DIY Laboratories: Do NOT Try This At Home

By: Michael Heintz, Senior Specialist, Environmental Laboratories

There seems to be a rise in at-home, or do-it-yourself (DIY), scientists.  These people possess varying levels of scientific training and experience, ranging from a single chemistry course in high school to professional scientists (and others in between), who decide to take on complicated scientific research at home. Their goals differ widely: some look to discover the next great medicine, some research energy sources, and others are just curious. They all have one trait in common: conducting scientific experiments in their kitchens, basements, or garages. Under almost any consideration, this is a bad idea.


To be clear, these are not cornstarch experiments you did as a kid. Nor are we talking about the multitude of less dangerous experiments you can conduct at home in the name of scientific curiosity. Some of these DIY scientists conduct dangerous experiments, like attempting to split the atom in a microwave or synthesizing biological material for a possible vaccine. People are conducting complex experiments needing specialized chemicals, controls, and safeguards in facilities with the “sophistication” of your mother’s spare bedroom.

Just because you can buy them on the internet does not mean your house is the appropriate place to store radioactive, biological, or hazardous materials. The situation becomes even more complicated during disposal: what happens to the material flushed down a drain or put out with the municipal trash collection? Non-DIY laboratories adhere to strict regulations, which exist to protect the safety of the scientist and the community.

More and more state and federal officials are investigating the use and manipulation of hazardous materials in DIY laboratories. Most states make using or storing these kinds of materials in a residential setting illegal. Given the rise of residential scientists, agencies like the Centers for Disease Control conduct programs to register or monitor for amateur laboratories, and the National Institutes of Health issued a report on biological research by amateur scientists.

In some instances, these efforts bring DIY efforts into the mainstream as a new market: community laboratory space for experimentation in a more controlled environment. Health and environment research remains complicated, detailed, and includes some level of risk to the scientist and those nearby. Scientific research should be conducted in the appropriate environments. Blowing up the block does not make for good neighborhood relations.

If you are interested in becoming a laboratory scientist, it is a field that is constantly growing and those with proper qualifications are always in demand.  Until then, leave the complex experiments and research to the pros.

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Amos Zoeller at 11:10 pm

    So it sounds like you’ve never interacted with an amateur scientist before, and you’ve spent a lot of hard work writing nothing more than a bunch of hot air because you saw a couple of headlines about accidents or whatever. I’m an amateur chemist. I use a spare room of my house, somewhat displaced from the rest of the building, as a lab. And I’m part of a community of people like me THOUSANDS strong. Nearly every other amateur scientist I’ve had the pleasure of knowing regularly disposes of any chemical wastes produced through hazardous material disposal agencies; you might be surprised, but many of us care about other people and the environment! Many of us purchase or construct our very own fume hoods, chemical storage cabinets, we stock fire extinguishers, have large books full of MSD sheets that we actually bother to read, and most importantly, we love our hobby and are always learning more about it; do you think we don’t know how the things we work with behave? You act as though people conducting scientific research wouldn’t bother to have the brains to avoid maiming themselves every chance they get. I’ve been contacted at various times during my journey as a home chemist by liaisons of the chemical industry, post-doctorate researchers, and many hopeful future scientists aiming to better our world one day, all of them asking for my expertise. I routinely solve problems at my job, in a bioengineering research facility, using the knowledge I’ve accumulated from my hobby. Heck, I got the job in the first place because I was able to impress a senior researcher with my dedication to the field and the skills I developed from what I do. We’re all out here, against all odds, and without monetary incentive of any kind, doing what we love, learning for the sake of learning, and above all else, developing the skills we need to actually help the world and make it a better place one day. And then there’s you. Preaching fear and paranoia to your readers just to boost your own profile. Spending your hours keyboard-warrioring against knowledge, chastising people with the same interests and goals(strike that, ours are probably more noble than saving up for a new car or a trip to Belize) just because they don’t have a piece of paper labeled “degree”, or a word salad job title like “Senior Specialist”.

    Oh yeah, and I noticed that you included some links, because everybody knows that the guy with the most links wins the argument! They’ve got PROOF! So I’ll follow your example, O Learned One, and put up some links of my own.
    Here’s a group of incredibly gifted scientists personally funding their own research into a cure for cancer from their own homes:
    This teenager built a particle accelerator in his basement, engineered a new way to screen for incredibly deadly pancreatic cancer, and received Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Award for it:
    Hmm, it seems we can’t find that many amateur scientists doing amazing things today. What could the reason for that be? Oh yeah, pompous, pessimistic blowhards like you. Let’s visit the yesteryear, so we can find more home scientists that will dwarf any accomplishment you will ever pull off:

    Michael Faraday, the inventor of the electric motor, discoverer of benzene, and engineer of the law of electromagnetic induction, received almost no education in his field and conducted much of his work in his bookshop.

    Thomas Edison, who we all should know for his (part in) countless inventions, took his first steps into the realm of science by building his own chemistry lab at home. Hmm, I wonder if he learned anything at all while doing that? Probably not, right?

    Charles Goodyear, who invented the vulcanized rubber that brought automobiles as we know them today into being, never obtained a degree, and conducted most of his work either in his home or in the attic of a pharmacist he knew.

    Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, arguably one of the most influential biologists of all time, built his own microscopes and conducted his research in a drapery shop, without ever receiving a formal scientific education.

    I could go on and on, but I think I’d rather go look further into improving the synthesis of p-toluenesulfonic acid, so have fun with this comment!

  2. Don Keedic at 10:20 pm

    I think you forgot to mention the real reason you want to discourage at-home science: it’s a threat to your business model. Previously, if you wanted to leverage the power of scientific labs you had to pay for at least a bachelor’s degree, but realistically an MS or higher. In economics, that’s called a monopoly on the market. So that’s great if your job is to sell credit-hours taught by foreign grad students who can’t even speak English, much less care if you even digest any of the material in the “class”. But now there is competition in the market, maybe your training isn’t so special anymore ? Maybe someone with a BS-level training can now bring himself up to the grad-level and do your job without wasting another $40k.

    Another thing that scares you is the possibility that someone at home (or, more realistically, many people in many homes working collaborating online ) might be able to manufacture a drug that Big Pharma currently charges $100/pill for. Now *that* is scary, because now shareholders are involved.

    You know, it comes down to power. Science, just like any other type of power, corrupts. Those in power fear those who might acquire the same power. If I want to make fuming acids in my garage, who are you to tell me what I can’t do in the house that I *paid* for ? You have no such power and you never will.

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