In laboratories and research facilities around the world, you will sometimes come across a very peculiar type of person. The first clue that you have met a member of this distinct species comes when you try to borrow a flask or reagent from them. The second is their need for having several dozen full boxes of pipette tips in stock. And the third is that they have more empty flasks, Petri dishes and test tubes in their cabinets than the rest of your coworkers combined. But it won’t be until you actually uncover their enormous stash of unused laboratory supplies that you will know for certain that you’ve met a lab hoarder.
On one hand, having a lab hoarder in your facility can sometimes prove advantageous. They regularly restock shared buffers, for example. And if by some chance a financial crisis wipes out all manufacturers of lab supplies and consumables, your lab will still be able to stay in business thanks to the overwhelming stock in your hoarder’s cabinets. That is if, by some miracle, you can coerce them into sharing it.
But dealing with a hoarder on an everyday basis can be quite frustrating. They are paranoid and proprietary when it comes to every piece of equipment they are in contact with. They are also very protective of what is “theirs” and give very confusing and meaningless responses when their problem is discovered. But, despite all this, they are actually quite harmless. Especially when compared with the ultra-kleptomaniac type of hoarder. These are the ones who don’t act as quirky in the lab, but take lab equipment home with them and make personal stockpiles that no one can access, because no one knows about them.
If you begin to notice small amounts of supplies mysteriously disappearing from the lab early on, you might be able to identify and fix the problem before it escalates. More often however, you don’t readily notice the disappearance of small items, such as tweezers and pipettes, as you can always find others. By the time electrophoresis power supplies, small centrifuges and even computers start to vanish, the criminal hoarder has a complete laboratory set up at home, which they are not willing to give up.
Such extreme hoarding cases happen more rarely, but they still happen. And when you hear about such situations you wonder how their colleagues didn’t notice what was going on. The truth is, there is no sure-fire system or technique for recognizing hoarders. You can’t know what people have going on inside their minds or what sudden change will trigger this behavior. At my facility we had only one case this drastic, but it was enough. Although things started to disappear weeks earlier, we discovered the culprit only by chance. He was a colleague who was about to lose his contract and, out of spite or some inner fears, began to take equipment and supplies home. He didn’t seem like the type of person who would react to personal or professional failure so drastically. Spite and anger are normal human emotions, but what on earth was he thinking? When someone came across him late one night carrying out a computer that was usually connected to an epi-fluorescent microscope, he had the most ridiculous and incredible explanations.
These people are not entirely rational, so these situations embarrassingly end up in court. Since hoarders often refuse to admit they have a problem, they are unable to settle with their former institution and return the stolen equipment. You can imagine how terrible it feels to see a colleague with whom you’d had a genial and normal working relationship lose their dignity in this way. What appears normal in their outward appearance does not necessarily reflect what’s happening beneath the surface.
By knowing how bad things can get, it is easier to cope with the “normal” kind of hoarder. Once you realize that it’s more dangerous when people keep the oddness within, you can better tolerate the habits of mild hoarders. As long as they are not a safety or hygiene hazard, you should leave them alone. And if they cross the line into criminal behavior, it becomes a psychologist’s and police business. These people are just deeply insecure and use this compulsive behavior to maintain a fragile mental balance. Politeness and firm boundaries can greatly improve the working environment and help in your everyday interactions with compulsive hoarders. You don’t have to have a beer with them after work, but at least inside the lab, you can avoid unnecessary confrontations.
Oh— and when things start to disappear—keep your eyes open.
Kristina Majsec is a Ph.D. candidate in biology in Zagreb, Croatia. This article first appeared as a blog on 1DegreeBio.org and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.