Going Gangsta on a Coulter Counter

4 11 2012

Recap: In the field, I went through a series of trial and error to develop a realistic simulation of black abalone spawning at different distances apart.  In this process, I collected almost 700 water samples that (hopefully) contained an abundance of egg (212 to 250um) and sperm (10 to 45um) sized particles.  Now, it’s time to count the two different sized particles in each of the water samples (fun, fun)!

From Office Space (1999)


Have you seen that scene in the Office Space where they take the dysfunctional copier into a field and beat the shit out of it with a baseball bat while rap music fuels their rage in the background.  I dreamed, day and night, of being able to do that to a coulter counter.

Coulter Counter


A coulter counter is a piece of equipment that was supposed to make my life easier.  It is used to count small particles by pulling them through a micro-channel that causes the change in the electric current, which is registered on the machine.  I don’t fully understand the process; mostly what I know is that I put my water sample in a tube that goes in the apparatus, turn a knob, and, VOILA!  A number appears on the left indicating the amount of particles per 0.5mL in my sample.  Or that was how it was supposed to work in a perfect world…


But alas, my world is far from perfect.  The machine only counted the smaller particles, it often clogged, it gave me unrealistic numbers that didn’t always match my quality checks where I compared the coulter counter numbers to hand counts under a dissecting scope, and eventually (with only 67 samples left) broke, forcing me to finish the counts by hand.

The lab space in my parents kitchen (B. Blaud)


I started off by filtering out the larger size particles to count them separately.  I turned my parents kitchen into a lab space.  It had the required sink next to counter space, and an extra computer for watching movies on while going through the tedious counting process.  To filter the larger, egg-sized particles, I built a screen with 180um mesh that would catch the eggs, but allow the sperm to pass through, and used a microscope to count these by hand.  This process was fairly simple and smooth.


It was the sperm-sized particles that caused me to lose hair.  It’s always the boys that complicate things, isn’t it.  At first, I had the coulter counter set up in my lab space at UW in Seattle, but after it broke a couple times and I wasn’t able to fix it quickly, it went back to the Taylor Hatchery in Quilcene, which is a 30 minute ferry ride and hour drive away.  So I made the daily trek out to Quilcene every day for a week to count samples, fighting the coulter counter tooth and nail for every tally of sperm sized particles, living off diet Coke to survive my grueling 18 hour days (mornings making coffee, afternoons counting particles, and evenings entering data).


And my reward for all my efforts?  Data!

Next up, my results and what they mean…



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