Research: Failures and not Measuring Up to Fellow Lab Members

For the first time in a long time, I feel like something is working out, that there is a small flicker in the light at the end of the tunnel. As with many people, we all have our own struggles and find ways to combat them. One of the struggles I have is feeling like I am making the right choices with my future and that I belong where I am at in my schooling and with research and just in general.

These past few days, as I have been spending more time in my research lab as well as reading up on various news going on around campus, I kept coming across a similar theme: these people that I am surrounded by, especially fellow undergraduate students, are so much better than me and are so much more capable than I am. This thought had been running through my head over and over — on replay — and kept me down. It didn’t help that my bacteria didn’t grow the other day or that I forgot the procedure to make an agarose gel or that the project that I am helping my mentor work on wasn’t going as planned.

Regardless, despite all these negatives, I felt like I saw a small flickering light at the end of the tunnel for me. I came to realize (even if I don’t believe it yet) that it is okay for me to not know what is going on with the research, that it is okay for me to not have all these accomplishments and accolades that my peers have because I just got involved a couple months ago. I am new to the world of research. I need to start thinking like a scientist soon. I know there isn’t ever an excuse for failing or for not being good enough or not measuring up to other people you are surrounded by but these are just my jumble of thoughts.

This isn’t my best writing by far, but I needed to really just leave it all out there and see what others have to say on this topic.

Lastly, I want to leave you all with this thought:

Isn’t it strange, however, that we are told to look for clarity in our experiences and various aspects of our lives, that we must seek understanding and clarification yet in the research that I am doing, we start with clear LB broth and overnight, it becomes clouded with unknown matter? And instead of starting from a cloudy, occluded mixture and go towards a clear solution, we start with clarity, proceed into the uncertain, and emerge, after many flickering lights, at the end of the tunnel, victorious in our search for whatever it may happen to be.

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A Calm Amidst the Storm

Strange, right? It is something that I have been thinking about lately. What is the one thing that keeps you grounded and focused when the rest of your world is falling apart and spinning to pieces?

For me, that is lab. It is this experience. I went into my undergraduate time thinking that I will never set foot in a wet lab because that is something that I cannot see myself doing ever. Being cooped up inside a research laboratory, sitting in front of an illuminated computer screen late into the night analyzing data, was something that I told myself — promised myself and others around me — that I would never in my life. Thus, I started seeking out clinical experience and dry labs to participate in. I found a clinical lab to volunteer in my first year or so at UCLA but then, when things got rough in my personal life as well as with the transfer process, academics, and my job, I decided I needed a break from the volunteering and to reevaluate all that I want out of my life.

It really came when I received my rejection letter from applying to be a Resident Assistant for my junior year. All my goals and aspirations from before this moment seemed so solidified; I was motivated and ready to tackle it all head-on. But then that one email changed everything for me. Drastic? Not really. From the time I received that email, I have been reevaluating things since. I have decided to venture down a road I promised myself I would never go down: to pursue medicine and go into molecular biology research.

That all said, I am so glad I decided to go down this path. In spite of everything that is happening in my personal life right now, the time I spend in lab is what keeps me calm. It is the place I want to go and am willing to go to after a long night, a long day in class, or just the typical day. Regardless of what it is I am doing for other aspects of my life, I am willing to drop everything and head into lab to make some acrylamide gels or grow bacteria or re-suspend pellets.

Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime, I like to think. Things fell into place in order for me to receive this offer and opportunity to work in the lab more full-time for the remainder of my undergraduate career. Sometimes I feel like the toys which toddlers play with, where there are various shapes and they need to be placed through the corresponding holes. It is as if there are thousands of shapes waiting to fall into place, and the one that has fallen into place is lab.

Even though there may be 999 more shapes that slowly need to fall into place, I am not worried. Why? Because though things may be a bit stormy right now in my life, I have lab, this calm amidst the storm. I am able to focus and clear my mind for just a few hours a day when I put on my hat as a research assistant for the Northwestern University Department of Molecular Biosciences.

A Level of Comfort

With experience, in any field of work or study, comes comfort. I have been a part of this labe for just over 4 weeks now. When I started, I got to pipet samples over and over again into eppendorf tubes. I followed protocols with the postdoc I am shadowing for the quarter watching me like a hawk, ensuring I did everything properly. At the beginning, she even did all the calculations and conversions for me.

Now, though I still follow protocols (since if I didn’t I might be in some big trouble!), I have a lot more freedom. I am left to complete experiments that I start. My postdoc doesn’t need to be around in order for me to complete something. For example, like yesterday. I came by between class and work to load my samples into an agarose gel to run. After the gel ran for 20 minutes or so, I came back to lab from work in order to visualize it and check to see if we got a positive result the second time around. This entire time, from when I loaded the gels to after I finished visualizing them, my postdoc was not in the lab. She was doing her own things and I was left to just complete the experiment. I have to admit, at the beginning, I was a bit hesitant. I felt like fish out of water, but after a split second of this feeling, I didn’t let it overcome me. I started to just go about the experiment like I would have if she were here.

And today, just before she left for her lunch break, she checked in with me to make sure that I was comfortable with the protocol I needed to follow in order to extract the plasmids from the cells. I told her I was okay, that I will be able to do it on my own. And indeed I am okay. Because I got sample at the end of following the protocol.

The samples will be sent out for sequencing Monday. The My bacteria grew nicely and now have found a new home in 4 degree Celsius.

“Lab Rat”

This thought occurred to me as I left lab for class today. What is a lab rat?

My first experience in a lab, I didn’t know what to expect. I sort of jumped into this after looking for over two years for a lab where I could perform meaningful research and take something away from the experience. Yet coming across this experience I cannot be more grateful.

Today, however, for a second, I felt like I was doing scut work. I felt frustrated that just yesterday, I set up a PCR experiment with 6 reactions. Today, I did the same thing again, except with 14 reactions. It felt pointless. But then I snapped out of it. I began to think of how this was actually, in part, my idea to re-run the PCR since we got negative results yesterday. I began to see how I was actually taking on this myself, even though I am, in actuality, doing a very small part of the larger experiment, my role is still important. If there is no DNA to work with, then the protein-DNA interactions cannot be studied and the rest of the work is futile.

It isn’t for nothing. I really love what I am doing, even if it entails making agarose gels each day and pippetting tiny increments of sample into eppendorf tubes. Results will slowly fall into place.

Running an Agarose Gel

All by myself. It seems trivial but in all honesty, to be able to set up the entire experiment, from preparing the samples for PCR to making a 2% agarose gel (even though I forgot the ethidium bromide and had to be reminded!) to preparing the samples, loading the gel, running then finally visualizing the results is extremely satisfying.

Just a couple weeks ago, the postdoc that I am working with had to guide me through each step of the process. Just now, once the PCR was done, she told me to stop it and just let me go. She didn’t even need to check in on me or ask me to verify the steps. All she asked was “Do you remember the ratios?” and then I was on my own. I even had to make more buffer to run the gel in but instead of asking her if it is okay to do it (like I would a couple weeks ago), I went ahead, looked at my lab notebook, and made it myself.

Trivial. I know. But still, satisfying. I love seeing the sample with the loading dye settle into the well. I love seeing colonies grow on LB agar with some antibiotic. I love visualizing the gel under the UV light. All of this. I love it. I can’t be more thankful.