Thoughts on the Summer

Wait, it’s week eight already? NO!! Stop! Wait! I want to keep going. . .

This summer has been such a valuable experience. I’m just going to list some of my favorite takeaways and such, based on my experience in lab and listening to the wise words of the faculty speakers:

1. I’ve been reminded that being obstinately persistent and hard-working will consistently serve you well.

A book I recently read, aptly titled Lab Girl*, sums this up nicely:

“Any sign that the newbie regarded his or her time as of any value whatsoever was a bad omen, and the loss of so many hours’ work was a telling trial of this principle. As a corollary, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.”

A woodpecker doesn’t drill a hole into a tree by poking at the bark once or twice then taking a two hour break. Hacking and pecking and picking at a problem or question while it’s still fresh in your mind is the best approach to making any progress. This is good news for me because I have used this method in school and extracurriculars for as long as I can remember, having a tendency to obsess over things, losing sleep and pulling my hair out until I figure them out. It’s not always fun, but when you finally, finally solve your problem, the satisfaction can’t be beat. It was encouraging to have this program drive that point home in me again.

*highly recommended book, after just eight weeks in a lab I could relate to it in a way I never could have before and it made me laugh and think and look at plants in a new way. promptly obtain a copy and read it. this has been a PSA

2. I’ve started filling my toolbox of science-related skills!

At the beginning of this summer, I knew vaguely how to operate a centrifuge and had used a micropipette perhaps twice. Now I’ve collected a variety of lab skills and know-how: operating centrifuges of all shapes and sizes for cells and bacteria, using sterile technique and the cell culture fun that comes with it, dexterity in the operation of micropipettes, multi-channel pipettes, and motorized pipettes (henceforth rewarding myself the title of “Pipette Ninja”), PCR and gel electrophoresis, protein production and purification, western blotting. . . and blah, blah, blah. I’m just excited because this learning and acquiring new skills and using them to potentially generate new knowledge has probably been one of my favorite parts of summer. I want to keep going and filling my toolbox! And pipetting things. I love pipetting things. . .

3. The lab is not a glamorous place.

There’s a lot of work that happens that isn’t actually going to produce data. Instead, it just gets you one-sixteenth of a step closer to producing data. Take protein production and purification in E. Coli, for example: it’s a 3-day long process involving two liters of bacteria in LB broth that produces just one milliliter of proteins to use in your experiments (if you’re lucky!). Also, a lot of work isn’t actually going to produce data just because it isn’t going to produce data. Experiments fail often. Repetition is routine. There’s also a lot of waiting for things — waiting for cells to incubate or a gel to run or a film to develop.  Science is slow. Finally and most importantly of all, the lab is, overall, a smelly place. I’ve started a definitive list of Odoriferous Things in the Lab and I’m going to share it with you:

  1. E. Coli: Just disgusting. No words.
  2. Beta-mercaptoethanol: gasoline + hard-boiled eggs with a light touch of farty funk
  3. The mice used in experiments: pet store, ultra-concentrated
  4. The autoclave that day someone decided to throw some used mouse bedding in it: inside-out colon

Generally, one or more of these smells will assault your delicate olfactory neurons each day in the lab.

4. I still have no idea what I’m doing.

And that’s okay! BSURF has exposed me not only to real science in general, but also so many different types of science that are all so interesting. When I entered Duke, I, like 99% of everyone else, was premed. And I still am! Only now I’m also considering the merits of pursuing a PhD. And an MD/PhD. And still just the MD. I plan to just keep working hard and enjoy the ride, doing things I am genuinely interested in, and let things unfold. If the faculty seminars have taught me anything, it’s that no matter how certain you are about your future, it will probably turn out exactly how you didn’t think it would, but you still find yourself exactly where you want to be. So why worry?

((That’s a wrap! Before I close out my final blog post of the summer, I want to express my sincere gratitude to Trinity College for funding BSURF, and Dr. G and Jason for helping make it the experience it was: a rich summer of reflection, frustration, and late night laughter with awesome people. It’s been a blast!))



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