The week started off as usual. We went to the mangroves, we took samples, I put seaweed in little flasks and took water samples after 4 and 24 hours…
Oh, I was invited to a traditional dance show, but that’s another story.
Then, on Friday, my analytical instrument stopped working. I was due a glitch, nothing ever goes this well for this long in a laboratory. What I’m working with here is an instrument that can detect picomolar concentrations. Pico, that’s 1 in 1,000,000,000,000. I’d like to think of a better way to put that for you. Perhaps in terms of people in the new Olympic statium? Well that will seat 80,000 people. So 1 picomole is equivalent to 1 person in 12,500,000 Olympic stadiums. Which probably isn’t any easy to visualise, so let’s just sat it’s a tiny amount. My GCMS detects minute amounts of substance and to do that in a repeatable and accurate manner it needs to be able to maintain a controlled vacuum as well as consistent temperatures, pressures and flow rates at various points in the system. That’s a lot of expensive stuff that could go wrong. We were just lucky we got it half way round the world and set up without too much hassle.
I spent weeks planning for the fieldtrip, I itemised every last possible o-ring and spare connector I could need. I read every catalogue and instruction manual, cross-checking parts and making sure I had spares. At the time I began to wonder if it was all an over-cautious waste of time that would be better spent gathering data. When I arrived in KL I was glad I’d done it; every little glitch so far we’ve fixed using something in my 7 crates of kit.
I knew the electricity supply in the lab wasn’t stable, there’d been power outages and surges. I’d discussed this with my supervisors back in UK and we’d decided there was nothing much I could do except hope everything kept ticking over and gather as much data as possible whilst I could. When my instrument electronics failed on Friday it wasn’t a great shock, but it was disappointing – there’s absolutely nothing I can do.
Friday was a low point. I’d been invited as press to the launch of a festival but when the launch was delayed over an hour I couldn’t stay and had to rush back to the lab to check on my instrument.
I took as much of it apart as I could, I was filthy from scrabbling about under the instrument whilst sat on the floor, and somehow eating had been forgotten in all my rushing about. I was also worried about the money; repairing these things doesn’t come cheap and science has taken a bit of a bashing in the funding stakes recently.
Luckily I have a supportive group of people back in the UK. They money’s available and I’ve got people there who can offer advice, post out spares and even just sit and chat on Skype about how irritating scientific instrumentation can be!
Surprisingly, by Saturday I’d accepted the situation and I’m remarkably OK considering all my fieldwork plans have been thrown out of line. Best case scenario the instrument will be fixed within a week, worse case it’s not fixable – but then that’s not my fault, and I know there are other avenues I can follow to make the most of my time out in Malaysia. This time last year I would have been distraught…and I can’t decide if the new calm and accepting Emma is the result of analytical instrumentation finally breaking me into some sort of denial/breakdown state or if I’ve finally conquered it! Either way, it wouldn’t be fieldwork if there wasn’t a problem or two…