Help Wanted.

by Philip diMauro

The Rockefeller University Classifieds may be low-tech as social networks go, but for me—someone who has never worked in a laboratory—the steady trickle of e-mails requesting reagents, cells, tools, and technical assistance has opened a small window to the practical concerns of lab life.

Occasionally, a classified ad sparks my curiosity and leaves me wondering about its origin and outcome. So I selected a few examples and tried to find out more about them.

“I need one or two large (~4 cm) cockroaches so I can practice an electrophysiology demo. I rarely see cockroaches on campus, but I imagine others might… I know appropriate-sized cockroaches are easy to find through Carolina Biological, but I thought I’d try this first. Waste not, want not.”

Katherine Leitch, who posted this ad, was kind enough to answer a few questions.

She received several responses on the afternoon she posted. People provided advice or “conveyed their amusement,” but no one turned up to offer an insect. Had Kate received any wild-caught roaches, she would have used them to test simple electrophysiology setups that high school students will use in August when they participate in the annual Summer Neuroscience Program at Rockefeller. The two-week program is co-led by Kate and two other graduate students, Lindsay Bellani and Roman Corfas.

Kate never intended to use “crusty urban cockroaches” for experiments conducted by high school students. But she decided that wild-caught specimens would not pose any health risks to her, nor would they compromise the results of her initial run-throughs.

That assumption won’t be tested. A dozen captive-raised Discoid cockroaches, natives of South America, have already arrived from a commercial supplier. This species is larger than the hard-shelled, 4-cm residents that New Yorkers generally revile. Those are the so-called American cockroaches, which originated in the old world.

“Wanted: Floppy disk(s).”

Affectionately referring to them as “old timey,” “outdated,” and “ancient,” two people posted ads looking for 3 ½ inch floppy disks. Their experiences show that while old computers may be serviceable, they also can be cranky.

John Biggins was “using a gel box with a video capture that was hooked up to an old computer.” Then his flash drive stopped working. His system had no CD burner or online connection, “so the only way to get my pics was to extract my files with old floppies.”

The limited storage capacity of floppy disks turned out to be a bigger problem than expected, and the process was painstakingly slow. He eventually gave up and reverted to modern technology, using his iPhone’s camera to snap pictures of the images on his screen.

Daniel Gareau wanted to use his vintage laptop loaded with Windows ’98 and MatLab (a technical programming language) for undergraduate students coming to Rockefeller in the summer, but he needed to clear the hard drive of “videos of my geeky electrical engineering friends and me pulling pranks in college. I wanted to use an external drive to transfer data but needed to download some USB key drivers via the good old floppy disk.”

Who still keeps floppy disks around, anyway? The person who replied to Dan’s ad also offered him a recorder for eight-track tapes.

“Does anyone have one of those long-handled grabbers? We have lost something at the bottom of the liquid nitrogen tank.”

What could have slipped into the super cold abyss? Part of a costly lab instrument? A cell phone? Someone’s wedding ring?

I learned that none of those objects would ever be at risk of dropping into the tank. In this case, a plastic freezer box had gotten loose and was eluding capture. Tiffany Nivare of the Casanova laboratory told me that her e-mail immediately drew a helpful response from Chris Keogh, the University’s Chief Procurement Officer, who remembered that this kind of reaching tool had been ordered by another laboratory. That lab also contacted her right away.

Even with the right tool, it took two attempts to fish out the box and its cover. The borrowers returned the grabber to its owner between tries. I like this story because it shows how the Classifieds can help to solve problems by tapping into individual memory and community goodwill.

“…looking for octopamine and dopamine antibodies…”

Was I the only person who didn’t know about octopamine? And why was it paired with a neurotransmitter that has its own chocolate-related page on Oprah’s health blog? Since I didn’t give the posters of this classified much time to respond, I decided not to harass them. But I did follow up on octopamine, which took me on a meandering path to a PBS-style nature show horror (with more roaches), dubious weight loss claims, and a little bit of science history.

“”Zombie” Roaches Lose Free Will Due to Wasp Venom.” This headline from National Geographic News (online) refers to the behavior of cockroaches parasitized by jewel wasps1. When the wasp injects venom into the brain of a cockroach, the roach stops walking, but its legs do move as the wasp leads it to a nest where it deposits an egg into the helpless animal. The live roach serves as a food source for the wasp larva. The Nat Geo article covered research conducted by investigators at Ben Gurion University, who said their findings suggested “the wasp venom interferes with octopaminergic modulation of walking initiation in central structures of the cockroach brain2.”

“Octopamine: Eight-Legged Fat Loss!” It doesn’t take much to spur the diet supplement industry into action. In this case, evidence that octopamine triggers the export of fat from fat cells has spawned advertisements touting its benefits for people hoping to shrink their adipose tissue3.

This Internet pitch at least pays homage to octopamine’s history. It was isolated from the salivary glands of octopi by Vittorio Erspamer, an Italian chemist/pharmacologist, in the late 1940s. Erspamer also identified a substance he called enteramine, which is now known as serotonin. But that’s another story.

Thanks to everyone who helped with this article.


  1. Mati Milstein, National Geographic News
  2. Lior Ann Rosenberg, Jose Gustavo Glusman, and Frederic Libersat, “Octopamine partially restores walking in hypokinetic cockroaches stung by the parasitoid wasp Ampulex compressa.”J Exp Biol. 2007 Dec;210(Pt 24):4411-7.

July/August 2012