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Yeah, When This Burns It Smokes Like Crazy And Smells Horrible. I Could Still Smell The Burnt Popcorn Smell The Next Day!

Sometimes It’s Just Burnt Popcorn

There is an old proverb in the science world that says “Nothing good ever happens in lab after 7 p.m.” By old proverb, I mean something Jessi, my PI says, whenever I stay too late working. Unfortunately, as a chronically late person (CLP), I find myself waltzing into lab around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m., instead of my well-intentioned 8:00 a.m. This usually necessitates me being in lab after 7 p.m. to finish assignments, experiments, and map out my plan for the next day. Also unfortunately for me, Jessi is usually right. I can’t tell you the number of times I messed up an experiment because I was too tired, or missing a reagent and nobody was around to ask to borrow some, or my personal favorite- been locked out of lab because I left my key on my bench after hours and having to walk throughout the whole building to find another person who was stuck in the “night shift” to let me into lab.

However, last night really highlighted the wisdom of this proverb. At around 7:30 p.m. I was still in lab, trying to finish up some cell culture work and prepare an experiment for tomorrow when I realized how hungry I was. As soon as I thought about it, I couldn’t think about anything else, I knew I needed to eat something if I wanted to function enough to finish everything on my to-do list. So I rummaged around, like a little mouse looking for crumbs, until I found an old bag of popcorn tucked away in the back of my lab locker. ERUEKA! Or so I thought.

It looked a little rumpled, felt a bit oily, and I honestly had no idea how long it had been there, but the hunger was gnawing at this point, so I shrugged and decided to go for it. I popped that bag into the shared microwave, set the timer for 3 minutes, and casually left to set out what I needed in lab. I had been in lab maybe all of 2 minutes before I heard the fire alarms going off. I initially wasn’t too worried because the nearby construction had set them off several times this month already, so I went back to my work. But then I thought about my popcorn. I cautiously walked to the lab door and walked into the hallway, still not terribly concerned, until I saw the smoke pouring into the hallway. At that moment I knew what a terrible mistake I had made.

Yeah, when this burns it smokes like crazy and smells horrible. I could still smell the burnt popcorn smell the next day!

I rushed to the microwave, but it didn’t seem to have any problems. In fact, the microwave itself displayed a cheery “YOUR FOOD IS READY” message, obviously mocking me. Before I could assess the situation further, events got even more drastic.

You know how, when you burn something at home, you can just open a few windows, turn on a fan, hit the fire alarm with a broom a few times, and generally avoid calling the fire department? In a large research lab at a university, you don’t get the luxury of avoiding calling the fire department. At a university, the fire alarms directly and automatically alert the fire department, even if it’s just burnt popcorn.

So as I was trying to decide what to do about the smoke and the popcorn, security personnel came and hustled me out of the building, even while I was trying to explain what I thought had happened. Strangely enough, the two men on duty that night seemed quite jovial and excited about the whole situation. They literally smiled the whole time. It must have been the most action they had seen in a while.

The important things in this picture are those adorable puppies!

Not even 2.5 minutes later, I hear the familiar “WEE WOO WEE WOO” and inwardly groaned, my face heating up as the 4 other people in the building stared death daggers at me. The fire truck parked right outside the lab, on a busy road, creating a substantial slow down in traffic. I could feel the mental darts being shot at me by the drivers as they passed by. Granted, nobody knew that it was directly my fault, but I still felt the stings. Looking through the window, I saw the firemen rush into the building and come to the microwave. Two of the men looked at each, shrugged, and one opened the microwave. They both started laughing. I could visibly see them shaking with laughter. They took the popcorn out and came outside. When I sheepishly admitted that it was mine, they asked “want this back?” and when I emphatically shook my head no, more laughter as they tossed it in the trash.

After that, they brought in large fans to clear the smoke and we were allowed to go back inside the building. Taking heed of Jessi’s advice this time, I decided not to risk burning down the building

4 of these bad boys just popped up in the hallways… I have no idea where they came from, or where they went. Nobody saw them being wheeled in or taken back out.

and gathered my things and left directly for home, the sound of the firemen’s laughter following me all the way back to my car.

All in all, I learned a few valuable lessons:


  • The fire department in Lexington is incredibly fast, efficient, and good natured. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, several of the firemen were very attractive (this fact did not help my blushes of embarrassment).
  • Don’t try to microwave old, oily bags of popcorn
  • My PI is always right


But I do wonder- how often do we as graduate students have an experiment fail, or have a rough paper review, or a rejected grant submission and think everything has gone up in flames (literally and hypothetically)? We see the smoke, we smell the burning and we go automatically into emergency mode. And yet, how many times can the experiment be salvaged, a paper revised, and a grant resubmitted, and in the end things tend to work out? I think sometimes there is a tendency among students to jump to extreme conclusions after a failure, only to discover that the setback wasn’t a fire at all. It was just a bit of burnt popcorn.