Location: Outside U.S.
Date: Winter 2013-14
I know that safety of the kids is primary.
But...It appears to me that Newton may be TOO worried.
The constant advise to not do microbiology experiments
reminds me of the legalese answer to medical questions
that some web sites give without even addressing the question.
"You should consult your doctor!"
I think that kids may be missing out not doing basic
The simple answer is that we cannot control the experiments kids run
or the conditions they run them in, so we try to make sure that the
risks are clearly understood. OF COURSE a well-trained person can run
a safe experiment, but that's not our only target audience. We also
answer questions for people who may have no idea what they're getting
Your question does reveal an interesting way people perceive -- and
underestimate -- risk. It turns out, people are really bad at
assessing risk. Our brains are just not wired to compare risks very
well. We're good at responding to immediate risks (don't touch that
spider!), but bad at understanding more subtle risks. There's lots of
research to back this up -- but the short version is that people's
intuition about risk tends to be pretty wrong. So at NEWTON, we act
With respect to microorganisms, I think you are expressing a point of
view that is not uncommon. There are at least two potential reasons
you might feel this way. Perhaps you are underestimating these risks
because they are difficult to directly experience or connect to the
experiment. Or perhaps you have a greater knowledge about the risks
than most people, and aren't considering the risks that an
under-informed person faces. The risk of a hot stove is clear. But the
risks of other hazards are less clear -- especially when effects
accumulate over time, or harms occur long after exposure. Playing with
mercury is a great example of this. People tend to downplay these
risks because the harm isn't closely connected to the exposure.
Conversely, a hazard/harm may be highly unlikely, but when it occurs,
is dramatic/extremely harmful (struck by lightning). People also tend
to dismiss those harms as "unlikely" or "won't happen to me". But it
turns out, lightning rods are really important to protect objects and
people. "Struck by lightning" is an expression we use for "so unlikely
it's basically impossible" -- yet, lightning strikes objects and kills
people regularly. Remember, it took decades of public education
campaigns and federal law to get people to wear seatbelts. And to be
fair, "most of the time" you don't need a seatbelt... but when you do,
you REALLY need that seatbelt!
In both cases, people tend to underestimate or downplay the actual
risks involved. Thus, our job at NEWTON is to advocate for an
informed, knowledgeable decision making process. Since we can't ensure
that occurs ourselves, we take the stance of making sure young
scientists are properly supervised, rather than "giving permission" to
experiment (without knowing the true circumstances). There are so many
safety considerations in experiments that we can't observe, so there's
no way we can reasonable declare something 'safe' via email.
If you're still unconvinced, let me give some concrete examples where
there is a fine line between a student and a great hazard.
One is algae. It's fun to grow algae and run experiments, right? BUT,
there are many kinds of algae that produce potent toxins. If you
happen to grow the wrong algae, you could create an extremely
hazardous situation. In small amounts, the toxins might have little
effect, but if you concentrate or accumulate them, the situation
changes. The world of science is just beginning to understand algae
toxicity, so how could a well-meaning but underinformed student know
what's safe or unsafe? A better approach is to try to create a
different experiment with similar scientific and learning outcomes,
but eliminate the direct risks of growing the organisms. That's what
we do at NEWTON.
Along the same lines, with microorganisms like bacteria, one of the
main defenses our bodies use is the fact that all the bacteria are
competing, and so no single bacteria can become concentrated (the
collection is called a quora or microbiome). However, in experiments,
you disrupt this competition. You might encourage one bacterium or
fungus to grow and concentrate. And, you might accidentally select a
hazardous organism. It would be very easy to take a smear off a
student's hands (where there are lots of organisms), and grow colonies
of staph (which can cause nasty infections), and then transfer those
colonies back to a student in a concentrated form. Without proper
personal protection, the hazard could be acute. An under-informed
experimenter may have no idea about the actual risk to which they are
Not a microbiology example, but a more extreme example is mercury.
LOTS of people have played with mercury and believe there have been no
effects. However, mercury *is* extremely dangerous -- the vapor in
particular. Vaporized mercury can be deadly. So if a student were to
accidentally vaporize their play-mercury, it could be
life-threatening. Definitely not worth the risk!
In all of these cases, there are proper protocols that can make for a
safe experiment... but by email we cannot ensure any of them. There
*are* safe experiments to run, but our approach is for an expert on
site to be in charge, not us by email.
Hope this helps,
NEWTON BBS does not recommend growing/culturing bacteria without the supervision of a microbiologist, and a properly equipped microbiology laboratory. Safety is our main concern! Growing dangerous bacteria species unknowingly is a real possibility and serious illness may occur without proper handling techniques. Furthermore, without proper bacterial disposal procedures such as an autoclave can help guarantee, there is a danger to anyone who comes in contact after disposal.
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Update: November 2011