Thursday, January 16, 2014

One Year in a Research Laboratory: Reflections & Realities Realised

I remember very well the first time that I seriously considered the question that all kids are asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead of answering, the task was to draw a picture of the occupation, which I did. This was during my fourth year of primary school, just short of 15 years ago. And what did I draw? A scientist.

This answer did not just come out of the blue, but was actually inspired. As a child, my mother had cassette tapes on which were recorded narrations of some children’s books in which there were a short series of stories about inventors, discovers and pioneers of the past who changed the world. Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin and their stories were just a few of those I became familiar with, but there was one particular story that I liked best, and the one which interested me the most (as much interest as a 10 year old can have in these things) and that was the story of Alexander Fleming and the discovery of Penicillin. Interest in medical research was sparked within me from that time on, and it was something that was always at the back of my mind as I navigated through high school. In the laboratory for school science subjects, however, doubt crept into my mind as I was not very good with experiments. This continued on until my undergraduate years, until I realised, I was not a natural at anything, but after practise and experience, I was as competent as anyone else. The big decision came in my third year, when I made the choice for the direction I would go in the future – I decided to pursue a research degree instead of medicine or dentistry. For the year in which I was studying for an honours degree, I undertook a research project in a Molecular Virology Laboratory, with the specific pathogen of interest being HIV. The story from here onwards is a brief account of my experience in research.

Before commencing the year, speaking to advisors, current and former honours students and other members of the laboratory, there seemed to be one thing in common that they would mention – the honours year is the toughest year of your academic life. I was apprehensive about the coming year, afraid that I would not be cut out for work in a laboratory which would leave me in a state of complete uncertainty about what I should do in the future. Now, a year later, that apprehensiveness still has not dissipated, but the past year of experience has allowed me to better prepare myself for the new challenges ahead.

The year started off slowly; initially, I was at the mercy of my supervisors. When they had time, they would seek me out, and take me to the bench to demonstrate the techniques and use of equipment that I was required to learn. This was daunting, having to quickly pick up the skills and show them after a short time if you were able to repeat the protocols that they had shown you. In between laboratory work, I would sit at my desk, reading Journal Articles, desperately trying to make sense of what my project entailed. It is common in research for projects to change over time, hence the full nature of my project did not take shape until later in the year. I know in the minds of my supervisors, there are many experiments and questions all fighting for attention and contemplation, that often they just give a starting point, and allow research to set its own path.

In between laboratory work, reading as well as coursework, my project slowly progressed. I gradually began to learn new techniques, began to become more familiar with the processes: the setting up of tubes and addition of enzymes and other reagents, the programming of machines, the incubation times, the waiting, the mental arithmetic. More and more pages of my lab book were filled – protocols, plate layouts, calculations, graphs, failures and successes, every detail noted. My part-time supervisor was a young man, who loved to share his knowledge and opinions, and through him, I was able to understand a different perspective of the laboratory. Thanks to him, a lot of my time at the bench was animated and colourful, even treading into the realm of zombies.

Soon, when the middle of the year arrived, the deadlines were looming. Gone were the days where I would do absolutely nothing when I arrived home after a day at the university. The tasks that I had been postponing now threatened to swallow me, and I had to force myself to make sense of my project, which I did, helping me to finally understand what my project was about, four months after I had started the experiments for it. Once the mid-year deadlines passed, I started to work more independently in the laboratory, having repeated many of those experiments again and again, trying to obtain successful outcomes. Occasionally, I would be supervised, and shown new techniques. I had to multi-task each day, conducting several experiments at once, as well as trying to read as many Journal Articles as possible while at the same time starting to write various sections of my thesis. Weekends in the laboratory became a normal part of the week, as October, the time my thesis was due, seemed to be approaching faster and faster. As expected, by the time the day when we were expected to finish laboratory work arrived, I was barely done. The frantic days of trying to complete all my experiments and fitting in as much as possible into one day were not over, but of course, I had to stop eventually. I was not satisfied with my progress in the project, knowing that I had had the chance to accomplish so much more. Later, when I completed my thesis, I took a moment to look through it all and felt a sense of accomplishment, quite astounded that I had personally completed so much work and was able to work independently in what was once an extremely foreign environment.

The year was an eye-opening experience for me, both challenging and enjoyable. As is anything in life, there were the usual ups and downs, the times of elation and frustration, the successes and failures, but at the end of it all, I look back at the year with a smile. Medical research is a unique world, with its own rhythm and temperature. It’s the flow of knowledge from the experienced to the naïve, a game of discovery and development, a satisfying yet equally frustrating journey of exploration. I know that, regardless of what other people have to say about the medical research occupation, I will be happy working in a laboratory as a scientist, because above all else, I care most about being able to do what I love and love what I do.

40 Lessons from the Lab:

1.  Projects always start out with extreme optimism, but rarely do you accomplish everything you set out to complete.
2. Outside the lab (family and friends), no one understands what you’re doing, you can get very excited about something you discovered or accomplished, but they just won’t understand
3. Schedule your most-likely-to-succeed experiments on Fridays as it’s always good to end the week on a high
4. If you’ve had a run of good luck during a week, you’ve probably used up your quota for the month
5.  Everything in a laboratory costs A LOT, e.g. compare Milk = AUD$1 per litre to Enzyme involved in light-producing reaction = AUD$18000 per litre (EBay anyone?)
6.  Be very careful when you purchase anything, online or from e-freezers (see #5.)
7. When you need to use a certain piece of equipment, and others have been using it the whole time or you have a deadline to meet, it dies on you
8. Machines rule your life, make sure you always book in advance and be prepared to fight over it with other people or find someone who is doing the same thing you are
9. You consider every variable, and change every variable until you are sure you have tried everything and the experiment still does not work even though it should
10. Experiments usually take more time than you expect, especially if there’s a fire drill or lab meeting that you’re hoping to finish your work before
11. If you require an activity to pass time that is useful to the laboratory and does not require brain function– pack tips
12. You’re forever transferring clear liquids into clear liquids
13. If you’re in a bad mood, you can play with the snow in the -80°C freezer
14. You never knew your heart was so fragile – when you find your cells dead, it always breaks your heart
15. It’s all a waiting game – waiting for tubes to thaw, waiting for the centrifuge to stop, waiting for liquid to drip through the column, waiting for DNA to run through the gel, waiting for the enzyme reaction to take place…………..
16. Trying to decipher writing on a tube, smudged and made indistinct by ice is frustrating, guessing its contents is not advised
17. Your lab book is a record of your failures
18. Your research may never lead anywhere which is the harsh reality
19.  Cell culture is all about inhaling a lot of ethanol (alcohol)
20. Don’t expect the schedule of experiments you’ve drawn up for the near future to remain unchanged, you’ll forever be pushing back experiments
21.  You will never be able to work in a laboratory which is fully equipped with every piece of equipment you need, get used to sharing
22. Everything always looks so much easier when your supervisor is demonstrating
23. A lot of the reagents in the laboratory are expired, but can still be used
24. Procrastinate by making pictures on Word/PowerPoint instead of reading Journal Articles
25.  Lab meetings and seminars make you feel stupid – there is so much that you don’t know 
26. Your results look significant, but the error bars (sigh, statistics) always say otherwise or there is always one set of data that screws up your graph
27. DNA is cool, RNA is a b**** to work with
28. You find some use for your left (or non-dominant) hand
29. Labelling tubes is a nuisance, but can save you a huge amount of time
30. One small mistake can set you back days of work
31.  Watching the timer or the centrifuge doesn't make time go by faster
32. When you have multiple samples to increase the chance of getting the product you want, you’ll either get 1 hit (out of like 20), 14+ hits (out of like 20) or none.
33. If you do an experiment to check that it works, and you don't continue on with the products because not enough is made, when you repeat it again (multiple times) in the exact same way, it doesn’t work
34. You can’t trust that the equipment/reagents of others is free of contamination, so use/obtain your own
35. Some people handle tubes with no gloves on, other people wash their hands 30 times a day in the laboratory.
36. The feeling when you’ve thrown away a tube or the contents of a tube which you need instead of the waste tube/tube contents is not great at all
37. Your heart rate speeds up when you start a centrifuge – it makes weird noises (which are either normal or because it’s old) and because in undergrad, all you’re shown are pictures of exploded centrifuges
38. You always have to compromise – time versus completeness/accuracy/validity of experiments/results
39. The amount of electricity used by all the machines left on/working overnight – don’t even think about it; the hum of the machines that are always on (especially freezers) is the soundtrack that accompanies you, and how eerie the silence would be if they suddenly stopped
40. A laboratory is not a very environmentally friendly place, so many things only used once – gloves, pipette tips, glass pipettes, eppendorf tubes, falcon tubes etc. – this would drive my mother nuts

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