On “exapting” your own scientific gear

Exaptation refers to evolution by natural selection coopting a phenotypic trait for a new adaptive purpose. I’m not a big fan of the term in its original evolutionary context, just because it seems like everything is an exaptation if you trace its evolutionary history far enough. But studying evolution or ecology often involves “exaptations”–coopting materials, tools, and techniques ordinarily used for non-scientific purposes and putting them to scientific use.

I was reminded of this by this recent BBC story on a loggerhead turtle tracking project. The investigators used nail salon techniques to get the transmitters to stick to the baby turtles’ shells. Basically, they gave shell manicures to turtles. 😉

Of course, sometimes it’s easiest not to explain such exaptations to the general public. A former Calgary grad student, Susan Bailey, has an amusing story about buying materials for her very fine M.Sc. work. She and another student needed long sections of wide-bore PVC pipe, which they were going to slice in half lengthwise to make artificial stream beds. The checkout clerk at the hardware store took a look at their rather unusual purchase–several huge lengths of industrial-width PVC, but no other plumbing-related products–and started telling them that they couldn’t possibly do any plumbing without threaded pieces, and joints, and sealant, and etc. The clerk must’ve been a bit patronizing, because Susan just gritted her teeth and said something like “Look, we know what we’re doing but it would take too long to explain. Just sell us the frickin’ PVC!”

Similarly, one of my labmates when I was a grad student, Jennifer Price, needed to create artificial ponds of varying size for a mosquito colonization experiment. So she did what everyone does when they need to set up an aquatic mesocosm experiment–called a ranching supply company to order a bunch of cattle watering tanks of appropriate sizes. She must’ve ordered from a company that doesn’t deal with many ecologists, because the guy taking her order over the phone said “What the hell kind of herd have you got?” 🙂

I don’t have any really good stories of my own about this sort of thing. I did once save my adviser a bunch of money by building my own vacuum manifold out of $20 worth of PVC rather than pay over $600 (seriously!) for a pre-made one from Fisher. And it turns out that, if you’re building artificial patchy microcosm habitats by drilling holes in plastic bottles (“patches”) and connecting them up with tubing (“corridors”), you need to use Marine Goop to seal the holes because silicone sealant and other forms of Goop (even Aquarium Goop) will leak. But that’s small-time stuff, I’m sure you all have much better stories.

This gets into the broader topic of building your own equipment. IIRC, a respiratory physiologist at Rutgers, Tim Casey, once needed a microrespirometer ten times more sensitive than anything manufactured at the time. So he and his labmates built one. Then, just because they could, they built another one ten times more sensitive than that. Building your own kit was pretty common among physiologists at the time (is it still?), but that doesn’t diminish the engineering skills of Tim and his colleagues. And my good friends Owen Petchey and Andy Gonzalez have a paper in an electrical engineering journal describing their homemade refrigerator-waterbath hybrid apparatus, used for imposing temperature fluctuations on aquatic microcosms (Cohen et al. 1998, 1999; full references here). Joel Cohen and his at-the-time-15-year-old son are co-authors; I believe Joel’s son actually designed the electrical circuitry.

So, what’s your best story about coopting non-scientific materials for scientific purposes? Or about building your own scientific equipment?

20 thoughts on “On “exapting” your own scientific gear

  1. I once participated in a project where I built aquatic insect emergence traps out of tomato cages, 1 liter soda bottles, mason jars, and window screening. I actually spent an afternoon walking around the University of Maryland collecting hundreds of 1 liter bottles out of the recycling bins for different buildings. I got a lot of funny looks from people as I was digging through the recycling bins……

  2. Ecology is great for this stuff! I love buying party-supply stores out of their thousands of toothpicks and getting raised eyebrows. A trip to Home Depot for field supplies is so much fun. My favorite home-made gear is my seed-germination chamber which consists of heating and lighting for the day (space heater, gro-lights) and a temperature-controlled fridge for the night (dorm fridge combined with a temperature switch from a brewers’ supply catalog). I also enjoyed building a bug-vacuum out of a leaf-blower ($250 vs. professional D-VAC $1000+), but that was based on someone else’s (published) cleverness. Most recently I hacked four old refurbished Palm devices into dataloggers. For $50 apiece, they fit my budget much better than the $300 “official” dataloggers you can buy. I was actually recently thinking there ought to be a website to collect all these great home-made money-saving contraptions used for ecology…

  3. Can we leave code here as examples? I´m pretty sure I´ve used some less than obvious work-arounds here and there over the years…
    Otherwise, the closest I´ve come to this sort of exaptation is probably by citing those Cohen et al papers in something that´s being reviewed right now.

  4. My favorite story involved caging zebrafish. The design included 4″ pvc couplings, a rigid plastic cage, zip ties, and A LOT of pantyhose. I remember two equally awkward moments; (1) purchasing an overflowing armload of ‘legging eggs’ at walmart, and (2) trying to justify the reimbursement request to our department administrator.

  5. The DIY water baths that I, Andy Gonzalez, and Adam Cohen made were fun, and held temperature very accurately. However, towards the end of a two-month experiment, I went to sample the cultures and found steaming water baths… the heaters had stuck on. After that, I promised myself no more DIY projects. I’m wavering, however, mostly due to the beautiful images of microbes that Charles Krebs obtained with a DIY set up:
    Be sure to look at some of the images in the galleries, e.g.,

  6. My advisor was studying terrestrial isopods and had a number of colonies growing in plastic shoeboxes. We were also doing a fair amount of starch-gel electrophoresis. He went to the local grocery store to buy bulk carrots (isopod food) and PAM® cooking spray (gel combs). The clerk looked at him quizzically and he replied, “Party.” She quickly completed the transaction.

    • That’s pretty funny. Especially since saying “Party” really doesn’t do much to explain the purchase. Unless it’s a “sauteed carrots-themed party” or something. 😉

      Comedian Ellen Degeneres once had a bit of her standup routine about this sort of thing–about trying to figure out why the person in front of you at the grocery store checkout is buying whatever it is they’re buying. Someone’s buying a bunch of hotdog buns, a bunch of hotdogs, and several 2L bottles of soda? Easy–they’re having a cookout. But 10 lbs. of carrots and 5 bottles of Pam? Not so easy (actually, I think Degeneres’ example was “ketchup, douche, and a lawn chair”, which is really hard to figure out!)

  7. Things I have used: PVC pipe, plastic shoeboxes, corrugated drain pipe, tulle (fine mesh for wedding decor), plastic paper clips, ceramic tiles, window screen,, urine sample cups, bungee cords, foam insulation …

    • Yes, bridal veil material is good for bagging flowers. And I thought we’d get more marine larval ecologists coming here with stories of ceramic tile purchases…

      • Maybe not ceramic tile, but kids pool noodles are great material for floats we use. Just chop em into 3-4 inch pieces and use them on top of seines, etc., cheap and effective!

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  13. Not me, but here’s a story I heard years ago. A student was assessing the diet of elephant seals by sieving their poo to extract fish otoliths etc. Her innovation was to buy a second hand washing machine, tie up the seal poo into stockings and put them through the wash. She was left with nice samples of the things she was interested in for a fraction of the effort and much less pong.

    Our team create most of our field experimental gear out of gardening, plumbing and party supplies. One of the strangest things we did was create artificial leaf litter out of plastic sheeting. It’s a lot of fun coming up with creative ideas.

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