is boring (unless they tell really good disaster stories) and time-consuming. On the upside, my coolness factor of I-work-in-a-lab-with-acid-lasers-radioactivity just went up a couple of notches.

Ironically, I have a date tonight with a guy works for the safety office of another big scientific research institution here in Boston. Is it bad form to ask him questions about lasers and mixed radioactive waste over dinner?


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. Maybe a little talk of danger can add a bit of "spice" to the dinner conversation. (Tho' I expect most of the spice in this thread will come from the piquant jealousy 'twill provoke in your readership: "Evelyn has a date!?" The well-suppressed envy which this will incite, I predict, will only be surpassed by the tempest which'll break loose when Rebecca pulls a Jennifer Ouellette and gets married.)

  2. After reading your post I think for myself, whoa, that's a high-risk job she got! Radioactive substance, souped-up acids, lasers – the whole nine yards. All you miss are Ebola-type viruses.

    And then I think about what I do now for a living. After a career in science/engineering/computers I moved to one of the most backwoods places in northern Ontario to start a construction/mechanics/firewood harvesting business. So my daily routine involves using chain saws, nail guns, table saws, climbing on roofs, felling trees, blow torches, hammer drills, electrical work and the like. And you know what? I think nothing of it because it's so ordinary. Totally unlike the stuff you do. And yet I am just one stupid move away from being permanently crippled or worse.

  3. First you say you're dating rocks, then you say you're dating some safety dude. You're such a harlot! ;o)

  4. Your comment about the radioactive/acid waste reminds me of the month during grad school that I spent working at Los Alamos National Lab years ago. I stayed in an apartment off-site that was about a mile walk from the lab I worked in, and walked to and from the lab each day (my advisor was too cheap to let me rent a car!). The walks were a good time for quiet contemplation, given the lack of any traffic on the road. However, my contemplative mood was usually put to the test when I got to the part of the road with the barbed-wire fences on each side, complete with the little "Radioactive Contamination" warnings. Now on the the other side of the fences were just these fields covered with scrub and brush. Nothing to worry about, right? Right, except for the occasional 1950's-style office furniture sitting in the fields. It had obviously come out of some contaminated lab many years ago and now sat decaying in the fields. I couldn't help wondering what had happened to the poor guys who had been sitting in those desks before they (the desks!) got carted out into the fields.

    The best part of the walk came at the end, just as I got to the lab parking area. There, painted bright orange, was a big dumpster with the words "Radioactive Asbestos Waste Only!!" on the side. I always held my breath as I walked by. Oddly enough, those things bothered me a lot more than the guys sitting in the guard towers with the machine guns.

    Fun times!

    P.S. Enjoy your date! I was going to make a joke about assuming that safety officers always carry protection, but that would be crass! I'll leave that to exarch and N.R. ;P

  5. Considering how demanding your academic life is, I'm glad to hear you have some social life as well. As long as you both enjoy talking shop over a nice meal, why not?

    Hotspots are a topic that fascinates me. What is their driving mechanism? I mean, below the areas of relatively weak crust that let the upwelling through, where is all that concentrated heat coming from? And why from those particular locations? What incredible forces are at work, hundreds and thousands of miles down, that make themselves felt all the way up here?

    This layman's mind boggles, envisioning continent-sized masses of semi-fluid uranium ores, seething under pressure and writhing with geomagnetic effects… all in total darkness by human standards, of course. And no doubt wildly off target as well; forgive a science layman and sci-fi geek's poetic turn of thought…

  6. "P.S. Enjoy your date! I was going to make a joke about assuming that safety officers always carry protection, but that would be crass! I’ll leave that to exarch and N.R. ;P"

    Crap how did that one skip past me. I'm losing my edge…

  7. Well, Briarking already made the joke I was going to make.

    Instead, I'll just nitpick:

    The second and Third paragraph have roughly the same content. Methinks you copy-paqsted some stuff around while you were writing it and now some stuff is in there twice.

    And after Evil-yn user her super editing powers, that'll be fixed ;)

    I'm off now to heal my broken heart… *sniff* :cry:

  8. You're starting to make me glad I work in a quantum computing lab. Only thing that could go wrong there is knocking the equipment off the table.

    Ironically, I have a date tonight with a guy works for the safety office of another big scientific research institution here in Boston. Is it bad form to ask him questions about lasers and mixed radioactive waste over dinner?

    Lasers are fine anytime, but I'd forgo the talk of radioactive waste while you're eating. It's not exactly the most appetizing subject.

  9. Depends on who you are. If your that squid monster thing that ate smog and chemical waste from that Godzilla movie then it's just tasty and makes you stronger and mutate.

  10. I just can't get over it: radioactiveity, lasers and acid. You could become any Batman villain you wanted to be there.

    Good tip: don't ever take rebecca there …

  11. Accounting (my career) sounds boring at the best of time – now I am really depressed!

    Still I can hope. Labs need accounts right? I mean you guys have expenses and budgets and stuff? Something to aspire too. :-)

  12. N.R. Miller said,

    January 9, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    "Any batman villian except the Riddler. There is only one Frank Gorshin.

    Only one. "

    Actually, there isn't even one of him now. :(

    –Gorshin used to do a GREAT Lancaster…And his Douglass was a classic, too.

  13. "exarch said,

    January 9, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    …Good tip: don’t ever take rebecca there … "

    So, am I to understand that Rebecca is the Brain? Who's Pinky, then?

  14. You know? I think Evelyn may be the Brain, while rebecca is Pinky. I mean, she loves pink, and she's funny as heck. It all makes sense now.

    Except Evelyn isn't evil enough to be the Brain … :?

  15. Evelyn said:

    "I’m dating some rocks that were collected from old research cruises…"

    "Ironically, I have a date tonight with a guy works for the safety office…"

    I couldn't help thinking of the Paul Simon lyrics:

    She get down on her knees and hug me

    Like she loves me like a rock

    She rocks me like the rock of ages

    And loves me

    She love me, love me, love me, love me

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