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The Agar Mouse & Other Lab Pranks

By Rob Mitchum | 4.01.07

The many long hours spent in close contact with your laboratory colleagues often leads to that inevitable consequence of workplace claustrophobia: co-worker pranking. Fortunately, the lab is a work environment that offers up the potential for a variety of creative, inventive, and destructive pranks, and we’ve chosen to detail many of our favorites here. Warning: some of these pranks, if implemented beyond our own comic imaginations, could result in severe injury, death, or at the very least, expulsion. But hey, if you’re looking for a fast way out of grad school, might as well do it in style!

1) The Agar Mouse (& variants thereof)

I swear my labmate and I thought this one up before encountering either incarnation of The Office, where similar mischief was performed using boring old Jello. But nothing makes the lab tech feel more appreciated than showing up to work to find her computer mouse entirely encased in agarose gelatin. We found our best success with a concentration of approximately 2-3% agar…okay, so we tried to do 4%, but didn’t realize how much volume you need to completely submerge a mouse. Other potential agar-encasing items: forceps, pipetter, USB drive, laser pointer (stuck in the “on” position would be nice), actual mouse (preferably dead).

2) The Data Shell Game

No lab resource is more precious than a researcher’s data, yet backup habits are never quite what they should be. Teach your colleagues a hilarious lesson about proper data precautions with a few clicks of a mouse. If the lab has a departmental server or an external hard drive for backing up data, hide the prankee’s data folder in another person’s folder, or just change the name. Bonus points for faking a hack, either by changing all the file names or having them link to corrupt versions of their gel .jpgs and sample traces. Warning: if you should try this prank on someone within six months of graduating, be sure to hide all sharp objects from the immediate region surrounding their computer before execution of said prank.

3) The Unfortunate Screensaver

“Hey, can I borrow your laptop for my joint lab meeting talk?”

“Sure thing, Bob, let me just close a few programs down first. [Evil laughter]”

“Did you just say ‘[Evil laughter]’?”

“Uh, no, no I didn’t.”

So this one may not be uniquely scientific, but the comedy factor is ratcheted up a few notches when an endlessly boring talk on knockouts of assorted developmental genes is interrupted by a picture series of Santa Claus having a three-way with two female elves. Be sure to ask a long, convoluted question that will require a similarly lengthy answer in order to trigger the screensaver onset.

Alternate version: More and more presentations contain movie files…I think you know what to do.

4) Artificial Flavoring

Most labs have signs explicitly stating that eating and drinking are not allowed, due to radioactivity or animals or whatever. Most lab workers go out of their way to ignore these warnings. Teach these irresponsible violators of lab safety tenets a lesson by spiking their morning coffee with any number of common lab bench chemicals. Choosing the proper chemical is paramount: on one end of the spectrum, sucrose will merely make their beverage more delicious, while something like sodium hydroxide (which causes chemical burns and “temporary loss of hair”) may be a bit extreme for pranks amongst friends. You’re probably best off looking for items that don’t have the orange X or a skull-and-crossbones or end in “toxin,” even if it means something routine like sodium chloride or 95% ethanol (surprise, you’re drunk!).

5) Bombardment (One for the Physicists)

“Hey Bob, did you lose your wallet?”

“Why, yes, I did, have you seen it?”

“I think so, isn’t that your wallet in the particle accelerator?”

“Yeah, it is! Let me go grab it”

[buttons pushed, giggles stifled]

[Over intercom]: “Guess who’s being bombarded with neutrinos!”

“Oh you guys…”

6) The Stockholm Switcheroo (for senior scientists)

We’ve heard of famous researchers that become so depressed after the Nobel committee announcements each year that they don’t come in to work for days. Nothing can turn bitterness over a lifetime devoted to the plodding advancement of scientific knowledge into momentary (if illusory) joy more than a well-timed, heavily accented call from someone named Christoffer Jonsson. Make sure that whoever is playing the Swede doesn’t specifically ask for anyone in particular; just start with an introduction and hearty congratulations, follow up with scheduling information about accepting the reward, and conclude with the following:

“Well, congratulations, Dr. [Insert name of arch-competitor here].”

“Than – wait, did you say [competitor’s name]? This isn’t him. You mean [senior scientists’ own name].”

“No, I’m calling for [competitor]…”


“Oh my goodness, I think I’ve made a horrible mistake. Please accept my apologies and have a nice day.”

7) Grab Bag

  • Trip and “accidentally” poke labmate with needle, tell them it was nothing dangerous, then conspicuously try to hide bottle labeled “BIRD FLU.”
  • Rig the eye-wash machine to spray ketchup and mustard instead of water.
  • Switch the cage cards on the genetic mouse line your friend has spent 15 months breeding. (Advanced version: switch the mice)
  • Rat in the desk drawer
  • Rat in the autoclave
  • Rat in the de-ionized water tank
  • Secretly change the page margins on their doctoral thesis from ¼” to 3/8”, thus disqualifying their submission and ruining their scientific career forevermore.


If you gathered everything sporting a "Hello, my name is SCIENCE" nametag in one room, there'd be plenty of shady-looking characters hanging outside the entrance and spilling into the hallway. This column is dedicated to those outliers - often the most interesting individuals in the bunch, even if it's not clear exactly how they fit in.

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