At STAT, I often write about the work of biomedical researchers. So, in the interests of better understanding what I write about, I thought it would be a great idea to live and work like one.
At the end of May, I was among a dozen science journalists who went to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole,
Mass., for a 10-day, hands-on immersion into scientific research. I was on the biomedical track, along with five other people. We were split into teams of three, looking at the effect of different drugs on the development of sea urchin embryos and looking at the effect of gene mutations on the development of yeast mitochondria. Understanding basic embryo development and cell biology is essential to understanding how diseases like cancer present themselves and even how drugs work.
Here are a few lessons I learned in my stint as laboratory scientist.
Lots of stuff gets used only once
Scientists can look sloppy (more on that later), but keeping an experiment from getting contaminated means that not much gets reused. The thin, rectangular glass slides upon which we had carefully set our samples for analysis came from under the microscope and went straight into the trash, along with the slides and samples that hadn’t been so carefully set.
The pipettes we used to suction water and cells from one container to another required the use of disposable, plastic tips, which we tossed out even if they had only been used for water. Contamination can occur in a surprising number of ways. Scientists know how to avoid most of them. Journalists, um … don’t.
Scientists kill things
To do our research, that meant getting sea urchins to hand over their sperm and eggs for our use. It wasn’t something we could talk them into, so, instead, we had to inject them with a shot of potassium chloride to get them to spontaneously release their white sperm or orange eggs as they died, slowly, in our hands.
A few of us hesitated with our syringes of poison before tentatively pushing the thin needles into the sea urchins’ fleshy underbellies. Then we watched their wiggly spikes slow their movement, eventually becoming still as we held the creatures over tubes and seawater-filled jars to collect their gametes.
Things kill scientists
“Don’t accidentally stab yourself with that syringe; it will stop your heart,” one of the biologists warned us.
We had to wear gloves to handle chemicals that could burn skin. Giant, brightly colored shower heads stuck out from walls or ceilings, ready to douse flames or rinse away contaminants. It turns out that lab accidents are not just supervillain back stories.
For example, one MBL biologist told us about deadly centrifuges. Normally, these machines separate liquid from solid — blood cells from plasma, for example — by spinning at a high rate of speed on a rotor. But the old ones had a habit of detaching from their bases and flying about the lab, hitting bystanders. Even newer models can explode, or hit lab workers with flying metal and glass, or aerosolize deadly bacteria, viruses, or other nastiness.
Findings don’t always mean answers
In one experiment, the teams had to look at samples of yeast cells with different mutations. We had to note what the cells looked like, and we had to count the dead or dying cells. Then, we had to pick different mutants to study further, based on which was the most dead or most damaged. Even though both teams were looking at the same mutations, we each picked different ones to study further.
This was a surprise because we had assumed that we would have the same findings, that the mutations would affect the cells the same way and we would see those effects in the same way. That inconsistency gave us pause. But, our instructors assured us that this happens every day in scientific research. Biology is not concrete — scientists do experiments over and over again to test the same ideas. You tweak your protocol, adjust your hypothesis, get another cup of coffee, and try, try again.
Fashion is an afterthought
After breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we were in the lab. Workdays ran from roughly 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. But as the time wore on, makeup and coordinated clothing fell by the wayside.
Those who had been wearing contact lenses were bespectacled after the second day. Sneakers were the easiest way to obey that “feet must be fully covered in the lab” rule. And hair? My longer-tressed colleagues sported hasty buns, ponytails, or stringy, post-shower clumps, while I corralled my afro into whatever scarf or headband I could find. Shadows grew on the guys’ faces while their heads got shaggier by the day.
The sea urchins and yeast cells we were studying didn’t care what we looked like, so we didn’t either.