Debbie Knight

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

A day in the life: September 22, 2011

In research log on September 22, 2011 at 4:14 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…”

Working in an older building means there’s always something that needs attention.

Today was no different – except I was the one to stumble onto the problem this time.

I was asked by the department chair a few months ago to check in on a lab of a scientist who had left the university — specifically to check on the cryopreservation tanks that contained frozen cells used in his research. The cells will eventually be shipped to him when he settles into a new position.

So, today, when I entered the lab in the basement of my building, I noticed a number of the ceiling tiles were water-stained — a large number of them. They didn’t look this way last week when I checked the lab.

As I walked deeper into the lab, the water stains got heavier, the air felt more humid, and I could see steam coming from a wall vent.

What?! That’s not right.

I opened the door next to the vent and flipped on the light. Until a moment ago, I didn’t even know this door existed, so I had no idea what I’d find inside.

Yep, Houston, we definitely have a problem.

I was looking at the back of a steam sterilizer (or autoclave) and steam was pouring out of a pipe. The wall and light switch (which I had just flipped on) were dripping with moisture. The floor was flooded, but thanks to a small drain in the floor, the water hadn’t quite reached the lab.


I turned off the light, hoping I wouldn’t be electrocuted in the process. I closed the door hoping this simple act would make the problem go away. And I quickly walked to my office on the fourth floor imagining the steam pipe was about to blow. I hoped I could find the right person to call to fix this hazard.

It took a while, but someone did finally show up … I think. There appeared to be an unmanned, orange stepladder hard at work on the problem.

I sure hope it knows what it’s doing!

Thought for the day

In observation on September 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm

September 20 is pretty much like any other day, nothing really special about it really, except it is my birthday – one I share with many fellow Earthlings. While I’d rather not get into details about how many years ago I came into the world, I did have a thought: had I been born on, say, Saturn, I would be considerably younger than I am here on Earth. If Saturn completes one orbit around the sun in 29.4571 Earth years, I’d be … wow! I’d be really young!

The question “Why?” is why I became a scientist

In observation on September 19, 2011 at 11:49 am


I ran across this video about scientists — or at least six scientists — that successfully showed that they are … well, human.

In this video, the scientists share their thoughts and stories about how they got interested in science, what keeps them doing research, and what they think makes a good scientist. The narrator, Stephen Curry, is also a scientist at Imperial College in London, England.

One of the questions these scientists were asked was what or who influenced them to become scientists.

I had to think for a moment how I would have answered this question.

Was it a high school teacher?

I think my teachers certainly helped nurture and shape my desire to be a scientist, but were they THE reason I became one? I’d have to say no.

So just WHO did influence me to become a scientist?

After some thought I realized it was my mom!

She had a keen interest in medicine even though she never finished nursing school because I came along and it was frowned upon for a woman to be both student mother back then. She worked in a doctor’s office as a physician’s assistant and would talk candidly about anything medical — even at the dinner table.

She patiently fed my curiosity about the world.

I’m not sure but I think maybe my first word was “Why?”  In truth, it was probably something less original like “dah-dah” but it should have been “Why?” Lord knows I asked it often enough!

I think my mom probably should have been nominated for sainthood (or something) based on how many times I asked her “Why?” She was a good sport. I was always curious and always asking questions. And she would answer those questions to the best of her ability. Any answer she gave me however was invariably followed by another “Why?” This would continue until I exhausted her ability to answer or her patience, whichever came first. And then I would get the “Why don’t you go look it up?” (What’s the fun in that when I had a walking, talking encyclopedia at my beck and call?)

I think this questioning, the curiosity is what led me to become a scientist.

I will admit I did stop asking “Why?” for a brief period in freshman biology classes. I thought that professors would have all the answers. And they seemingly did — until one professor contradicted what another teacher had taught in a previous class. Huh? It took a little while for me to realize that professors have their own perspectives from which they draw upon to teach. So I realized they may not have all the answers, hence the brief boycott on “Why?”

Eventually I learned to ask myself “Why?” and find the answers for myself — through experiments in the lab.

And that’s the fun part of being a scientist — there’s always a “Why?” or a “I wonder what would happen if ..” question to ask.

And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get an answer!

(Oh, and if you watched the video to the very end, my favorite cheese is extra sharp white cheddar .. at least for the moment).

A challenge in communicating science, even amongst scientists

In observation on September 12, 2011 at 11:58 am

Poster session at the 2010 CMIB research retreat

Forget singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire, this retreat is something entirely different.

Every year and a half the Center for Microbial Interface Biology (CMIB) has a research retreat. This retreat is a day and a half meeting in the very building in which the Center resides. I guess in this case the retreat (for the Retreat) is from the laboratory setting rather than a retreat from society. This meeting allows researchers from across the Center to share their research findings with each other through oral presentations, poster presentations, and informal chats which serves to reinforce ties with each other, forge new ones, and spark new scientific ideas.

I only attended a few hours of the retreat this year. And I started by walking through a room full of research posters while everyone else was off listening to a speaker. The room was quiet – unlike when a poster session is going on where there’s little room to maneuver between people standing at various posters discussing research findings and the din is deafening.

As I strolled through the rows and rows of posters, I did a little experiment of my own. Recently I’ve taken a couple of journalism classes and instead of looking at the posters through the eyes of a scientist, I put on my science communicator goggles. My quest: to find research results (in this room full of research results) that might be newsworthy “stories” for the general public.

I didn’t really read much more than the titles and the abstracts as I meandered through the posters. Some titles included:

  • “Biochemical properties of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis cell wall fragments released following exposure to human alveolar hydrolases and their impact in the capacity of controlling infection by human macrophages,”
  • “Effects of Salmonella PhoP-PhoQ and PmrA-PmrB-mediated lipolysaccharide modifications on LL-37 expression in human monocyte-derived macrophages,”
  • “The viral restriction factor tetherin is upregulated upon HIV-1 infection of dendritic cells in a NEF-dependent manner,” and
  • “Secreted trypanosomal cylcophilin mediates host antimicrobial peptide evasion promoting parasite survival and infectivity.”

Many of the topics weren’t even close to my area of expertise, so I’ll admit my eyes started to glaze over after a while.

Just from this cursory stroll, I realized I would’ve been hard-pressed to find an obvious story in which the general public would be genuinely interested. Why?  The posters were so narrowly focused. This is true of most scientific research, including my own.

Most scientific research is incremental, adding important information to a greater body of knowledge which builds until the story is “big” enough and complete enough to take to the public. What I’ve noticed is that most of the stories that make it to the public’s ears are significant leaps in that body of knowledge. The “first” to show a remarkable phenomenon will almost always find its way to the public.

But those little stories, those little (yet important) advances don’t usually attract much media attention. I stress that they are important because without the incremental advances, the “big bang” stories wouldn’t be possible. That one final piece of data, that one piece of the puzzle, when it finally falls into place has a huge impact on scientific community (the one the public often hears about through the media).

I admit my stroll was cursory, so is it possible I could have overlooked something in this sea of posters? Certainly. Since I’m not as familiar with bacteria as I am with viruses, it’s entirely possible I missed something noteworthy. But nothing jumped out at me. If there was something important that the public should know, it was buried deep in all the technical scientific language so that not even I, a biologist versed in “science-ese”, would notice.

Sometimes scientists forget their audience – they are so enmeshed in science and life in what I call the “ivory tower of science” that they forget how to communicate with regular everyday folks or even scientists in another research field.

This is especially important to remember at this retreat. The Center has members whose research spans a number of fields from bacteriology in humans, animals, and trees to virology to parasitology to mycology (the study of fungus). While all these fall under the larger category “microbiology,” each field is very different from another. A scientist may be well-versed in virology, but have a cursory knowledge of what’s happening in the world of parasites (I know it’s true in my case!). At this retreat, communicating, even amongst scientists, can be a challenge.

Taking journalism classes has opened my eyes to how poorly scientists sometimes communicate with each other as well as the general public. When you live in an ivory tower for too long, you forget that not everyone knows what a “pipet” or a “gas chromatograph” is. You take it for granted that “everyone” knows what these terms mean.

I’m not sure what the solution is here and perhaps some of you can make suggestions via comments below. Perhaps it’s a matter of awareness – I admit that I’ve lived in my ivory tower for a little too long and have forgotten how to communicate with regular folk, but the classes are helping.

Perhaps heightening that awareness in other researchers will make them better communicators as well.

I can only hope.

A day in the life: September 7, 2011

In research log on September 7, 2011 at 3:25 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…” 

The lab I work in does very (very) limited animal studies — for which I’m grateful. While I understand the need for animal studies, I have a difficult time performing them myself. I love animals, great and small (except maybe reptiles, but I think that’s more of a misunderstanding than an exception).

We will be using mice in a study and we wanted to be sure that we performed a technique properly so that we don’t injure them by doing something the wrong way. So today we worked with a person from the University Laboratory Animal Resources (ULAR) to learn how to place a drug directly into the stomach of a mouse. This procedure is called “gavage” and it uses very thin tubing that you carefully place down the esophagus. This doesn’t hurt the mouse — especially if you put a little bit of sugar water on the outside of the tube (you know, a spoon full of sugar … ). Gavage ensures that the appropriate dose of the drug is received by each mouse in the study. We hope after phase 1 that we will be able to dope their food rather than have to gavage them.

The little white mice we practiced on were pretty cute and reminded me of some mice I once had as pets.

Former lab mice turned pets: Daisy (standing) and Dweezil (sleeping)

I rescued two laboratory mice that were used as controls in an experiment — it was an experiment from a researcher down the hall and she talked me into taking them. One mouse lived less than a year because it developed mammary tumors — a common malady in inbred lab mice. The other lived to a ripe old age of two years. She might have lived longer, but my curious cat  “helped” me one day by nudging and knocking “Daisy” out of my hand. Daisy landed on the carpet, but she succumbed to her injuries from the fall.

As Daisy aged, she had a hard time moving (arthritis?). But every day she would “run” on her wheel — although as she got older, her “run” slowed to more of a “walk.”  She was amazing.

The biggest lesson I learned from her? Keep on moving —  even if you don’t feel like it!

After Daisy, another researcher talked me into taking a hairless mouse — which was SO ugly it was cute. Unfortunately, I forgot that this particular mouse had a poor immune system. A month or so after I got her, I had a cold and managed to infect her with either a virus or bacteria, and she passed away.

I haven’t rescued any lab mice since then (although after today I’m thinking a rescued lab rat might make a nice pet).

Working with the mice today also reminded me of the very first time we worked with animals. It was with rats. I never really thought of rats as cute and cuddly before then (in fact I thought they were gross), but they “grew” on me. We had to weigh them daily for a month. We’d hold them and talk to them — kind of like having a pet. My boss and I made the rookie mistake of naming them. Names like Moe, Larry, and Curly (there were three in a cage). Curly turned out to be the heavy-weight, so he was aptly named. Names like Pinky and The Brain. Pinky had the cutest personality, similar to the cartoon character for which he was named. And The Brain figured out how to climb out of the beaker we weighed them in first — he was really smart … for a rat.

Anyway, at the end of a month, after we became really attached to the little critters, we had to euthanize them. That was the saddest day of our lives. I’m not a highly emotional person, but I cried.

After that, we learned not to give the rats or mice a NAME. But even when we assign them NUMBERS instead of a name, there are a few that stand out and, again, we grow attached. All this does is to make it harder to say goodbye to them when the experiment is over.

I don’t think I will ever be so callous to not be grateful for the sacrifice these furry little guys have made in the name of science. I know many students and scientists who feel the same way. Yes, there are some who use a large number of rats or mice in their studies and they’ve grown used to it.

I’ve never gotten “used to it,” and I hope I never will. I think it’s too important to appreciate and be thankful for their sacrifice — a sacrifice whereby I can lead a healthier, happier life. So, thank you, little furry guys and gals for all that you do!