January 31st, 2020

By Shengbo Guo

Edited by Eliza Neidhart

Having graduated two months ago, I am situated at a point of transition. I cannot be counted as a student technically, yet I continue to work in the lab and interact with the world just as any other student. We students stay up late, wake up early, and have fully committed our lives to be intertwined with work. My research in protein engineering requires me to return to the lab at strange times.


What is a protein? We know proteins are found in the meat and beans that we eat. This is because they are the building blocks of animals and plants! Inside of animals and plants, they act like tiny workers in a factory, performing tasks for the larger organism. Some proteins chop our food into tiny digestible bits (proteins can chop proteins! woa!) while others do quality control to ensure our bodies produce safe and quality materials.

The protein I am working on is Phosphotriesterase, aka PTE. I think of it as a tiny machine that convertsF toxic pesticides and military grade nerve agents into nontoxic substances

Now, back to my daily life. To give you a better idea of my research I’d like to describe my research processes as if it were a recipe for finicky cookies.



  • 3 Tablespoons of yeast

  • 6 cups flour

  • 1 cup 98-degree F water


  1. First, mix yeast, flour, and water. Allow to rise for 24 hours.  *Every 3 hours additional warm water must be added.

  2. Next, knead the dough for a full 10 hours.

  3. Refrigerate overnight.

  4. Form flower shapes in the morning. *Unfortunately, this step is very very slow. The flowers tend to crack. They do not look as pretty as you’d imagined. There are no photos showing you what they should look like because this has never been done before.

  5. Finally, bake flower cookies for 2 days in a solar powered oven. *For some reason this is the only way they have a chance of remaining intact. Usually, the pastry flowers do not turn out as expected and need to be made again.

Warning: The recipe means loss of sleep on day 1, tired hands on day 2, and frustration on day 3. This recipe may need to be attempted (with adaptations) 10 times for an acceptable result. Yet, success is delicious.

While my lifestyle is exhausting due to these long and intensive recipes, I have developed techniques to live my best life.

The first way I stay happy is through interactions with good people. I work most closely with Andrew Olsen, who is not only a good labmate, but also an excellent mentor. I remember the first day I met him, the day of my interview for the Montclare lab. He found me nervous, hovering in front of the lab building. Amazingly, his affable nature was able to calm me somewhat. I still remember the interview questions he asked me as well as the simultaneous nervous churning of my stomach. Anyway, I really enjoy life here with Andrew and my other labmates.

In the lab, recording and summarizing has made my life better. When I begin each experiment, I make detailed documentation of my process; not only the simple procedure which I can get from protocol. More importantly, I leave personal notes and reminders which can only come from practical experience. Returning to the baking metaphor, no cookbook would tell you that adding  dry flour to the cookies before baking makes them crispier. However, hands on experience and notetaking would give a baker this insight. After recording, I have learned that summarizing plays an essential role in conceptually understanding research work. I am currently summarizing the lab’s entire workflow. Through this work, I have gained a fundamental understanding of our research which allows me to complete my portion of the workflow more successfully.

Regular exercise is helpful not only to my personal life, but also for my work. I play table tennis in the basement of my lab building in the evenings. It is relaxing and allows me to sleep more soundly. The following day I am energized and more efficient in the lab. Additionally, I have made friends while playing. Being from China with english as my second language, I enjoy the opportunity to continue practicing during these social times. My improved English skills have been helpful to my daily life and communication in the lab. In addition to pingpong, I play soccer on the weekends for a cardio workout.  Working out along with note taking and summarizing help me to live a reduced stress life even with the long work hours that protein engineering requires.