Debbie Knight

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

A day in the life: July 29, 2011

In research log on July 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm

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…”

My day, part 1:  Today was Dr. V’s last day as an assistant professor and independent principal investigator. I’ve mentioned him a couple of times in this blog. We gave him a good send off, complete with the local favorite pizza, a good bottle of scotch, and a few good laughs. But despite all that, it remains a sad day.

My day, part 2:  I was all set to order three proteins from a research supplier when I discovered that one of the proteins I was going to order comes in two versions. I have spent the past two and a half hours culling the scientific literature, trying to determine which isoform I should order. I have not hit the mother lode of information yet. The search will continue Monday. I hope I have better luck then.

Ah, research is so glamorous and exciting sometimes!

Lesson for scientists? Don’t throw away any of your experimental samples!

In observation on July 28, 2011 at 6:02 am

This week I stumbled across a story on my Twitter feed about a scientist inheriting his mentor’s laboratory and finding a dusty old cardboard box containing experimental vials from 1958 which had never been analyzed. The contents of those vials, when analyzed, showed how volcanic activity may have helped spark life from the primordial soup on primitive Earth — clearly, an important find.

Now I imagine if I had found this dusty old cardboard box, filled with smelly vials from research conducted over 50 years ago, my first inclination would be to throw them out .. and quickly!  Surely they were analyzed and long forgotten, or so I would have thought.  I guess it’s a good thing that it wasn’t me tasked with clearing out this lab space or a valuable scientific finding would be forever lost!

Heck it happens in the lab I work in when I go into a cleaning frenzy and start throwing out samples that are not well-labelled or are a few years old. Now I’ll have to rethink my process – perhaps there is a landmark experiment just waiting to be discovered … by someone who will eventually inherit the lab. Hmmm, I like the thought of not having to clear out old samples to make room for the new ones. This could work!

(But I think the lab is going to need a new freezer)

So, what can scientists learn from this story? Don’t throw ANY of your experiments away — save them for someone else to (re)discover, after you die!

Happy birthday, baby!

In observation on July 22, 2011 at 6:44 am

Vials of frozen cells isolated from an umbilical vein on July 22, 1997

This week I thawed some cells I had cryopreserved in 1997. These cells were isolated from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord exactly 14 years ago today, July 22, 1997. The cells were dubbed (originally enough) “072297.”

I stopped for a moment and thought about how this baby, the donor of these cells, is now 14 years old – a teenager!  Gasp!

Here’s this baby, born with all this potential so many years ago, and I can’t help but wonder what this individual has become.

  • Is he or she a parental dream? (or a parental nightmare?)
  • How does he or she do in school? Is she or he a math wiz?
  • Is she or he good at sports like basketball or soccer?
  • What does he or she do for fun? Read, play computer games, listen to music?

On the science side, things have certainly changed! 14 years ago, I could walk over to the labor and delivery floor in the medical center, ask if any babies are about to be born, and ask one of the nurses to put the umbilical cord in a specimen cup. No human subjects protocol was needed because the tissue was considered discarded. Now? You better believe a human subjects protocol is needed, which is a major hurdle in and of itself. Nowadays, we have to work through a tissue procurement network in order to get an umbilical cord – and pay for that service. I understand, it’s to ensure that the tissue is collected in such a way that the patient’s information is protected. I never really cared about who the previous “owner” of the umbilical cord was specifically, only that mother and baby were healthy.

I’m also amazed that these umbilical vein endothelial cells, isolated 14 years ago, are still viable. They grow just as well as they did the day I placed them in the cryopreservation tank. These are normal, everyday cells – not immortalized like the cervical cancer cells isolated from Henrietta Lacks (HeLa cells)(by the way, the book written by Rebecca Skloot about Henrietta’s life is great! A must-read for any biologist). I’ve found immortalized cells to be pretty hardy cells – we joke in the lab that they could grow on the walls if we let them. But normal, everyday cells are a bit more difficult to grow – they take longer to complete one round of cell division than immortalized cells, they only divide in culture a finite number of times before they stop growing, they require more “goodies” like growth factors and serum in their growth media, and they often require help to attach to the culture surface.

So, 14 years ago today, I was in the lab isolating cells from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord. A happy day for both of us – I got cells to grow so that I could use them in scientific studies and baby 072297 was born into the world.

So, wherever you are 072297, I wish you a very happy birthday!

Have pipetters, will travel…

In observation on July 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm

In a previous post “Fallout of the NIH Budget: Making and breaking research careers,” I wrote about Dr. V whose academic research career hangs in the balance as he waits to hear about the fate of his NIH grant proposals.

He submitted two proposals — one was a first-time submission, the other a resubmission.

These days, it’s the resubmission that has the best chance of getting funded — it’s been through a round of review and critiques, and the researcher has the chance to make adjustments (and improvements) to the original proposal.

I’m not saying the researcher takes these critiques graciously – there’s often grumbling (cussing, shouting, crying, pouting) by the researcher that the committee members don’t know what they’re talking about or that they didn’t “get” it. But a seasoned researcher knows to put those critiques aside for a while, let them steep (while the scientist cools down) before deciding how to address those critiques for the proposal resubmission.

To complicate matters, sometimes the committee members that reviewed the first submission may not be exactly the same for the resubmission. This can almost be like resetting the review process – the new members with their different perspectives might not agree with what the former members said. It can essentially result in “tanking” the resubmitted proposal. At the NIH, there are only two chances to get a proposal funded – two strikes and you’re out (back in the “old” days, it was three strikes).

Mid-June, Dr. V received word that neither grant proposal would be funded. This was his last chance at staying in academic research as an independent researcher.

So at the end of this month, he will pack up his pipetters and beakers and close out his own lab. He will briefly join another researcher in another department to help set up some biochemical assays before he bids adieu to academic research all together. While his official job title is still to be determined, he will essentially be a “glorified research associate.” He’ll get a paycheck, yes, but it’s not exactly the same as being an independent assistant professor.

He has a few irons in the fire – he’s looking into biotech companies as well as teaching opportunities. He’s even considering a career as a beer maker (he’s quite the brewmeister and vintner).

In the meantime, as I pass by his office with piles of  journals bound for the trash bin or his lab with bench tops bare, I’m deeply saddened. This will be a great loss to our research area, to the department , and to the university community.

I wish him luck in his future endeavors! But silently cross my fingers that my lab will have continued luck in obtaining grant funding (I call it “luck” because it really does depend on who those committee members are) and that we won’t be the next to go.

I hope the funding tide turns (and soon!) or there may be more former scientists out there building the better burger flipper — obviously a “boon” to the fast food industry, but not so much for the science community.

Don’t try this at home…

In observation on July 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm

A major drawback of being a lab rat is that you can’t always take home your work with you. I mean, running a Western blot is something you can only do in the lab, it’s not something you can do while you’re in another state nursing your mother back to health.

And this is where I find myself this week.

I can make some use of my time reading scientific journal articles that I printed off before I left for Indiana, but it’s not the same as actually producing experimental data — something I really need to be doing this week. <sigh>

Of course, I can’t even think about trying to do such experiments in my mom’s kitchen — too many hazardous chemicals and biohazardous materials are involved and should only be done in a laboratory setting. But a girl can wish.

There are times I envy people in the business world because they often can work on reports and such from their laptops.

But most times, I don’t envy them, taking work home, blurring the line between “down time” and work. I have enough issues with this already.

The good news is that my mom is doing quite well recuperating from her broken hip, which means that I’ll be able to get back to the lab later this week (I hope). So I guess I’ll just cool my heels, plan my experiments for when I get back, and enjoy the momentary quiet.

A day in the life: July 4, 2011

In research log on July 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm

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…”

Ah, the 4th of July, an official university holiday, yet as I walk down the hallway there are several people working in their respective labs. Me? I’m just here for a couple of hours to pour a few gels so I can hit the ground running tomorrow morning. While I’m not sure about my fellow lab rats and I certainly can’t speak for other branches of science,   sometimes  in biological research you have to come to the lab over weekends or holidays because of ongoing experiments — sometimes it’s for a few minutes, sometimes it’s for the entire day. Such is the way of things in research — it waits for no one.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

Can a bicycle ride really end cancer?

In research issue(s) on July 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm

A car magnet promoting a fund-raising bicycle ride for cancer research.

What does a two-day, 180-mile bicycle ride have to do with cancer research? The Peletonia is a fund-raising event for cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and JamesCancerHospitaland Solove Research Institute. And for the past two years, it has successfully raised millions of dollars for cancer research.

It’s a great way to sponsor cutting-edge research.

However, I do not agree with this year’s slogan: One goal, end cancer.

As far as slogan’s go, it is quite effective and very inspirational — something you want to have when you’re raising funds. But I think it’s misleading – and not an immediately achievable goal. It suggests that cancer is something that can be controlled and eradicated.

I am not a cancer researcher, but I am a biomedical researcher. The current theories on how cancer arises is that it takes multiple “hits” before a cell in the human body goes rogue and begins to divide uncontrollably becoming cancerous. These “hits” include genetic factors (mutations in your DNA that you inherit from one or both of your parents) and environmental factors (such as exposure to certain chemicals in your water, in your food, in the air, or in your homes).

So, to end cancer would imply that we will no longer be exposed to dangerous chemicals and radiation in our world. We no longer will be exposed to air pollution, cigarette smoke, radon gas. We no longer will be exposed to herbicides and pesticides on our foods. We no longer will be exposed to the ultraviolet rays produced by the sun. We will no longer be exposed … well, you get the idea. There are quite a number of environmental insults that we would need to eliminate in order to truly end the incidence of cancer.

Cancer is complicated. Yes, we know tons more about what causes cancer than we did a few years ago, but cancer is not one single disease. Even “lung cancer” is not really a single entity – there is adenocarcinoma, bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and mesothelioma to name a few. Then there’s the staging. Doctors indicate how far the cancer has progressed by using a numbering system from one to four – a “one” indicates a better prognosis than a “four.” But how Bob’s lung cancer came about will be quite different than how Mary’s lung cancer came to be.

So, I think that the slogan “One goal, end cancer” is too simple and a little misleading.

Do we need cancer research? Most definitely!

Do we need improved early detection methods? Certainly!

Will there be one treatment for all? At this point, based on the fact that each person’s cancer has arisen in a different way, I doubt that there will be one treatment fits all. Yes, some chemotherapy drugs work well on a specific type of cancer, but not necessarily in every single case. I think treatments will improve and perhaps become less barbaric in the future. And I think hope lies in “personalized medicine” where treatments are customized for the individual patient. Mary’s tumor might be more sensitive to drug A while Bob’s tumor might be better treated with radiation therapy.

But until we think about the entire package, environmental pollution as well as genetics, and find ways to attack these issues from a global perspective, I think the “end” of cancer is mere rhetoric meant merely to inspire hope rather than results.