We all know that companies like Fisher and VWR are important suppliers of lab equipment, and places like Wildco and Forestry Suppliers (and, of course, Home Depot and Lowe’s) are important suppliers of field equipment. But ecologists are also known for, oh, let’s say purchases from less standard science suppliers, to the eternal consternation of university accountants and auditors. (Namnezia has an entertaining post on trying to get reimbursed for lab notebooks and a stapler for the lab. This also relates to an old post of Jeremy’s on exapting your own scientific gear.) As an example: I once made the unfortunate combination of purchasing hemp seeds (from NutsOnline, of course) and grow lights on the same day. That earned a call from the auditors. (Hemp seeds are used to grow oomycetes, and the grow lights were for our algae cultures, so they weren’t even related. Poor planning on my part. I realized what I had done, and brought the relevant protocols to our department accountants on Monday morning.)
So, what are some non-standard supplies or suppliers that you’ve found invaluable for your research? And what are some of the more unusual things you’ve purchased for your research?
Bed, Bath and Beyond: we buy a lot of totes from here. We’re probably going to buy 200 as part of our new lab startup. Why am I such a fan of Bed Bath and Beyond totes? For starters, they have very flat bottoms. We use the totes to store our beakers, so that we don’t have to move individual beakers around. You can fit ~50 150 ml beakers per tote – it makes life so much easier for getting things in and out of environmental chambers. (Carla Cáceres is the one who gave me this tip, by the way.) The flat bottom is key, because, if it’s not flat, the beakers are more likely to go careening around inside the tote if it’s not totally full, which is obviously a problem. Another handy thing about these totes is that we have generally been able to convince the lab safety folks that we can just label the totes (saying all of the beakers contain filtered lake water with plankton), rather than labeling each beaker individually. Labeling each beaker just isn’t feasible, so this is very helpful. And, finally, we can fit two of these side-by-side nicely on each shelf of our environmental chambers, so they pack in there efficiently. For all those reasons, I am a big fan of the Bed, Bath & Beyond totes. UPDATE: Here’s the info off the tote labels: They are made by Iris, and have UPC: 762016418292; they also say: 498980. UPDATE 10/8/12: The manager at a local store said the product number for the totes is 762016418292, and that they are not available for sale online.
Bed, Bath, and Beyond also has funnels that fit on the end of PVC sewer pipe. That may sound like an odd thing to want to do, but this allowed me to make cheap sedimentation traps when I was a grad student. I used a coupler to attach the PVC sewer pipe and the funnels, and it worked quite nicely. I tested out funnels from lots of places before finding the magic ones at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
Denominator Company: This isn’t a company I’ve heard other ecologists talk about, but I love their lab clicker counters. I find the buttons much easier to push than the ones on Fisher counters, which saves a lot of wrist strain (and reduces carpal tunnel) when counting plankton all day. They are also pretty competitively priced compared to the Fisher ones. (We just bought ones for my new lab. The one with 8 buttons cost $300, for example.) A couple of odd things about them: if you want a clicker with 8 different buttons, you order a 1 x 9 counter (since they count the total at the end of the row). Also, you want a “non-locking totalizer” (NLT). The locking ones lock at 100. Apparently that’s useful in some settings (though I can’t really imagine which), but it would drive me insane. But, really, I don’t know why more labs don’t use this company. I love their clickers.
Grainger: My lab loves the Chemical Resistant Gloves for aquatic field work when it’s cold out. You can put thin glove liners under them, put these on top to keep dry, and still have enough dexterity to actually collect samples. Plus, the elastic sleeve cuff makes it so that they aren’t sliding down all the time, and the long length means you can reach into the water without flooding the glove.
And then, of course, there are the purchases from fairly standard places (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.), but that lead to bewilderment on the part of the poor sales associate stuck trying to help you. I suspect many aquatic ecologists have a story that involves an exchange along the lines of:
Ecologist: “I’d like 40 of these garbage cans, please”
Salesperson: “We only have 27 of those gray ones, but can give you 13 black ones, too.”
Ecologist: “Oh, no, they need to all be the same color. Do you have 40 black ones?”
Apparently the idea that you don’t care which particular one you get, just that they are all identical, is not one they run into often.
And then there was the conversation I had with someone at the hardware store near the Kellogg Biological Station, in which I was asking him to help me figure out how to secure funnels to PVC sewer pipe, in a way that would be secure underwater. (This was for the sediment traps mentioned above.) He just looked at me and said “You’re from that bio station, aren’t you?” I guess we ecologists had a reputation.
Aquatic ecologists are also known for purchasing large quantities of things like pantyhose (or clay pots, ceramic tiles, and/or bridal veil) for field work. We made traps to try to catch oomycetes from ponds, which involved putting marbles and hemp seeds inside pantyhose, and then putting a fishing bobber on them so we could later retrieve them. You can imagine how excited the accountants were to receive those receipts.
And, finally, I’ve used a lot of drink stirrers in the lab. I found ones when I was a grad student that were the perfect size for grinding Daphnia in an allozyme rig. And, since I’m a Daphnia person, we still sometimes use allozymes (hey, we’re old school), so we still keep some drink stirrers around the lab.
So, what are your favored atypical suppliers of lab or field gear? And what is the strangest thing you’ve purchased for your research?
UPDATE: I just learned that May Berenbaum has an article on the use of vibrators by pollination biologists. I can’t find it online, but if I find it, I will post the link. But that one might take the cake in terms of most unusual receipt to have to turn in!
UPDATE 2: Thanks to Stelio Chatzimanolis for tweeting me the link: http://esa.publisher.ingentaconnect.com/content/esa/ae/2010/00000056/00000002/art00002 (Subscription required)