How the McIntyre Fire Affected my PhD

The most recent Friday the 13th was an especially unlucky one. That evening, the McIntyre 5th floor terrace – that wooden patio where I would eat lunch while getting not-so-slowly fried by the harsh noontime sun! – completely burned down.

Parts of the 5th, 6th and 7th floor facing the terrace, and parts of the library directly beneath the terrace were damaged by the flames or by the fire hoses that drowned them out. Thankfully, no one was injured and most of the research labs in the building were unaffected by the fire – including the lab where I do my PhD work. For more details about the fire (and about progress made to ensure that the building is safe to enter again) check out these pages.

For those of you who have (luckily!) never had to deal with the disruption of having your building literally catch fire, here’s what the past two weeks have been like from my perspective:

Week 1:

  • I was gone at a conference for most of that first week, so I didn’t immediately experience any changes in my life due to the fire
    • Once I came back from this conference, I was exhausted and didn’t mind doing some light computer work while I recovered!

Week 2:

  • At the beginning of the week, access to the building was still restricted: only one person per lab could go in, for only one hour at a time, and only twice a week.
    • A lab in a neighbouring building very kindly offered my lab some bench space so that we could continue to do small experiments. Eager to do something, I’ve taken up this offer and have been doing the kind of DNA work that I used to do when I first started working in a lab (PCRs and running agarose gels)
    • Doing this work in another lab has made me more aware of my territorial tendencies: I missed having my own space, my own pipettes, and implicitly knowing where everything was. I’ve been explicitly welcomed in this other lab, and people have only been helpful and warm whenever I asked where a piece of equipment was located, yet I still felt like an intruder in a space that was not mine.
  • There wasn’t much lab work that I had to do or could do, so I’ve spent most of my time working on my computer. It’s been a good opportunity to take care of tasks that always seemed less urgent than lab work and therefore never got done, including:
    • Catching up on my backlog of NCBI Alerts and Table of Contents emails
    • Programming some very simple macros to automate part of my data assembly process. These mini-programs might only save me three clicks at a time, but I am sure that over time I will save myself entire minutes of work!
    • Preparing an index, a very detailed spreadsheet about all the infection experiments that I’ve done for my PhD. As I assembled this list and reviewed my results, I noticed some trends that had escaped when I had first collected that data – which seem like a promising lead on how to continue my project!
  • Computer work is more flexible, less constrained by time-sensitive incubations than in-lab work, so it’s been easy to take breaks and actually go exercise. The Fitness Centre has some fancy new treadmill models, they’re quite nice!
  • As of Friday morning, the top half of the McIntyre has been mostly reopened, with some exceptions for the labs that did get soot or water damage. However, the ventilation system was shut off for most of the past two weeks, and up until this morning going to the lab would have felt like stepping into a 37-40°C fever – too warm for me, and too hot for the biological samples I work with! I’ll hold off on going to the lab until next week, until the place will have had a chance to cool back down.


I consider myself very lucky: although this fire will have caused a few weeks’ delay in my PhD work, my lab did not suffer any damage, I didn’t lose anything precious and irreplaceable, and I’m hopeful that things will be back to normal within another week or two. I’ll just have to find a new place to have lunch ¯\_()_/¯

Header picture by Sophie Cousineau

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