In which I revisit my inner newbie

All scientists probably remember their first day in a real lab. Not the pretend lab of a high school or university, with its staged classroom practicals and fait accompli outcomes presided over by harried teaching assistants – but a living, breathing, grown-up lab full of actual scientists and genuine experiments-in-progress. You may have aced that pop quiz on gel electrophoresis or been the best of class at identifying mitotic figures under the microscope, but in the brave new world of biomedical research, you suddenly felt completely out of your depth.

My own first research stint, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, is now mostly a blur of memories. I recall that the antiseptic soap was especially pungent – once every few years or so I encounter a similar odor, which never fails to propel me back to my eighteen-year-old self feeling nervous and awkward in that chill, six-story brick building crouched on the edge of the NIH campus. I recall a frosty male post-doc with a moustache who seemed to hate the very idea of students in the lab. Instead, he wanted to use me as a personal secretary to photocopy his massive reading list down at the library – the lab head eventually acceded to his strident demands, probably just to keep the peace, and it took me four resentful days to complete the task. I recall misdialling a pipetteman and dispensing a hundred times more reagent than was called for, and getting into serious trouble because the substance was derived from human tissues and difficult to replace. I remember spilling radioactive isotope on my blouse and having it permanently confiscated by the authorities, and having to go home in a lab coat that evening.

But of course it wasn’t all bad – in fact, it was incredibly fabulous. I recall the intense excitement of getting my own data for the first time. I was working primarily with fluorescently labelled cells analyzed on a FACS machine, and can still feel that thrill of triumph when the histogram of the experimental sample moved conclusively to the right, demonstrating that my manipulations had had the hoped-for effect. I remember the wonder, too, of the sheer unfathomable depths of the unknowns we faced. The lab was studying the role of human papillomavirus in cervical cancer. But this was back in the 1980s, that grey period in time after the discovery of the viral proteins E6 and E7, but before anyone had the remotest idea how they exerted their pro-cancer functions. Now, of course, it’s all so simple: but then, I wondered if we’d ever really know. There was an awe-inspiring pathos about our sheer ignorance, as if the secrets of biology would never fully yield to our onslaught.

Today, all those newbie feelings have come back to me. Starting today, I’ve been hosting two lovely high school students in the lab for a week, Alex and Alan. This is inspiring me to see the lab through their eyes – not as a familiar, beloved landscape, but as that slightly scary world of endless possibility that it was for me more than twenty years ago. Alex and Alan are keeping a diary about their daily experiences over on the LabLit blogs, and we’ll soon be putting up some video clips of them in action as well. Feel free to follow along. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that the RNAi experiment we set up today will yield gloriously beautiful phenotypes under the confocal microscope on Friday – wish us luck!

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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47 Responses to In which I revisit my inner newbie

  1. Matt Brown says:

    I never really got over that feeling, which is probably why I left the lab after an MRes rather than doing a PhD.
    Jenny, there can’t be many people in the world who can truthfully and nonchalantly say ‘I remember spilling radioactive isotope on my blouse’.

  2. Maxine Clarke says:

    The first posts by Alex and Alan popped up in my RSS reader tonight, and they are very impressive, interesting accounts. I hope they will be the first few of many future writings.
    I remember spilling Millon’s reagent on my arm in high school (A level biology I think), and getting a rash from it. But that isn’t as dramatic as spilling isotopes, by a long way.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I guess the love has to outweigh the fear, eh?
    Imagine the shame of being stripped of one’s clothing in the workplace, though. I thought I was going to melt into the floor.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hi Maxine, our comments crossed. Glad you’re getting rss alerts – yes, they seem to very, very thoughtful individuals. I sneaked a peek at Alan’s lab notebook as well and it was so beautifully written I thought I was going to weep.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    The week before I started my DPhil a post-doc sharing the lab my supervisor worked in managed to spill about 500 ml phenol down his legs. He was stripped of his clothing, needed skin grafts and spent three months in Stoke Mandeville hospital.

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oh my God! Not exactly the inspirational experience you were probably hoping for.

  7. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    I saw Alex and Alan’s posts today on Lablit and was very impressed. I’m sure they’ll have a great time in your lab!
    Thinking back to my first year in a “real” lab, I remember deciding (with all the wisdom of a teenager) that it would be cool to write in my lab notebook with a bright red pen for the entire summer. Several years later, when I had to refer back to it for writing up my senior thesis, I found it painful to even read one page.

  8. Jennifer Rohn says:

    But I’ll bet it was very detailed and neat, wasn’t it? I can scarcely believe how well I used to write, compared to the incoherent scrawls that blight my notebook now. I have been trying to find those old NIH notebooks – I think they’re in a box up in the loft. But I have a distinct memory of launching every day’s entry with a list of items I’d need for the experiment – including things like “pen”, “test tubes” and “tape”.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    No. But it did mean I learned the use of COSHH and what all the warning labels meant…
    (I’ve just been helping Jenny edit the videos of Alex and Alan in her lab. It fair melts this old cynic’s heart, it does.)

  10. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’ve never known anyone to be that seriously injured in a lab. Was there anything that COSHH knowledge could have done to prevent what happened, realistically?

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Our internal procedures were changed as a result (max size of phenol aliquots, for example) and suddenly everybody in the department, rather than just my supervisor, learned that glycerol or low mol wt PEG is the treatment for phenol, not water.

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    My first experience in a real research lab was also during high school, but unfortunately I only got to visit for one day and didn’t get to do any real experiments of my own (my actual two week “work experience” the year before was in a cafe – my 11th choice – which did at least prepare me for some of my summer jobs during university). The PI was an acquaintance of my Dad’s, so I at least knew him slightly, but I was still very intimidated as he led me around the lab pointing out all the equipment and telling me how much it cost. I don’t know if he was intentionally aiming to make me too scared to touch anything, but that’s what he achieved!
    My first actual research experience was as an undergrad, and I actually did manage to melt part of the floor. Due to a serious break to my left arm when I was seven, I have ongoing problems with my left hand and wrist – when I’m holding something heavy, especially if it’s at some distance from my body, my wrist sometimes just kind of flops, and I lose my grip on whatever I’m holding (this has happened less and less as I’ve got older, but does still occur from time to time). One day during this lab rotation, I was holding a 2L bottle of conc HCl in that hand, and suddenly just dropped it, spilling acid all over the floor and my labcoat (which I threw across the room in an impressively fluid movement. I retrieved what was left of it later). There was quite an impressive mark on the floor when we all came back in an hour or so later… and I never hold anything heavy in that hand anymore if it’s also dangerous and/or valuable!

  13. Grant Jacobs says:

    I can scarcely believe how well I used to write, compared to the incoherent scrawls that blight my notebook now.
    Maybe that’s something that happens as you get older: same here! :-)

  14. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Wow, Cath…two liters. It’s amazing that you and nobody else was hurt.

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    The first vid of Alex and Alan is now available… http://bit.ly/jennylab1

  16. Tom Webb says:

    Really liked this:
    “…can still feel that thrill of triumph when the histogram of the experimental sample moved conclusively to the right, demonstrating that my manipulations had had the hoped-for effect”
    I still get that thrill, every time I’m coding up some new analysis, in the instant before I set it to run and produce spit out results that noone has ever seen before. Of course, time has taught me to assume that any impressive looking results are almost certainly due to an error in my stats, but still!

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I haven’t done much FACS since that initial internship, and I sort of miss the definitiveness of the readout. But you are right – I also have a strong mistrust of overly dramatic outcomes.

  18. Richard Wintle says:

    You know, this lovely post almost makes me want to go back into the lab…
    NOT!!!!!!!!
    But – beautifully described, and I do remember that feeling of combined wonder/terror at being in the lab. Best advice I ever got was “everybody makes mistakes. If you make a mistake, just tell someone, don’t try to cover it up.” Honesty and Truth in Science and all that good stuff.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Winty. You know, I think I did try to cover up the radioactive blouse thing – for about 5 seconds. It wasn’t just that I’d need to explain why I was suddenly going home in my lab coat, but I realized that it just isn’t possible for a civilian to dispose of 2 millicuries of radioactive waste.

  20. Cath Ennis says:

    Jenny, what’s truly amazing is the speed at which I can move if I really, really have to!

  21. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ha! I bet you were an ace at dodge-ball in school. Or is that something they only inflict on Americans?

  22. Alejandro Correa says:

    I seem have lost very much?

  23. Jennifer Rohn says:

    As long as you still have your blouse.

  24. Alejandro Correa says:

    Jenny if I’m over, ¿You say by the blog of Water?, I count him that I didn’t find neither a tiny piece of rationality.

  25. Richard P. Grant says:

    Smoke on the Water?

  26. Jennifer Rohn says:

    OMG. One of my students was just pouring water into a measuring cylinder and said, “I can’t see the meniscus because of parallax”.
    Can I keep them?

  27. Eva Amsen says:

    Re: spillage of lab reagents, I found out recently that a friend who left the bench in 2001 or 2002 still has damaged skin on her arms from phenol. It looks like it was just 2 drops, and she’s always had a habit of picking at loose skin and scabs, but OMG a decade of damage from two drops of phenol is insane. I am so glad I’m away from all this now. Please wrap up your students entirely and securely in lab coats and gloves and goggles and make sure Alom gets all of them back at school after summer.

  28. Alejandro Correa says:

    Exactly, Richard, smog in the water, in any case is a key molecule, many do not know ……

  29. Alejandro Correa says:

    To know the properties of water has to be a war, using napalm if possible. Have to run a lot of blood, it is important!

  30. Richard Wintle says:

    “I can’t see the meniscus because of parallax”
    If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that
    …I’d now have a dime.
    I think you should stash those students away in a chemicals cabinet somewhere, then plead innocence when Alom comes looking.

  31. Richard Wintle says:

    “Claim ignorance” of course, not “plead innocence”.

  32. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Maybe Alom won’t notice if I keep them. Meanwhile, they just about died and went to heaven getting to use the rotating barrel “Tardis” door into the darkroom.

  33. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny> It sounds like so much fun! I hope you get awesome phenotypes for pictures Friday.
    it’s great fun seeing the most “common lab things” with the eyes of people who aren’t in the lab everyday. all of a sudden it feels like you are slightly cooler “yes, that is DNA on the gel.. .and it glows ;)”
    Looking forward reading more from their point of view. And yes, the lab books are not as nice as they were in the beginning… something with scribble paper/ink/repeats and worse hand writing. (I had an old boss telling me he went looking in my lab books and actually found stuff – not all but most stuff – so clearly I at least made good use of those content pages in the beginning ;) )

  34. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I have already taught them the hallowed importance of doing tissue culture maths on a paper towel with a lab marker pen. They insisted on taping the paper towel into their notebooks!

  35. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jennifer> I’d do that (or rather scrap paper and not paper towels). Towles might make the lab book more “normal” then, if they were superneat with everything else ;)

  36. Richard Wintle says:

    Asa (sorry too lazy to find the “A” with the little circle thingummywhatsit over it) said:
    it’s great fun seeing the most “common lab things” with the eyes of people who aren’t in the lab everyday
    This made me think of a fairly recent tour of high school students I led. Among all the high-tech, super-expensive robots and sequencers and widgetry, the thing they were most impressed by: the row of freezers.
    Sigh.

  37. Richard P. Grant says:

    Alt shift A. Å. Just såying.

  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    They had a lot of fun imagining pictures of familiar objects hidden in the images of cells. That’s the sort of thing that would never occur to me any more – which is sad.
    Now clouds: that’s another story entirely.

  39. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Regarding blouse, I remember dropping a whole liquid scintillation counter on my shoe. Can you imagine the trouble you can get into when you actually drop an LSC that you should really not have been trying to move on your own anyway? Oddly, it was not destroyed. My shoe was f—-d though.
    Anyway, Jenny, at least you din’t do http://www.dangerouslaboratories.org/radscout.html
    Nige.

  40. Cath Ennis says:

    “Alt shift A. Å. Just såying.”
    I usually copy and paste from Åsa’s name at the bottom of her comments :)

  41. Jennifer Rohn says:

    In my nightmares, I open up the huge -80 freezer and it topples over on top of me. I’m not sure what that means.

  42. Åsa Karlström says:

    Richard W: I know . at least it was freezers… mine were utterly fascinated by the pipette tips in boxes and before I had the time to say anything their hands and fingers had touched the [now not] sterile tips… I might have mumbled something about “keeping hands clasped and not touching?” ;)
    Richard G> “alt shift a” huh, I didn’t know that. [although, it doesn't seem to work for me. Then again, I just keep the swedish keyboard ;)]
    Cath> that’s a smart way.
    In general> Thanks everyone. I appriciate the efforts about the å but I’m really not that picky anymore… I get it every day as I work in the US right now. It just felt strange adding my profile in NN without the å and ö. :)

  43. Richard P. Grant says:

    What, NN is broken? Say it ain’t so, ɯöɹʇslɹǝɐʞ ɐsÅ.

  44. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I haven’t tried to update my profile since it was set so that you could fill out every last field, and it wasn’t until you hit the ‘submit’ button that you got an error saying changes could not be made, contact the administrator. Is it any better these days?

  45. Richard Wintle says:

    Å – aha! ALT-0197.
    As for NN being broken, I’ve just spent about 10 minutes in a login causality loop. Again.

  46. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny> that freezer fear is mine too. at my grad department they were all “flat horisontal ones” in the basement… yeah… I was alway wondering about dipping the head into one of them, the lid falling on top and then there youare – stuck… (clearly too much imagination, or maybe just too many horror movies?)
    As for the updated profile, last time I tried it wouldn’t save anything due to error….

  47. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think the age-old fear that scientists have about being crushed by freezers comes from that urban myth about the poor greedy boy who died tilting a vending machine to try to get a free chocolate bar…