Although my lab is in the division of translational neurosciences, most of our day-to-day work involves cellular, molecular and microbiology. We’re currently comparing two methods for bacterial DNA extraction from mouse feces to study shifts in their microbiomes during depression, analyzing the levels of four proteins in plasma samples from our longitudinal alcohol dependence study, and searching for biomarkers for PTSD susceptibility in soldiers.
There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ day in my work. Sometimes I spend hours labelling slides which will be used for the PTSD brain sections—they have to be labelled in pencil or else the staining process will dissolve the label/ink. It’s really interesting to watch Dianne cutting the sections and see the tissue adhere itself to the special, positively-charged slide. Other days I weigh 2 ml tubes to ensure that we have a healthy stock of pre-weighed tubes since they save tons of time during experiments. I also help pull samples for the protein assays we’re currently running—as we’ve learnt the hard way, finding and randomizing hundreds of tiny PCR strip tubes with IDs handwritten on the sides is NOT easy. (An aside: I’m totally in awe of dry ice).
We’re still waiting on the sequencing results from the mouse poop extractions (which is my primary project) and so, in the meantime, I’ve been learning about and analyzing data from the quality tests we’ve run—260/280 & 260/230 ratios from the spectrophotometer which measure purity, DNA concentration from the fluorometer which measures yield, and the DNA Integrity Number or DIN from the TapeStation which measures degradation & quality.
On some days work can seem dreary or slow, and I have realized that research is not at all like it’s romanticized to be. However, learning from my awesome mentors, Michelle and Tulay, makes everything worth it! Although I’ve mostly been handling experiment prep, I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirtier in the next few weeks!
9:00am (Mon & Fri) / 10:00am (Tues-Thurs)
- Arrive at lab.
- Say good morning to everyone. Receive a friendly round of nods/verbal greetings back.
- Check in with my mentor Jacob. Exchange our plans for the day, and confirm any meetings we might have.
(Whenever I arrive) – 12:30pm
- Plop my stuff down at my lab table quadrant. Pull out the beautiful, sci-fi looking, high-speed processing laptop that Dr. Patek lent to me.
- Spend most of my time on said laptop working in 3Ds Max to create 3D spine model prototypes. Rotate between sketching designs in my notebook, scrutinizing actual stingray spine samples, modeling spines in 3Ds Max, crash-coursing 3Ds Max tutorials/troubleshooting, and recording my modeling procedure in my notebook.*
- (*This routine will change soon, once prototyping is finished and we move on to ballistics-gel making and puncture tests)
- Get lunch. If I have a finished spine prototype by this time, send to the lab’s Makerbot to 3D print. (Depending on the load, printing can range from 30 minutes to a few hours.)
- On all days except Thursday: lunchtime varies between going out together with other interns, and grabbing a quick bite from Au Bon Pain before returning to tackle some modeling problem I just can’t let go of.
- On Thursdays: eat lunch during weekly meeting with the entire lab. Be the audience (along with everyone else) for various lab members’ presentation practice. Learn cool things about their projects. Give feedback. Low-key worry about what will happen when it’s my turn to go up front. Watch fellow lab members be genuinely engaged and give meaningful advice to the presenting group. Realize that no matter what, I will be in good hands.
- If spine has printed, look at result and ask Jacob for feedback. Discuss potential improvements with the aid of a whiteboard. Begin designing next prototype.
- Potentially, repeat itinerary from “(Whenever I arrive) – 12:30pm”
- If a break from modeling is needed: read literature on spines and their cutting/puncturing mechanics.
- If a meeting with Jacob is in order: convene at the lab’s whiteboard. Usually, meetings are called because Jacob is a great person and is happy to review things like my previous blog post and chalk talk. Potentially go off tangent and just start talking with him about cool spiny animals or his other ongoing research.
- If this is the time when I finish a prototype spine(s), set to print overnight.
- Leave lab. Say goodbye to anyone who remains. If I am the last one, double-check that the door is locked.
- Return to dorm. Chill out and look forward to tomorrow. 🙂
Hudson Hall is usually chilly when I walk in. I take the steps all the way to the back, the path once a maze but now familiar, up the stairs, and into the Annex. I check in with my graduate mentor, Chris, and ask for updates and any tasks to accomplish for the day. I check LS-DYNA and Pre-Post, hoping for the words that signal that the SIMon model I altered has successfully completed: Normal Termination. I check my lab book and Excel spreadsheet for what I’ve already tested and look through the resulting animation, clicking through tabs for any sign of possible changes I can make. Analyze the strain on the finished model, check for global rotational velocity, alter kinematic curves, and re-run the program.
Recently, pace has picked up. I head down to the basement to work on impact testing for the pig brain, and ask questions about the process, trying not to feel small in a world of complex materials and knowledgeable mentors. On test day, I go in early to prep the drop track, double checking the electromagnet and the camera. We (my grad student, PI, and a couple other grad students) head over to the medical center in order to pick up pigs they have finished working with. After a dissection and removal of the skull, we attempt to make a clear skull using hardener and plaster while doing drop tests in the basement on the brain with no skull. Save the videos and call it a day!
There is a friendly aura that surrounds everybody working in lab: an impalpable feeling that introduces peace on stressful days. I am always appreciative of the smiles and genuine care the mentors in lab have toward all the students, even while pushing us toward challenges and hard work. So this is lab: tinkering and Error Terminations on a quiet day, advances in the model, lab meetings, impact testing, and Normal Terminations on a good day.