Got Anything Unusual Hanging Around Your Lab?

This week, I was traveling around laboratories in the Mid-Atlantic with Associate Editor Carmen Drahl, C&EN intern Aaron Rowe, and ACS Digital Services wizard Kirk Zamieroski to film some footage for C&EN’s YouTube channel. To check out some of the initial cuts of students talking about their research and instruments in the lab, click here. While I was at the University of Delaware, I happened upon something that seemed out of place for the halls of the Materials Science & Engineering Department through which I was wandering.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

I inquired about the swordfish (at right), lashed to the ceiling outside Michael E. Mackay’s laboratories. Inside, the students work on developing nanoparticle-based polymer thin films for solar cells. So you see why I was intrigued by the fish. Grad student Brett W. Guralnick explained that the swordfish was only a plastic mold of the original catch that Mackay made a number of years ago. The story goes that Mackay’s wife didn’t want it hanging in the house, so he was forced to display it at work—and has carted it around with him as he’s moved from school to school over the years.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

In another lab, this one a microscopy facility in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University, I spotted the eye-safety warning at left. Both of these items reminded me of this week’s Newscripts article about Albert Padwa, a chemistry professor at Emory University who collects mobiles. They adorn many of the offices and hallways in Emory’s chemistry department because Padwa’s house spilt-eth over. It’s always nice when scientists show a little bit of personality in and out of the lab. It certainly breaks up some of the tension of research and gives already quirky researchers a tad more character. Got anything hanging around your laboratory hallways or offices to share? Send me a link here or to the Newscripts inbox at I’d love to start a gallery.

Author: Lauren Wolf

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  1. Rutgers biochemist Ilya Raskin’s other love is wildlife photography–his labs, conference rooms, hallways, office, etc, are filled with giant prints of his work.

  2. That’s Mike.

    I was in the same research group with him getting our doctorates, so I have stories about him hanging other things on the walls as well, but I will let those tales disappear in the foggy past.

  3. When I was a graduate student, a labmate arranged for a friend to paint a mural of the hills above Stanford on a wall of our windowless, third-floor instrument room.

  4. Prints of alchemical labs show stuffed crocodiles hanging from the ceilings and cow skulls on the walls. Does anyone here know their purpose?

  5. Jyllian, do you have a picture of the mural? I like the idea of a room with a view that has no windows. Any little thing you can do to make graduate school less depressing.
    qvxb, I have an alchemy expert source that I’ve posed the question to. I’ll get back to you.

  6. qvxb, I’ve got an answer for you. What rapid turnaround! Lawrence Principe, a professor of both chemistry and the history of science at Johns Hopkins specializes in the study of alchemy. Here’s his answer to your question:
    “The crocodile and lizards in labs are examples of exotica and display the knowledge and possession of rare objects by the owner. Their presence is related to the phenomenon of ‘cabinets of curiosities,’ where collectors amassed arrays of exotica from the natural world and wonder-evoking works of art and artifice. The cow skulls, however, are probably more practical. Ground bones are necessary for making cupels–shallow dishes for assaying and refining silver–so these skulls may well have been the raw material for these.”