When Dr. Anna Greenwood set out to find the genes that drive fish schooling, she ran into a problem: The equipment she needed to conduct her experiment didn’t exist.
For her work on teasing out an individual fish’s role in this social behavior, she’d have to study one fish at a time in a controlled environment. But, of course, schooling is not a solitary activity.
The solution to her problem included a trip to Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, a salvaged motor from some broken lab equipment, an old bicycle wheel and a lot of brainstorming. The end result: a homemade fish schooling robot, the next best thing to a group of live animals.
Greenwood, a behavioral biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and other basic scientists frequently find that they are pursuing research so cutting edge that the tools they need haven’t even been invented yet. So they do it themselves, often creating their own lab equipment out of a collection of unlikely and disparate parts, just as the TV character Angus MacGyver was famous for doing.
“You think you’re a biologist, but you have to actually be an engineer in some instances,” Greenwood said.
The price of being at the forefront of science can mean being a part-time inventor, something that many researchers have never trained for. The solution may come only through trial and error and a trip to the local hardware store, drugstore cosmetics counter or even their own kitchens.