“It looks beautiful”

The first thought that came to my mind when I woke the computer from its sleep state was just one thought. It looks beautiful

I never understood why some people are attracted to research, especially when dealing with molecules such as proteins and DNA that cannot be visualized by the naked eye. It looks like a bunch of liquid, really, as you are going through the various steps of purification. Not to mention, in order to get to this ‘liquid’ phase, you need to go through growing bacteria and harvesting them and getting them — the bacteria, that is — to over express your protein.

And if it doesn’t work, you need to start from step one.

There is a lot of modification that happens in lab. Tweak the concentration of compound A. Add a little more of compound B. Let it incubate longer. Did you wake up your bacteria from the -4C freezer?

Not to mention, you never really know what the proteins are doing in this ‘liquid’ as you are working with it.

But despite all these challenges and the set backs that I have faced in lab, I am still amazed at the way various biochemistry techniques, such as SEC (size exclusion chromatography) can yield such clear, definitive results. If the protein is there, it will elute at the fraction corresponding roughly to its molecular weight. If it isn’t there, or if the protein decided it wants to aggregate and clump together, then the chromatogram will show just that.

There is such a satisfaction with seeing a pure peak, a clear, indicative peak that gives insight into what the protein in this ‘liquid’ might just be doing.

Its trivial, I know. I never understood it, from the outside looking in, reading journal publications on how researchers have this moment of “ah-hah”, how they see beauty in results. Now I get it. I have seen it from the other side. It truly is beautiful when you see the results you hope for, knowing that something you have done is right.


Back at the bench: in the dugout and in the lab

There is a strange about standing over the pH meter, watching the numbers rise — click, click, they sound. Or so I imagine. One drop too much of NaOH and there goes the beautiful click, click; it is a swoosh, an adrenaline rush.

Time to add HCl. Bring those numbers back down. But one too many drops — even half a drop — and there goes the delicate balance between hydrogen ions and hydroxide ions

There is precision to the work that I do for my independent study course. I am to spend whatever time I wish to in lab, to do my project at my own leisure. Sure, there are ‘deadlines’ I need to meet — have you purified yet? Did you run SEC? How about that protein gel? Do you have enough pellets in the -80C freezer ready to go on any given notice?

Yes. Yes. Yes. I think. No. I actually don’t have my act together. Or I didn’t. Because for the past 10 days or so, since the quarter started, I told myself that I need to focus on me, that I need to start reaching back to the old me — the one that loved to run and workout to stay sane, the girl that found joy in burying herself in her studies.

But that hasn’t worked. Back at the bench since my last class ended, following a day since my 7AM 4-hour emergency room shift, I find myself sitting at my lab desk, staying late into the night, doing one too many tasks. Run the agarose gel to see just exactly why your mutagenesis isn’t working. Incubate the EDTA with your resin in the cold room for 10 minutes before you elute. Collect your fractions from the SEC run and store them so you can run a gel on them later.

There is a list of tasks running through my head. It has been 15 hours since I was last sleeping. I tried to avoid coffee all day but half a cup down and I am going strong.

Fueled not by fear, but by passion. Back at the lab bench, it brings me back to the days when I had a seat on the bench. In the third base dugout, where despite convention of the home team getting the first base dugout, our team was, sun behind us and not in our eyes. Being back at the bench is just like being on the bench, up against the fence, cheering on the team. It is just like grabbing my battered Mizuno glove off the yellow bench, running out as I slip my sunglasses over my eyes, and looking back at the field to gather the sign and position myself, predicting where the ball will go. Because isn’t that what I am doing now? Making predictions and then running an experiment to see if what I think is reality? Because isn’t positioning yourself just slightly on the third base foul line indicating that an inside pitch is being called by the catcher and that the righty at bat will pull it down the line?

At the end of the day, I can tell myself I need this time for this and this time for that. But really, it doesn’t matter what my ”excuses” are, because this is where I feel at home. There is a feeling of serenity and calm that overcomes me as I methodically go through each step. I have my protocol memorized down to how many grams of each chemical I need. Step by step, walking a fine line.

Just like I knew the hitting signals and the fielding cues, I know my protocol. I know that an outside pitch requires me to go with it and poke it just over the first basemen’s head so I can beat the right fielder’s throw to the bag. Just like that. It is a science. Softball and research. Where I am me.

Research Grants

Only having been in involved in biological sciences research since January of this year (when I got my own project, not counting the shadowing I did during fall quarter), the grant process was something that I dove into head first. I knew that the entire process would pose many struggles — composing something that isn’t an english paper? read through scholarly articles to gather background information? understand the entire project? produce preliminary results?

It was all over my head. There were one too many drafts that I ended up going through. At one point, my project changed, and half my grant went out the window. New background information. More sources to sift through. Learning my new samples.

It is an experience that I hope to be able to go through again in the future. I know that I have a long way to go, as I am still very much an amateur in every sense. It has only been a mere three months that I have been working intensively on my own project.

That is what summer is for. Spending time on the shores of Lake Michigan, hoping to understand how two proteins interact. Unsubstantial? Maybe. But I know that it is an honor to be granted this research grant by the university and I can’t wait to dive head first into the coming summer months.