Science waits for no one, and it certainly doesn’t sleep. And neither do the people who have to stay up all night to monitor, administer, and analyze various materials in the quest to better understand the human body.
The reasons for doing science in the dead of night are usually practical. Some studies simply are best done at night. Sleep research is an obvious example, requiring nocturnal monitoring of human subjects. And then there are the studies that require constant monitoring or frequent intervention that can’t stop simply because the sun has gone down. Availability of scarce or expensive resources might also make nighttime work necessary.
Whatever the reason, many biomedical scientists pull the graveyard shift — here are three of their stories.
Lasers and moonlight
“I’m actually just getting home from being up 24 hours supporting two different experiments,” said Stanford postdoctoral researcher Raymond Sierra, when reached on a recent morning. This summer, Sierra is looking into the structure and ultimately the dynamics of DNA photolyase, a DNA repair enzyme. “This is something plants possess, but humans do not, that protect their DNA from the harmful effects of UV radiation.” Sierra is studying this defense mechanism for possible ways to prevent skin cancer.
He conducts his experiments in a lab located under a hill, with a circular synchrotron. Using lasers, the machine helps scientists peer deeply into the structures of biological materials. It’s a powerful machine used for a huge array of studies — so Sierra has to wait and take his turn, whenever that comes.
“It can only be used once a day, on one experiment at a time,” Sierra said. “Sometimes you get a day shift time to use it, but mostly, we only get access at night.”
He spends many nights putting plant materials into the machine. The high intensity and penetrating power of synchrotron X-rays let Sierra see deep inside plant cells.
“Those nights are great,” he said. “You’re taking these really intense X-rays.”
“But other nights are just boring,” he added. “You’re just sitting there collecting the data and you’re falling asleep because there’s nothing to do.”
“We do watch people sleep,” said Nelly Papalambros, a doctoral candidate in sleep neuroscience at the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University. “And we monitor equipment to make sure it’s working properly and taking measurements. Mostly, though we measure brain activity.”
From 2013 to 2015, Papalambros spent a least one night a week taking polysomnagraphs of sleeping subjects. These readings of blood oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing, and movements allow researchers to watch subjects’ brain and body functions. For her most recent study, Papalambros and her team looked at how certain sounds can induce deeper sleep in elderly patients.
So her job was basically to be awake while everyone else snoozed.
“Overnight is rather grueling,” she said. “It’s kind of creepy and too quiet. Then after about 3 a.m., you can’t think very clearly any more. So you’re on Netflix watching things you wouldn’t otherwise, and all you want to eat is junk food.”
“The next day after a sleep study, I’ll do weird things. One time I lost my keys and my husband found them in the silverware drawer.”
She’s got another study lined up on how to induce deeper sleep in people in the early stages of dementia — but, she said, she’s looking forward to some daylight hours for a change.
“I do fewer overnights now that we have funding to hire other people to do them,” she said.
“It’s an interesting paradox to study sleep and become sleep-deprived yourself,” she added.
Dr. Nico Dosenbach’s study turned researchers, including Dosenbach himself, into subjects. Seeking to collect a massive amount of data on individual brains, Dosenbach scanned his own brain, and those of his research partner and eight others who were junior faculty or graduate students.
But because he was sharing his university’s MRI scanner with dozens of other researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, where Dosenbach is a pediatric and developmental neurology professor, he had to use the machine whenever he could catch an open time slot. That’s how he ended up on the night shift. He needed his MRI scans to consistently take place at the same time of day. Overnight, the scanner was usually available and, it turned out, more economical.
“After midnight, it’s discounted until 7 a.m.,” he said. “It went from being $600 an hour during the day to $50 or $60 an hour. We would wait right until the clock on the billing system’s computer switched to midnight, so we wouldn’t have to pay the higher rate.”
Dosenbach’s group scanned each other every night or two, eventually racking up 12 two-hour MRI sessions per person. Each night, they spent a couple of hours in the lab before heading home for the night. Unless else something came up.
“Once or twice I got embroiled in scientific discussions with one of the participants, who is also a neuroscientist, and I only got home when it was already light out again.”
From dozens of hours of MRI data, Dosenbach’s team created detailed maps of neural brain connections, revealing spatial and organizational variability in brain networks. These may one day help in the development of personalized treatments for brain-related disorders.
But he admits that there were challenges.
“People fall asleep inside the MRI,” he said. “You’re just laying there, and you have to be completely still, so I guess it gets hard to stay awake, even though it’s really noisy in there. And we’d have to wake them up, which was hard because of the noise.”