Friday, January 28, 2011

Chemistry in Cartoons: Hair

I have to admit that I am a big fan of the e-comic "Sheldon". It is a smart, funny and gentle comic. I see that today's strip has a lab component in it. I could care less about the consumption of kale but I am interested in what the creator of the strip (Dave Kellet) thinks is proper lab attire. I like the lab coat and the proper lab goggles but I see that they are using hairnets.

I have to admit that I really only use hairnets as a threat in my teaching labs. I have the general rule that if hair falls on the shoulders or goes past the line of the eyes when leaning forward then the hair has to be held up and back. Students are told that if they violate this basic safety rule that they will have to wear the "hairnet of shame". It really only has to happen once or twice and everyone gets the idea.

I taught at a university where the undergraduate population had a significant fundamentalist Pentecostal component. The young women would often have long straight hair that would fall to the middle of their backs. We taught the students in groups of 90 and it would be a common sight in the corridor before labs for dozens of young women to be carefully piling and arranging their hair so that it would be safely contained. Watching them was a strangely sensual experience. That said, even our best efforts could not keep the hair out of the experiments and it was common to find hair tens of centimeters long in the sinks, equipment, lab notebooks and products of the students. In fact it was a common thing to find these extraordinarily long hairs in tests and exams as well.

I guess we should have made them wear hairnets but I can honestly say that in the five years that I taught there the idea never came up.


Alysa Joaquin said...

I can't say where Dave Kellet imagined these scientists were working, but I once visited a chemist friend who worked in a syrup-production facility. Everybody there had to wear hairnets, and the scientists were no exception. He had a beard and had to wear one on his chin as well.

It seems that if it's common practice for food scientists to wear hairnets, maybe Mr. Kellet wasn't so far off...

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

I guess you are right. Contextually in the comic the scientists are food scientists not chemists per se. I suppose my response to finding a hair in a sample of caffeine would be wildly different to finding a hair in my coffee.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.