I can’t remember how many times Dr. G said, “Your first experiment is going to fail,” at our first two meetings. These words went right over my head, and I definitely didn’t understand what he was talking about until Wednesday, when I was finally allowed to do something in lab by myself. After two full days of following my postdoc around and being shown so many new techniques my head was spinning, I was told to repeat the first procedure I was shown, creation of a culture medium for E. coli. Equal parts excited and terrified, I marched off to the cell growth room, dumped 37.5 g of agar in six flasks, added 1.5 liters of water, and autoclaved them. I was proud that I successfully navigated the autoclave, a huge, intimidating machine that generates a lot of heat. An hour later, when I removed my flasks from the autoclave, I noticed they were a funny color and producing bubbles. Hmmmmm. I asked my postdoc about it, but he thought everything was fine. The next morning, I came back to a huge mess. The flasks, which should have contained a light brown liquid, were cloudy and full of clumps of agar. My postdoc quickly realized my error: I had used LB agar rather than LB broth. Both bottles are stored in the same cabinet and filled with powder of the same consistency, color, and smell, and I had picked the wrong one. Uh oh. Now I had created a huge mess and couldn’t grow the cells from the preculture I had prepared. All was not lost, however, because I borrowed some media from another lab member. Long story short, the E. coli I placed in the borrowed media grew too slowly at first and then so quickly that they became overgrown and had to be bleached. My first experiment had failed before I even got past the first and easiest step.
This early failure revealed a lot about what lab work is like. First, I’m going to make many, many mistakes. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a really kind and understanding postdoc. His patience with my endless questions and general cluelessness about everything in the lab amazes me, and I could not appreciate it more. As long as I learn from these mistakes, they’re not time wasted. I can promise you that I will never, ever use LB agar instead of LB broth again. Second, science doesn’t always work in real life like it does in the textbook. Sometimes bacteria won’t grow for hours and then multiply too rapidly for reasons unknown to us. Sometimes you’re working with a “fussy” protein that doesn’t behave the way it should. Sometimes a protocol that has worked 50 times in a row fails. There’s a lot more trial and error involved than I was expecting, but again, I’m lucky to be working with a very patient postdoc who has created well-tested procedures.
Two of my goals for the summer are to learn from my mistakes and embrace the uncertainties and questions that accompany research. I also want to be patient with myself. I have learned an insane amount of techniques and procedures in the past week, and I forget the details almost immediately after I learn them. It will take me at least two or three tries (probably many more) before I feel really confident doing something, and that’s okay. Finally, I want to get to the point where I can walk into the cell growth room without feeling knocked off my feet by the overwhelming stench of bacteria, something that smells to me like bad blue cheese. All of these goals will be accomplished with increasing hours spent in the lab, and I am ready to have an exciting, surprising, educational, and stinky research experience!