I’m a senior and a neuroscience major. I work in a lab. I wear those blue nitrile gloves, and (sometimes) lab goggles. You may have seen me in Druckenmiller at odd hours, reading what looks to be a scientific journal article, carrying a box of crickets, or maybe with a tupperware in hand as I slip into a conspiratorial black-felted revolving entrance leading to a room where students develop film. Or maybe you don’t see me, because you prefer to avoid Druck altogether. Or maybe you’re studying in that atrium while I’m holed up in the lab. Or, for all I know, you’re hunkered down in your own lab on another floor, wearing your own blue gloves and lab goggles and sporting a white lab coat with close-toed shoes.
“Ok cool, yay science,” I hear my roommate say, echoing the indifference of most humanities majors at the College. “But what do you actually do?”
I pause, unsure how to begin. Yes, I freely admit to my roommate that I take circuitous paths through Druck to run into admissions tours so that I can look important decked out in my lab attire and accessories. And I don’t hesitate because my roommate’s a history major and therefore unable to grasp the concepts. I don’t buy it. I pause because the many layers of my lab work make it so hard to know where to start explaining.
The big picture: Spinal cord injuries affect a huge number of people worldwide. The cricket has an ability to regrow neurons in a way that we, and most other animals, do not. If we can figure out what genes in the cricket allow for this very cool regeneration, we might be able to develop strategies for treating human spinal cord injury.
But day to day, what I actually do in the lab feels far-removed from this larger goal. Here’s a run down of a typical session: I dissect four crickets. For each, I remove the prothoracic ganglion—a bundle of nerves that connect to the cricket’s brain—which looks like a tiny booger fleck in my collection tube.
Keeping everything contained in inch-long tubes, I mash these boogers, I ice them, I add yellow and clear liquid (Beware! This solution is toxic!) I spin the tubes at high speed in a machine the size of a shoebox. By now, I recognize no evidence of the tissue I started with. In the tubes there’s just yellow liquid on bottom, clear liquid on top, separated like oil and water.
Some days, at this point in the procedure, I envision the molecules that are there in the tubes, but invisible to me. I watch as the proteins, cartoon-like, start out dissolved, but then turn solid and fall into the yellow liquid, while the RNA molecules remain dissolved in the clear liquid “upper phase.”
But on other days, I think about Moulton’s lentil soup, the house plant I just bought in the Union, the last time I got a haircut (ah the beauty of lab work, the luxury of zoning out while maintaining productivity!)
Still, my brain can’t help but switch back to Cartoon Network as my task for the day reaches its end. My heart starts to beat a little faster as I watch the cartoon RNA finally turn solid, ready to be re-dissolved in plain old water (and by plain old water I mean ultra-pure, autoclaved, DNAse and RNAse free water).
I find myself chanting, “moment of truth, moment of truth” as I test the quality of the RNA. Did I isolate enough of it? Did I contaminate it? Today, I have successfully isolated RNA from the cricket’s nervous system, and get to move on to the next stage.
Frequently, things don’t go my way. Lab work, I’ve learned, takes time. Sometimes your crickets aren’t old enough. Sometimes they’re dead. Sometimes you have to cut off their legs and wait for a day, or two, or seven before you dissect them to collect the important tissue. (For those of you unfamiliar with the anatomy of a cricket, the insect’s ear-equivalent is on its legs—remember how I said I study the cricket’s response to auditory injury?).
In lab time, if you’re on schedule, you’re way ahead of schedule. If you’re behind schedule, you can still make the bus.
So again, What do I actually do? Is it valid to say that I tackle the issue of spinal cord injury? Or that I work with crickets? I research the semaphorin gene, or I play with micropipettes and tubes, gels and solutions? No single layer can explain the project nor encapsulate the fun I have working on it.
Another way to look at it: screw the project specifics—what really gets me, what drives me to go back to lab, to think about it before bed, and when I eat breakfast in the morning, is that opportunity to flit between the layers, connecting and disconnecting the pieces as necessary. Ok yes, and those sexy blue gloves.