Blog Posts

Materials I Consume in a Single Bioengineering Experiment

By Yifei Wang

When my mom last visited me from China she saw my daily tasks in the Montclare lab. Upon returning home, she confided that she now understood why clinical treatments are so expensive. She saw the high cost of bioengineering research, including both physical materials and dollars. Inspired by the discussion with my mother, I decided to count the number of single use items consumed in a cycle of sample protein production to quantify some of the costs of research.

Sample Protein Production Overview

The production of sample protein begins by inserting the target protein’s DNA into E.coli. cells. The E.coli. containing the protein’s DNA are grown to produce the desired protein, almost like a protein factory. Our lab uses these proteins as a drug delivery material.

Sample Protein Production 

We first make a dish to grow and select cells. E.coli. take 14-16 hours to grow on the plates. This step requires the following single-use items: 3 plastic dishes, 3 glass pipettes, 2 small Eppendorf tubes, and 6 micropipette tips.

 

Then we select a small portion one cell colony and place it into a test tube with media for growing cells. We let it grow overnight. We need 1 glass test tube, 10 micropipet tips, and 3 serological pipettes for this step.

The next day we grow the cells in a larger flask for a greater yield. We centrifuge them into a pellet and dump the liquid media. In this step approximately 8 Eppendorf tubes, 6 micropipette tips, and 6 serological pipettes are used for each of the 6 pellets.

Next, we smash the cells with ultrasound to harvest the protein. Finally, we purify the harvested protein. For purification, we need about 20 Falcon tubes, 2 serological pipettes, 18 micropipette tips, and 14 Eppendorf tubes.

In total, for the product of a single sample protein, we consume 64 Eppendorf tubes, 70 micropipette tips, 3 glass pipettes, 3 plastic plates, 1 glass test tube, 41 serological pipettes, and 20 falcon tubes. Additionally, each experiment consumes buffers, chemicals, and time.

With each step we utilize new single use items such as pipette tips and tubes. While this may seem wasteful, it is the best way we have contrived to minimize contamination. When a sample is contaminated, we are unable to produce the protein we need. Therefore, the experiment must be run again. This wastes even more resources!

 

We’d love to hear from you with suggestions for materials and time efficiency in research. Please feel free to contact me via twitter!

Yifei Wang

@Laplata1021

 

The Stars In My Television

By Joseph Thomas

 

As the static of the TV crackled, I heard my mom call from the kitchen. She couldn’t understand why I would just sit on the floor and stare into the screen set to a channel with no video signal. As the specks of gray and black flashed in front of me I couldn’t help but imagine I was the captain of a rocket flying through the stars at warp speed. Endless worlds passed by me in an instant and I had a sense that my purpose in life was to explore and catalog these unknowable realms. I knew that space travel was still in its infancy, but I was only five years old at the time and there was still plenty of time for technology to catch up to my ambitions. I knew that we would most likely have spaceships by the time I was 18 and that I would grow up to be a space captain. This is the first time in my life I distinctly remember yearning to explore the universe and find out what made it tick; my first scientific memory.

 

Mysid, TV noise, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons.

 

As I grew older I explored other career options such as being a Major League Baseball pitcher, railroad engineer, and garbage man but I always seemed to come back to being some kind of explorer. As the idea of college loomed I was disheartened that Space Captain was still not a viable career, but there was still plenty of exploration to do on the earth as a biological scientist. As a society we have learned an enormous amount about life and how it functions, but we are only just scratching the surface. What could be more exciting than devoting one’s life to work on the fundamental understanding of how life works, and even better to use that knowledge to improve the quality of life of those around you? One day, these technologies will help our species reach the stars and in a small way my work may have contributed. There is still hope for my stellar career ambitions.

 

Most scientists share a similar story of how they got into the field, but we often fail to talk about our own failures and shortcomings. In high school I struggled with my classes and even came close to failing biology. In college I struggled with mental health and financial hardship and came very close to leaving science all together. Some days experiments may fail, and you will go home never wanting to think about science again. I thought that maybe science wasn’t for me since it was so difficult and appeared to come so easily to others. The turning point came after having some earnest discussions with colleagues and advisors only to find out that they shared the exact same struggles in their careers. These were successful PhD students and even tenured professors, yet they still had doubt in their own abilities. That is when it all clicked. Scientists are human beings. Such a simple concept but a very powerful one. I gave myself permission to fail, as long as I was willing to get back up and try again. The public often views science as a field only open to perfect geniuses, which discourages many people from following their curiosities. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that struggles are normal, and they do not mean you are a failure. Good scientists aren’t necessarily the brightest or most technically skilled people, but they are the people willing to push forward when the going gets tough.

 

If you are reading this and feel like the odds are stacked against you, I ask you to please just hold onto that curiosity that made you wonder if science was a good fit for you in the first place. Science wants you, and now more than ever it needs people from varying backgrounds. New fields are emerging everyday that are requiring people to challenge central dogma and examine things from fresh perspectives. Science may need brilliant, technical people but even more than that it needs curious explorers who are willing to press on and look for the stars in the TV static.

 

Joe Thomas

@jthoma91

My Early Connection to Science

By: Yao Wang

My connection to science starts early. By early, I mean really early. My mom always tells me the story about my one-year-old catch, which is an ancient Chinese tradition for determining the child’s talent at his/her first birthday. In China, we believe everybody is gifted in something and this magical divination is the methodology to tell.

During my catch, a line of toys representing a different occupation or future was presented to me.  My mom said, I crawled straight to the pink toy that represented science, ignoring all the money and gold on the floor. Not sure it was the pink part or toy part that got me. But all my family were very happy with my instinct choice, especially my grandparents who were both scientists. Ever since then, I grew up with my grandparents’ science stories, which fascinated me and nucleated a science dream in a little girl’s mind. However, science was still far-reaching for me until in high school, when I conducted my first experiment on observation of my own epithelial cells. For the first time, the science was more than a story or an image on the book. I clearly remember how simple the experiment was but how much joy I had. After that, I experienced my first physics and then chemistry experiment. I had a lot of fun from testing Newton’s Law to observing the color reaction. However, the scene of vivid epithelial cell under the microscope stuck in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the moment that I knew I was determined.

Following my heart, I completed my B.S. study, focusing on Polymer Science, and my M.S. study, focusing on Biomaterials. The knowledge I learn from school is priceless as it  introduced me to science, where the greatest scientists are. The possibility of becoming one of them drives me to march forward. Soon, I was fortunate to join the protein engineering and molecular design lab and became a Ph.D. candidate. As a research assistant, I work on hydrogels that can “sense and respond” derived from proteins for biomedical applications.

A hydrogel is a gel much like Jello, which is comprised of chains of molecules that can absorb water. Many applications of hydrogels related to daily life includes cosmetic hydrogel masks, consumable jellys, contact lenses and diapers. Over the past few years, applications of hydrogels for  biomedicine surged. For example, hydrogels have been used as tissue scaffolds and wound healing patches. Due to the fact that these hydrogels are directly in contact with cells and tissues, it will be better if the material made of the hydrogel is safe. Therefore, my research is important as we are trying to create hydrogels made of proteins.

The life of a scientist isn’t saturated with happiness and success, but also comes with tears and failure. There have been a time when I was crushed, overwhelmed, and helpless. However, the little girl inside me never gives up and tries no matter how hard it is. After millions of failures, I finally succeeded to fabricate my first protein hydrogel. Looking at the white booger-like sticky thing, I experience the same feeling as when I was the little girl spotting her first epithelial cell. The moment of ultimate happiness makes all the tears and efforts pay off. More challenges may lead to more failures, but with more trying bears more success.

My research journey has been fascinating so far and surely more adventurous tasks and challenging moments will follow. I have no idea how many more challenges I need to conquer. But I am sure no matter how, the little girl inside me has the courage to carry on, although she really didn’t know what she grabbed in the first place.

Yao Wang

@YaoWang1009

Stepping Out Of My Comfort Zone and Into STEM

By Jay Kang

I think one of the major obstacles I face while pursuing an education in STEM is self-doubt, especially as an undergraduate working in the Montclare Lab and surrounded by many impressive colleagues. The people I work with have either achieved a PhD or plan to pursue a PhD in the future, and seeing them work hard in the lab is very inspiring, but also very daunting because it makes me think about what I will do after I graduate.

As a BS/MS student, I never considered pursuing a PhD, and instead just figured I would try to achieve a masters in biotechnology. Yet, what will I do after that? This thought haunts me every day because even though I think there is something greater I can do, I immediately shut that idea down and deem it irrational. Consequently, I feel stagnant. I can choose to follow one path, but then I ask myself, “Is this the right choice?”. This anxiety coupled with self-doubt just makes it harder for me to think there is something I can do.

[Above: Jay Kang mixing a protein sample in the concentration filter tube]

I do not want to be afraid of working hard in STEM anymore. I do not have any particular role models that inspired me to enter the STEM field, but I am inspired by few of my undergraduate colleagues, particularly the zealous ones, to be passionate about what I am studying today. When I asked a colleague why she would take several hard courses while participating in an extracurricular research team, she simply replied “because I enjoy the subject and the work”. I would have been scared to be in her position because it just seemed impossible. This precautionary attitude is also reflected when I hear about an interesting course, but when I refer to colleagues who warn me that the course is incredibly difficult and the professor is terrible, I do not consider taking the class and hold myself back once again.

I remember getting rejected when I first applied to Montclare lab. I tried to rationalize it to myself that I was still too young and inexperienced as a sophomore, but I was still very much disappointed in myself. The following year, I applied again for Summer of 2019 and I tried to mentally prepare myself to being rejected so it would hurt less, while hoping to be accepted. Within a  week, I was informed that I was accepted into working in the lab for the summer. I was both excited, and nervous

I am tired of having this mindset of self-doubt that always stops me from taking chances, but I cannot help it. What if things do not go as I hoped? What if I will regret taking this course? What if I am not capable enough to handle the work in the lab? What if I am not good enough to even think of pursuing a PhD?  If not, then what else can I do?! Although I do not want to exude arrogance, I do want to be more confident in myself. I always tried to take the safe or easy route, but I know I am just setting myself to be only stagnant in life. If I was good enough to be accepted by this lab, then perhaps I should have more faith in myself.

I do not want to always give up on myself anymore.  I want to become more passionate about working in STEM and not be afraid to work hard in it. Earning a PhD is not impossible, but it is definitely not a walk in the park. That is why I hope to think of an idea I am passionate about, and further my research on it. In fact, the work I currently enjoy doing in the Montclare Lab is utilizing M15 E. coli cells to create our self-engineered protein. The sequential work put into transforming, plating, and growing these cells feels much similar to gardening. For instance, after we transform our cells and plate them onto Tryptic Soy Agar plates to incubate overnight, I get excited to come in the next day to see proper cell growth. Considerable effort and time goes into growing these cells and purifying the protein, but it is worth it when we finally collect our protein and get to test its small molecule binding ability because our research focuses on creating a protein that can function as an efficient drug-delivery tool.

I have never imagined myself formally doing research that seeks to only advance science.  The reason is that I am more passionate about research that can have a positive impact on human health, environment, etc.  When I applied to the summer research program, I was not interested in most of the projects, except those of the Montclare Lab.  Reading the title “Self-Assembling Protein Biomaterials for Ocular Drug Delivery” excited me because I only read about proteins in the human body, but I never imagined actually manipulating them for an intended purpose! This research is the reason I was interested in applying to this lab because using biomacromolecules, rather than machines as an alternative form of medical treatment, was mind blowing to me. Through this opportunity, I wanted to take that first step into undergraduate research and just actually see what I am capable of doing, instead of always doubting myself. Rather than holding myself back from self-doubt, I believe it is more pragmatic to just build yourself up from the beginning.

- Let’s connect on Twitter @hjaykang

 

Two Parts Entwined

By Shanya Sam

STEM is rigorous. It forces me to use all parts of my brain, and I would eventually overload if it wasn’t for sports. I play basketball and soccer throughout the school year to de-stress. It’s an outlet for me that ensures my mental and physical health does not deteriorate. It provides me with a balanced mind and body because while STEM stimulates my mind, sports keep me active. The competitions and games have taught me to be more mindful by focusing on the immediate challenge rather than always stressing over the future and how to solve its problems.

The first ball I picked up was a basketball. I learned to play basketball in the third grade when my family and I moved to Tennessee. We were alone in a foreign place, so it was a way to connect with my older brother. Even today, it is something we bond over as we go to each other’s games and support one another. It slowly evolved into a necessity for me over the years.

Prior to moving, I was an antsy kid with an explosive temper. Basketball was my first outlet for all of the emotions coursing through me. It grounded me, helped me focus, and helped me learn discipline. These attributes I still carry throughout school life, and without them, I highly doubt I would be where I am today academically.

In my last year of junior high school, the girls basketball team was cut due to the lack of interested girls. I didn’t touch a basketball that entire year but instead signed up for every event and afterschool club to fill that void. I was buried under books, homework, and various commitments that I couldn’t juggle. There were days that I overbooked and had at least three events that I had to attend, some of which I did not even enjoy that much. I was lost and could not find my purpose, so I started from scratch and participated in everything to find it. In the process, I found STEM clubs that gave me reason to want to come to school again.

Freshman year, I rejoined the basketball team and learned to play soccer, and I grew to love it just as much as basketball. I play forward, so it’s me, a ball, and an open field. The large expanse of vibrant green turf constantly calls out to me, and there is no room to second guess or question once the ball is in front of me. The wind slaps against my face as I run wild, at full speed, until the ball reaches its final destination, at the back of the net. That feeling of exhilaration rushes through me, knowing points don’t come as easy in soccer as it does in basketball.

Although a fleeting victory, it reminds me that there are other aspects of life, so it would be unhealthy to solely stimulate just my mind or just my body. They are a unit that must work cohesively. As a perfectionist, I tend to throw myself into my commitments, and through experience I realized the danger in exclusively committing to one thing. It will have the ability to overpower me and make me hollow. I share myself between science and sports because STEM gives me purpose and long term goals to desire and achieve while basketball and soccer are sources of comfort from stress. To me, the mind is to the body as STEM is to sports, together they complete me.

-Shanya Sam, ARISE High School Student