Sneakpeak from Within

Next week marks the beginning of my seventh of twelve finals weeks. It is my first time taking final exams here at Northwestern, and as I think about the looming exams and projects due, I can’t help but feel like a freshmen all over again, at UCLA, sitting there being terrified of the one (yes, one) final exam I had during my first fall quarter in college. It was my math 3B exam and I had all week to study for it since the test was on Thursday. I remember sitting in the lecture hall in Humanities (A29 or something?) and staring out in front of me, the exam sitting there waiting to be filled in. By the time I had gotten off the plane and walked around the Apple store at Valley Fair, my exam score had come in. I didn’t fare too badly.

Thinking of this, I am terrified of walking into my first final exam here at Northwestern next Monday at 9 AM. I shouldn’t be worried but yet I am. I have done this so many, many times already. What can be different about these next four exams next week?

Regardless of whatever this fear is, I wanted to share a bit from inside the lab. I snapped some photos using my phone when I had downtime during lab and thought some of these images were really cool. Hope you all enjoy them as much as I enjoyed performing the tests šŸ™‚

Test tube racks

Test tube rack — eluting DNA

Visualized gel

Imaged protein gel

Making protein gels

Making protein gels

Running protein gels

Running a protein gel

Plating E. Coli on LB agar plates

Sterile technique

Playing with fire

Playing with fire

Plating E. Coli

Plating E. Coli

Resuspending a pellet

Resuspending a cell pellet


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 degreeĀ Celsius.

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.

Seeing Results: A first successful experiment

I started a little over a week ago at my lab. I haven’t received my own project yet as I am shadowing a post-doc in the lab, learning the techniques that are employed when conducting actual research projects.

To start, I was asked to transvect three different plasmids into E. coli and then extract these plasmids from the bacteria, linearize the samples, and obtain the linearized DNA to save for future use.

My first attempt in transvecting these bacterial cells with the plasmids didn’t go as smoothly as planned; after regrowing the bacterial culture with the transvected cells a second time, the plasmids were successfully extracted from the cells and concentrated so that all I had in test tubes was plasmid DNA. With this circular DNA, I got to linearize them using restriction enzymes and then proceeded to perform PCR to allow the DNA to amplify. After PCR, the products were run on a gel to check and make sure that the samples indeed were linearized properly and that the bands were of the right length.

Then, when all this was done, I expected to start on a new project, to learn a new skill. But I was wrong. Yes, I learned a new skill but I was not given anything new to work on. Instead, the post-doc showed me how to, after imaging the gel, extract the DNA from the gel and proceed to obtain this linearized DNA only. Even though I used a pre-made kit in order to extract my DNA from the gel, it was fascinating to see how all this is done. I never thought that I could do anything with the gel and the DNA bands that are produced. In the past, after imaging, the gel was discarded and that was it. The DNA was never saved. But I have always wondered, how do labs get such large quantities of linearized DNA of a specific vector if the only way that a vector can be amplified is by transvecting bacteria? Well, I have my answer.

I love lab. I love learning, how hands-on the entire process is, and how everything that I have learned in my past classes are actually coming alive and are applicable. I am glad I chose the major I did. I absolutely love it. And I can’t wait to learn more as the year goes on.

[Sorry for the lack of coherency in some parts. It is a pretty stressful week with several quizzes, a midterm, and a midterm paper due for me. Hopefully, I will begin to write more after all this is over and write with moreĀ finesseĀ and eloquence. Thanks for reading!]

Starting from simple tasks.

They told me that as an undergraduate, all I would do is wash their used dishes and pipette microliters of substance a thousand times over. They told me that I would not ever do any meaningful research and that professors despised undergraduates.

Whoever told me this, I didn’t want to believe them, but I did. Rumors, they were.

I am glad that I kept an open mind going into my junior year. By doing so, I was able to meet somebody who knew a professor who was looking for an undergraduate to research in his lab and it just so happend the work the lab is doing relates to my interests.

I have been in the lab for a week. I have gone in three times now. Each day I have done something different. I have prepared bacteria to be transvected with a plasmid and grow, I have extracted plasmids from the bacteria that were grown, and I have made broth in which bacteria can grow. Each task, as simple as it may seem, has been a learning experience. I have not had to wash any dishes. I have not had to pipette micro quantities a thousand times over. What I have done is followed protocols. I have followed instructions given to me and been left alone to complete them. The post-doctoral student I am working with this quarter has helped me each step of the way, explaining why things are the way they are and then leaving me to do what i need to to. Nobody watches me like a hawk. And yet I am entrusted with the most basic yet critical tasks for running future experiments.

WIthout the work that I am doing now and the techniques I am learning, I will not be able to perform any future projects. It is critical (at least for the research the lab is doing) that bacteria can grow in large quantities and that plasmids are available in large quantities to work with and manipulate for future studies.

Everything I am doing has meaning. Everything I am learning has value. Nothing is mundane, nothing is useless.

I am building the foundations of what will eventually lead to an independent project and maybe even something more. But for now, I am taking it slowly, taking it one step at a time, and soaking it all in.


It seems something minimal, a task anybody can do, but the sheer action of pressing until the first stop to retrieve the sample and then pressing until the second stop to dispel the sample into a new container is a laboratory technique that is invaluable. In my second day going to lab (the past few days I spent at home or at Starbucks editing a 23-page paper), I got to do some hands on work.

That work? Pipetting 2450 microliters of water into small test tubes. Many test tubes. The action was repetitive, might I even say boring. But it took some level of patience and technique in order to ensure the exact amount of liquid — no less, no more, no air — was transferred from one container to the next.

There isn’t anything else that is too exciting. I am still working on editing that paper and looking forward to doing more hands-on work in the lab this coming week. But on a side note, my cousin treated me to get my nails done! And I am the last person who would ever get their nails done — my friends know me as the kid who does anything and everything to avoid being dressed up/dolled up.



Posting for the first time from the other side of the Pacific Ocean!

This summer, I am spending time back at home. However, while my peers are spending their summers wisely taking classes or participating in research programs and internships, I had the option of just sitting around the house letting the summer waste away.

Instead of that, though, I found myself an opportunity to ‘intern’ in a university research lab. I say that it is an “internship” because it isn’t anything officially documented (a program or such) rather it is the direct translation from Chinese. Regardless of what it might be called, it is a great opportunity for me to learn lab techniques that I might not ever learn in the classroom back in the States, and gives me a chance to practice my Chinese as well.

In short, it is pretty neat. I went for the first time today and aside from sitting around reading and studying, I got to see part of a lab experiment. One of the PhD students I ‘shadowed’ today was purifying some of her samples for further experimentation later this week. Though I only saw a bit of the technique (a quite mundane part, might I add), it gave me the chance to see the lab techniques we learn about in class. What’s also interesting (at least I thought it was) is that science doesn’t change, regardless of the language spoken or where the lab is. The technique is the same. The experiments are the same. And thats what draws me to science and medicine; there is a universal language embedded within.

Along with being able to work in the lab and see experiments (and help as well!), I get to assist in writing research articles. The PhD student that I was assigned to by the professor’s that I am working in (this particular student seems to be the one that runs the lab and is in charge of other students) is in the midst of writing a paper and needs it to be translated into english. She asked me to help her out so I am taking the next couple of days to work on that. It is pretty exciting to even be able to lend a hand in the translation/editing of a research article.

All in all, it was a good day in the lab. Tomorrow has been devoted to studying the MCATs at the Starbucks near my cousin’s house. Though I am giving up spending a day at the park with my cousin and her boyfriend, I know it will pay off in the long run. These few days have consisted of endless amounts of joy and shopping and spending time with family that I need time to myself, to study and sort through my thoughts. Since Starbucks is so close, I might as well take advantage of it. Besides, I wouldn’t be the true me if a trip to a coffee shop to study wasn’t involved šŸ™‚