Debbie Knight

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

An update on our graduate student candidate

In observation on May 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

In a previous blog posting “The dance: the graduate student and the lab rotation,” I talked about a graduate student who was doing her fourth and final lab rotation with us.

Well, here’s an updates to bring you up to speed.

First, she came into our lab really excited about the multiple sclerosis research going on in the lab where she had just completely a rotation. This felt like strike #1 (if you’ll forgive the baseball analogy).

Second, that lab was in a state-of-the-art research building and our lab?  Well, let’s just say there’s been talk about razing our building for years.

Strike #2?

And third, the project we had her working on, a multidisciplinary project spanning biology, chemistry, and chemical engineering, started off on a slow note (but it’s been building steam with time). And, although she’s in a biology-based graduate program, she had to spend time in the chemistry department with the chemistry graduate student on the project.

Strike #3 and we’re out?

Now, if you’ve read my post in “About me,” you’ll know that I’m pretty long in the tooth when it comes to working in the world of research. And I’ve become a pretty good judge of character, especially when it comes to graduate students.

My “spidey sense” was telling me that while she’d be a great addition to our lab we didn’t have a chance in Hades of recruiting her to our lab. She was quiet, kept to herself, and didn’t share a lot of personal information. In other words, she was a tough nut to crack for me (and I’m pretty good at getting people to talk about themselves). She laughed politely at my silly jokes, she answered questions succinctly when asked, but she didn’t initiate many conversations (scientific or otherwise). And my “spidey sense” was telling me that she wasn’t being very interactive because she was going to bolt.

But guess what. My “spidey sense” was wrong.

Today, she officially accepted the offer to work in our lab.

It turns out that she likes the interdisciplinary aspects of our research. And apparently my silly jokes didn’t scare her off.

Wow, I didn’t see THAT coming, which just goes to show you that I still have much to learn.

One thing I am going to  remember from all this: Never play poker with this woman, especially for money! She sure knows how to hold those cards!

Meet the lab mascot: Cornelius, the wonder octopus

In observation on May 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Our lab has an official mascot: Cornelius.

Cornelius is (or was) an octopus that once lived in the waters of Florida until he was caught on a fishing trip by the son of an Ohio State University professor named Ralph Stephens. Cornelius was brought back to central Ohio and given to the professor. Stephens did what any good pathology professor would do: he fixed the octopus in formalin.

And thus, Cornelius “The wonder octopus” became the Stephens’ lab mascot.

This occurred around 1980, as a former Stephen’s lab member recalls.

About 20 years later, Dr. Stephens retired and I discovered Cornelius abandoned on a high shelf in a murky glass jar. And to be honest, the contents of the jar looked more like a pathology specimen than a cephalopod.

I wasn’t sure if Cornelius could be “saved” but I thought I would try. So I went to the store and bought a fish bowl, some glass beads, and an aquarium trinket sporting an octopus coiled around a “no fishing” sign.

I poured out the contents of the jar, rinsed Cornelius off, and found him to be well-preserved, despite a few missing tentacle cups. And I proceeded to fill the fish bowl with fresh, crystal-clear formalin before placing him in his new home and sealing the top (formalin is rather smelly and volatile).

I placed the fish bowl on bench behind my lab desk. And soon I began noticing that he would “move” when I wasn’t looking – it wasn’t anything big, just a slight shift from time to time. But it started to creep me out (especially when I was in the lab alone). Eventually I realized there were air bubbles trapped under his body from the transfer that were causing him to shift and “move.” (Shew! For a few days there, I thought I was in some sort of  horror movie — maybe something  “Revenge of the Deep” or “Mr. Squiggles’ Rampage”)

So, now, Cornelius sits in his aquarium quietly watching over our lab. He’s not quick to judge us when we mess up an experiment, not does he really cheer much when the experiment is a success. He just sort of sits there.

But that’s okay, Cornelius is often the topic of  conversations (especially when we have visitors), so he doesn’t really need to say much to do that.

Hopefully, when my boss is ready to retire, we can pass Cornelius on to another lab and continue the tradition.

Research may look “easy”…

In observation on May 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm

This image was taken from the "Electron Cafe" blogsite, posted by Paul Vallett.

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to the above image yesterday. She’s a graduate student studying malaria at The Ohio State University. And she’s discovering exactly how science works in reality.

While I can’t speak for everyone in the research community, I know that I originally thought that research moved relatively easily and directly from question to answer. Hey, it worked that way in the controlled environment of my college biology and chemistry lab classes — wasn’t that just a taste of what science was really like in the real world?  I was in for a rude awakening!

When I volunteered in an environmental microbiology research lab at Purdue University, way back when cave men were crawling out of their caves — okay, so it wasn’t that far back, but it certainly seems a lifetime ago — anyway, when I volunteered to work in a research lab, I naively thought that’s how science worked: you ask a question, do the experiment and voila! you have the answer you expected, end of story.

I quickly discovered that research is more about trying to figure out why an experiment gave an unexpected result.

Even after years of research experience, I spend a considerable amount of time in the “head scratching / thinking phase” of the experiment. I often call this the “bang head here” phase — luckily, I have a rather hard head.

I’ve found over the years that the tiniest detail can have an enormous effect on the outcome of an experiment — tiny details like adding reagent A after adding reagent B might give an entirely different result than adding reagent A before reagent B.

Research is not for the faint of heart.

An experiment that doesn’t work or gives an unexpected result can give just as much information as an experiment that works as expected if the investigator is wiling to put on his or her “detective hat” and figure out why. Sometimes it requires a minor tweak and the experiment works gloriously. Other times, those unexpected results can lead the researcher to a completely different set of questions to be asked and perhaps to a completely new discovery in the scientific community. And sometimes, you just have to scrap everything and go back to the proverbial drawing board.

The bottom line: research may look easy on paper (especially when you read a news story or, if you’re up for the challenge, you read the original scientific journal article), but the reality is those research findings took a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears (literally) on the part of some student, research associate, post-doctoral researcher, or professor (or a combination thereof) and a whole lot of unexpected experimental results to make it look “easy.”

A Day in the Life … May 9, 2011

In research log on May 9, 2011 at 11:47 am

From time to time, I will give a glimpse into the “glamorous” life of a research associate and talk about what I’m doing in the lab on a particular day. These entries I will call “A Day in the Life…”

Sometimes things come up in the lab where you have to drop everything (if you can) and do something completely unexpected.

Friday was just such a day.

I had my day planned to do tissue culture for a couple of hours, start an experiment, and then spend the remainder of the day reading scientific journal articles – not the most exciting of Fridays, let me assure you.

I had scheduled training on how to use a confocal microscope at a fee-for-use facility for the following week – a two-week lead time was the soonest I could schedule the training on the microscope.

But on Friday, I got a call from the trainer that the microscope was unexpectedly available in the afternoon – apparently the person with the scheduled time had to go to the hospital instead. This meant that I could go through the training a week earlier than planned, which was a good thing since I had experiments planned that I couldn’t do until I went through the training and could use the microscope.

Since this was important, I felt it was important to drop everything and rush over to do the 3-hour training session, even though I needed to get home to meet a repair person in the afternoon AND I had to get my tissue culture done before I left for the day. Fortunately, my husband was able to meet the repair person at home while I stayed late to do the culture work that had to be done.

Not exactly how I had planned my day, but such is the way of research. Flexibility is important, especially when unexpected things come up.