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!