I have learned a lot this summer about a variety of different things, most of which began with the letter C (as you can probably tell from my title).
Learning about cell culture has been an interesting experience. I had the opportunity to work with stem cells as well as primary cells in both sterile (changing media and passaging) and unsterile (immunostaining and fixation) conditions. Everything requires specific techniques and careful practicing in order to avoid cross contamination between cell lines. It was definitely stressful at times, but was super exciting when we got results.
I have come to recognize confluency as one of the most important factors in cell culture. If a plate is confluent, it basically is completely covered with cells. This can be a good thing, such as when we would grow cells for differentiation and end up with around 20 million cells. However, it can also be a bad thing, as contact between cells can sometimes cause weird differentiation of cells, which causes them to be unhealthy and unfit for use. It took a while for me to be able to gauge how confluent cells were, but it was one of the most prevalent things I remember from this experience. Along with confluency, the ability to count cells is an extremely important skill for plating and passaging cells. Getting used to the hemocytometer and being able to tell if a cell was really a cell or just debris, were a few of the challenges that came with this. It was one of the more time consuming activities in the lab, but was also one the ones I feel most confident about coming out of this summer.
One of my biggest fears going into this summer was that I would do something to contaminate everyone’s cells and ruin weeks worth of research. Fortunately, that did not happen. There were a couple times I thought my cells were contaminated, but I was being over cautious (aka they were fine). It was good for me to see that while I failed (although not as much as my mentor would have liked), it didn’t always ruin everything.
During the summer the undergrads in the lab had the assigned lab chore of filling and autoclaving micropipette boxes every few weeks. This showed me that research is not always glamorous, and gave me a better appreciation for lab resources. It also was kind of cool to use the autoclave, even though it kinda smells.
I went into this summer with very little confidence. My only background in working with cells was a bench top lab in my Bio201 class, and that was more about genetic and molecular assays than cell culture. I had no previous research experience. I was uninformed, and that scared me a little bit. However, as I was thrown into changing media, counting cells, and performing assays, I quickly became acclimated to the work environment and gained confidence in my abilities to care for cells. My confidence was probably boosted by the amazing support everyone in the lab gave me. I could always ask anyone when I was looking for something or unsure and they would try to help me.
I applied to the BSURF program with the idea in mind that I would try out biomedical engineering and research before I decided to pursue it completely. I can definitely say: Mission Accomplished. I loved being in the lab this summer, being able to work on a cutting edge project and watch my mentor work with 3D modeling systems. Although it was stressful and frustrating at times, the good most definitely outweighed the bad. My mentor also gave me great advice on the different routes you can take after graduation. As a result, I am now strongly considering going to graduate school post-undergrad. I think it would be incredibly rewarding and that I would enjoy it. From there, who knows? I’m just glad I don’t have to decide right now.