Author Archives: Ajile Owens

That’s a wrap!

This summer has certainly been one of amazing opportunities and surpassed expectations. Coming into this program, I’m not 100% sure what I expected, but one this if for sure, I definitely didn’t think I would enjoy going to lab like I did. Even at the beginning when I was just doing safety tests and practicing lab math, I thought that I would spend the summer having my hand held through a reasonably simple project. But that was so far from reality. I found that the two weeks I spent practicing what I considered relatively easy tasks was so beneficial when I actually began my project. Every skill my mentor had me cultivate helped me when I began to work more independently. My actual project I found to be so much fun. I got the opportunity to learn so much about a virus that I was, and continue to be, very interested in, which just helped to reaffirm the current career plans I have for myself. In addition to getting to know my project, I got to know so many amazing people in my lab. I had the pleasure of learning from two awesome mentors and three amazing lab technicians, in addition to speaking with multiple postdocs. If I gained nothing else from this summer, I am content with the quality of relationships that I developed.

However, I did gain something else this summer. A lot of somethings, in fact. It’s so easy to say that I just gained research experience this summer, but the reality is I gained so much self-confidence. This summer was transformative in my ability to approach people, ask questions, and make connections.  I also learned that I can effectively communicate to groups of people without crumpling under the pressure. Above all else, B-SURF helped me with the existential crisis that so many of us suffer from in which we wonder whether we are smart enough, good enough, to be surrounded by so many smart and successful people. There were times that I looked down at a mg/ml conversion problem, or down at my 384-well where literally nothing had titered and even my negative control was showing binding activity, and I thought that maybe I just wasn’t smart enough. But the reality is 1. everyone makes mistakes (and in this case, it wasn’t even my fault), 2. that experiments rarely 100% according to plan and 3. that you can easily make a spreadsheet that does all of your math for you.

Clearly, this last lesson was the most important of the summer.

*Special shout out to Dr. G and Jason for being amazing human beings and blessing me with one exceptional summer. Also thanks to Trinity College for the $$$

Picking (faculty) favorites

This summer, one of the most rewarding parts of B-SURF was getting to hear from multiple members of Duke faculty about how they got involved in research and then specifically the research that they currently do. It is certainly endearing to know that you can have absolutely no idea what path you want to take in life, but still end up somewhere great. I also enjoyed the fact that we got to hear from people researching such diverse topics. Some of the biology was evolutionary and some micro. Some of the research implications dealt with the human brain and some with the colon. And some didn’t deal with humans at all. The one thing that was consistent among all the seminars is that each and every one of our speakers was extremely passionate about their contribution to the scientific community and that passion is what I enjoyed the most.

My favorite seminar this summer was Dr. Susan Alberts’. Her work on social determinants of health, ironically a class I planned on taking this spring, was so fascinating to me for a variety of reasons, the obvious being that I am intrigued by evolutionary biology/anthropology and the ways that are still very similar to some of our pretty close primate relatives, but also because I am interested in socioeconomic levels in the US and how it affects a person’s life. I found it fascinating that Dr. Alberts’ discussed not only the importance of socialness and social status in humans but also in baboons. The findings of her work also seemed to draw so many parallels between humans and baboons socially. For example, higher social status tends to correlate to higher access to resources and thus a lower mortality and higher fitness. While higher resource access doesn’t necessarily mean higher fitness in humans, it does usually equate to a lower mortality. I found the best part of her work was its’ interdisciplinary nature as it dealt with psychology and sociology, in addition to the obvious biology and evolutionary anthropology.

I am looking forward to the last two faculty seminars this week and learning more about some of the amazing research being done here at Duke.

Highs and Lows. Joys and Woes.

Now that we are pretty much in the home stretch of our program, I can confidently say that this summer has certainly been one of growth and knowledge. Coming into BSURF, I had very little idea of what to expect in regards to what research was. I had even less of an idea of what to expect from my lab, or what my life/research project would be like.  My first few weeks though filled with lots and lots of pipetting, practice assays and math practice, also served as a time to ask a lot of questions so that I fully understood my project when I actually began it. However, all those questions didn’t necessarily prepare me for many of the issues I faced in the 6 weeks I’ve spent at the Haynes lab.

Just two weeks ago, I encountered the strangest problem with my project. So strange, that I decided to take off for lunch to tell my mom that I wasn’t cut out for research because I probably broke yet another piece of equipement (more on the first piece later). The problem was that after spending two days buffer exchanging my four antibodies, I had to nanodrop them, which is just a way of checking the concentration of my antibodies. The goal was around 1 mg/ml, which proved to be another challenging feat all on its own. So, I nanodrop all four antibodies in Buffer A and although some are a little below 1, I figured it was good enough. I moved on to Buffer B. The first antibody had a concentration of .0003. I repeated the process and got the same exact number. At this point, I assume that that antibody could’ve been a mislabeled tube during the buffer exchange, so I test a second antibody in Buffer B. My heart drops when the number is negative. In my mind, you can’t have a negative concentration of something, right? Which clearly means it’s broken. Which clearly means I broke it. Fortunately, after an hour of melodrama, it occurred to me to test Buffer C, which turned out just fine and the machine was not broken! Basically, the issue was that my buffers were being exchanged in 10x when they had to be turned to 1x (which apparently was supposed to be common knowledge, whoops). Once I fixed the buffer concentration, I got such better concentrations, I could’ve cried.

One of the most rewarding parts of the many, many issues that I face in the lab is that somehow one of the lab technicians, Callie, seems to always know my issues before I decide that I want to ask for help. Of course, sometimes, I’m very obvious, like the time I asked her what should my “hypothetical” friend who “hypothetically” just broke the pH electrode do. Other times, I just walk in the room with a panicked look on my face and she starts to run hot water for me because she somehow always knows when I forget to thaw TMB. Although I’m convinced that she thinks I’m extremely forgetful and clumsy all the time (just like an undergrad is expected to be I suppose), I not only appreciate that Callie is always willing to help me, I truly appreciate that the reason she understands my frustrations so well is because she, and many other people, have been there before. Everyone forgets to take their TMB out at some point and maybe some poor soul too has thought the cover for the pH electrode is for decoration. I doubt it.. but maybe? The point is that most of my mistakes are ones that have answers that can be found by being open enough to admit that I messed up and discovering that openness has been the joy of all my woes this summer.


Reflecting on Chalk Talks

Last week, though nerve-wracking at times, was certainly rewarding in that everyone finally got a quick rundown of all the research projects being conducted by our peers. Being a visual learner, I appreciated the fact that diagrams and models were incoperated into every explanation, as it made it much easier for me to grasp some of the more difficult concepts. Still, plenty of the chalk talks went way over my head (even after the 8 minute explanation), so of course the one that sticks with me the most is one that involved the least amount of foreign words and concepts: Courtney’s.

As most of you know, Courtney and her baby trees are looking at the way that drought and rising sea-levels, a by-product of global warming, affect a plant (or 25 plants for that matter) and it’s ability to germinate. Most people grasp the concept of drought killing off plants due to lack of water, but I still find it interesting that in coastal areas, the presence of water that doesn’t belong there, though water nonetheless, is doing all the damage. The implication of Coutney’s project is really a no-brainer because plants are the base of almost every land food chain. Side note, wouldn’t coastal plants would be involved in even more food chains once you factor in land food webs and aquatic ones? Wouldn’t that make these plants even more important? Anyhow, it’s understood that if you compromise the base of the pyramid, the whole thing collapses, so if all our plants start to wirther away into nothingness, so do our animals and so do we. Since I really like living and I also really like eating, I felt personally connected to her projects and its findings. On a more serious note, I also really liked Courtney’s project, because I am extremely interested in the environement and the issues that humans pose to it, but also because I partook in similar research in high school in my AP Environemental Science class. Of course, our project was way less sophisticated and we certainly weren’t using 25 different plants. However, the end goal of both projects were the same.

Because we can’t even get all Americans to agree that global warming actually exists, let alone do something about it, I think it’s important that we begin looking at the implications of this issue and see if there are ways to combat the damage that it is doing to our ecosystems, which is why I think Courtney’s research was so great.

* On a side note, I liked Courtney’s plant drawing even before Dr. G made it have leaves.

A day in the life…

My daily life in the Haynes lab has drastically morphed during my first month there. While I have shifted far away from the constant safety training videos and pipetting practices that filled my entire day the first week and a half, a lot of my day is still full of learning. Some days I am meeting with PI’s from other labs or post-docs to discuss different aspects of my research project, including the chemistry of my buffers and the mutation lineage of my antibodies, in order to gain a better understanding of what particular problems I am trying to solve. Some days I am running around trying to weigh, shake, spin, pH and transport several different buffers between the third and fourth floor. Some days I sit at my workstation and stare at different numbers until my coffee kicks in and I can figure out how to get mg from a concentration of ug/ml. (Actually, that’s most days). And some days I just watch the lab technicians run their assays as they explain to me each step that they are doing and why.

My most recent day in the lab, and to date my most exciting, was spent buffer exchanging my antibodies (currently in PBS) into my six different buffers. It took up the majority of my day since I had to find the buffers, filter them and then transport them back to the lab, which turned out to be significantly easier than trying to hunt down the antibodies that I needed. Not to mention that I had to do  20 minutes worth of math to figure out how much of everything I needed. And then the real work began. I had to take each antibody and add a certain amount of the six different buffers then centrifuge it five times for five minutes. This, of course, had to be repeated four times. The end result was 24 tiny tubes, each of which has to be nanodropped to determine the exact concentration, but I haven’t gotten to that stage yet.

Since buffer exchanging is the first stage of my research project, I’m excited that I got so much of it done on Friday. I’m definitely looking forward to beginning to run ELISA with all 24 of my little concoctions so I have information to write down in my fancy black lab notebook. Until then enjoy this photo of my rack full of antibody just waiting to be exchanged into a new solution.

6 tubes of DH511.2_k3 alongside 10X Histidine Sodium Chloride, 10X Acetate, 10X Citric Acid Sodium Chloride and HBS-N.

6 tubes of DH511.2_k3 alongside 10X Histidine Sodium Chloride, 10X Acetate, 10X Citric Acid Sodium Chloride and HBS-N.

Mom, we’re trying to make drugs…


When you tell someone that you’re working in an HIV lab, they typically assume that all of your work is dedicated to finding a vaccine and while Dr. Barton Haynes’ lab does desperately want to find a way to prevent people from contracting HIV, a vaccine would not help the almost 37 million people living with HIV today. For that, you need to be thinking about drugs.

In the virus, specifically located on the outside of the virus, there are several “weak spots”, or “Achilles heel” as Dr. Barton Haynes likes to describe them, that antibodies can bind to in order to neutralize HIV, however, most of the antibodies that the HIV infection people produce are not strong enough to be able to do so. There are some people who naturally produce these antibodies, which are called broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) and while bnAbs are successful in their HIV binding endeavors, they bring on other problems. Specifically they way they behave over time in certain buffer solutions. My project aims to characterize the way that four different broadly neutralizing antibodies behave when placed in 6 different buffers. This is important because eliminating some of the issues that occur when antibodies are placed in their current buffer solutions could help expand the ways that the antibodies are able to be used.


While my project on a day to day basis is essentially moving tiny volumes of liquid into more tiny volumes of liquid and then testing the tiny volumes of liquid in tiny wells, the implication of my findings could be huge as they have the possibility of contributing to the creation of therapeutic drugs to prevent the progression of HIV.

Be endlessly curious: Interviewing Dr. Barton F. Haynes

Dr. Barton F. Haynes began his life of science at the University of Tennessee in 1969, though not sure initially of the path that life would take him, it was one of his first mentors Joseph Tipton and his zoology class that would solidify Dr. Haynes’ interest in his field. As a junior in college, he began doing lab research on hemoglobin and the difference between the protein in babies and adults. Although he didn’t see himself pursuing zoology or any hemoglobin-related research, Dr. Hayne’s fell in love with the life of research, primarily due to his mentor at the time. In fact, he speaks very highly of the people that have pushed him in the right direction through the course of his life. When asked the inspiration behind the work that he is doing, he listed off three people: Shelby Wolff, Tony Fauchi and Max Cooper. Three people that he respects, that are wonderful people inside the lab as well as in their everyday lives. Shelby Wolff, in particular, changed Dr. Haynes’ life entirely when she hired him at the National Institue of Health (NIH) allowing him to finish medical school at Baylor College and avoid his early draft number to the Vietnam War.

After Dr. Haynes’ completed his internship and residency at Duke University in 1975, he left for five years to conduct research with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). He then returned to Duke as a faculty member and managed to rack up a laundry list of titles and achievements. Some of which include establishing the Duke Human Vaccine Institute in 1990, being a member of the NIAID Advisory Council, being a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and receiving the Duke Award for Basic Science Mentoring in 2011 to name a few. While I found Dr. Haynes’ life story and accomplishments ridiculously impressive (and slightly intimidating), I also found it a waste of his time to ask him questions that his Wikipedia page could’ve answered. I instead wanted to know more about him as a pretty typical fellow Dukie.

While Dr. Haynes’ busy work day full of experiment designing, raw data evaluation and grant writing seems daunting, he says that it is his dream job and that he “still can’t believe that people actually pay [him] to do what [he] does”. However, when he isn’t busy in his lab being his usual awesome scientist self, he might be traveling the world. When asked where all he had been, his eyes widened, and I could tell neither of us had enough hours in the day for him to list off all the countries his career had taken him. He did say that he primarily travels to Africa, the Far East, and Europe. Although, his favorite travel destination actually wasn’t work related. He just happened to find himself in New Zealand while visiting his daughter studying abroad. Ironically, Dr. Haynes’ hates traveling and would much rather be at home in the states, where he can be found gardening with his wife or reading a good book. Of course my own passion for reading compelled to inquire about his top five book recommendation. In case, you’re curious:

  • The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
  • A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman
  • O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  • The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Dr. Haynes’ feels that his biggest career accomplishment, other than staying funded for almost half a century, is the myriad of students that came through his lab, whether post-docs, graduate students or undergraduates (like me!). He takes pride in helping young people find what they want to do in life, which should come as no surprise considering the impact that mentors had on his own life. For the young people not fortunate enough to steal away 30 minutes of Dr. Haynes’ day, he still offers sage advice for you. Find good mentors. Find caring people who have your best interest in mind and who genuinely want to see your success. Find something you really enjoy. After all, wouldn’t you want to be paid for something that you love to do for 40+ years. Go somewhere where people know how to ask the right questions. Dr. Haynes’ says that true science is about asking the right questions because simply answering questions means you aren’t truly challenging yourself. He pushes all of us to be endlessly curious in our pursuit to discovering what it is we want to do in life and to always look out for inspirational people to help get us there.

What I learned in Boating School is…


“Floor it?”

While of course I’m not enrolled in Mrs. Puff’s Boating School, this week me and Spongebob have shared this expression on more than one occasion. Specifically, whenever someone in my lab asks me a question. God forbid it’s related to math or chemistry, which it almost always is. A few days ago, my mentor asked me about the weight of water. Easy, right? Wrong. I spent about five minutes babbling and starting sentences that I never finished. “Isn’t it…Well, like it’s…I learned this before…” The ironic thing is that I knew the density of water, but I didn’t trust myself enough to believe that I was right.

The one major thing that I want to gain from this program is confidence. I hope to get to a point where I’m not afraid to answer a question whether I know the answer or not. After reflecting on what I’ve done this week in lab, it seemed silly to me that I spent 5 days of basically non-stop practice pipetting. But then I also remember how clumsy and scared of messing up I was on day one. Now, after disposing of my own weight’s worth of pipette tips, I am not only better from a technique standpoint, but I also have a lot more faith in my ability to use pipettes. Big or small, multi or single-channel, clip tip or not… You get the idea. And while learning about how to use various pipettes is an undeniably useful skill, so far, the biggest thing that I’ve learned in Dr. Haynes’ Boating School is that I am surrounded by amazing people who are always willing to help me when I don’t know something.  Unfortunately, I think my parents are expecting me to return home with a Nobel Prize but I think I’ll just return home and not sweat when I’m asked a question.