Blog Posts

What I’ve Learned to Live My Best Life as a Maker in the Lab

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.

EXPERIMENTAL FLOWER COOKIES

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tablespoons of yeast

  • 6 cups flour

  • 1 cup 98-degree F water

Directions:

  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.

 

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