I first became interested in science when I was about 13 — it was a picture of a glowing transgenic mouse in a kids’ book on genetics that did it for me. Through science fairs, I was fortunate enough to be recommended as a mentee to professors at the University of Guelph in my hometown, and under their supervision, I worked in biology labs on a variety of projects. Probably following in suite of the strange picture that first picqued my interest, I have done some rather bizarre stuff while involved in research.
In my first year, I was running the Ames test – an old assay developed to screen chemicals for the ability to cause mutations in the DNA of bacteria – for a sign that exposure to some chemicals could lead to cancer. While collecting environmental pollutants to test, I found myself scraping bus exhaust particulate from the exhaust pipes of local school buses. To the confusion of the transport company, I even bothered to get permission. Their reaction didn’t beat my neighbours’ confusion when I created an aspirating pump to smoke cigarettes in my backyard. Later in the lab, in order to test whether metabolic activity of the liver transforms these pollutants into mutagens, I found myself grinding up a cow’s liver with a mortar and pestle. In the end it was worth it: the combination of liver extract and bus exhaust particulate increased mutation rates in bacterial cultures.
The next year, after developing an interest in the field of tumour angiogenesis and therapies trying to block it, I was able to get into a lab to study the chorioallantoic membrane, which is a thin layer of blood vessels resting on the yolk of a developing chick embryo. This membrane can be used to study the formation of blood vessels after the application of drugs and growth factors that cancers secrete to increase their access to oxygen and nutrients. So, I spent hours cracking eggs after school. It’s one of the most challenging techniques I have ever done; the yolk upon which that membrane rests is exquisitely sensitive to breaking if placed in a petri dish.
The following year, I worked in a toxicology lab studying drug-metabolizing enzymes found in the liver. My interest in how herbal products like echinacea and ginseng influenced expression of these enzymes led to some interesting conversations. I answered some questions for the cashier of the health food store where I, a scrawny 15 year old, purchased hundreds of dollars of purported immune stimulants, anti-depressants, and aphrodisiacs. I walked across campus to the lab, my backpack full of little green pills.
The summer before leaving for McGill, I was hired as a research assistant to work on a project investigating the control of starch synthesis in corn. To separate proteins from corn that synthesize starch, I used a fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC) machine. I learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to host an end of summer party the night your FPLC machine is washing – you might be too hungover the next morning to go into the lab to turn it off and thus avert catastrophe. Thankfully, I wound up calling someone in the lab to help me.
Some of the more nostalgic moments from that summer included waking up at 6:00 a.m., driving out to the cornfields surrounding Guelph, and picking several garbage bags full of corncobs at just the right stage of maturation with maximal starch-synthesizing activity. Lugging these bags through the hallways of the science building garnered some curious looks from professors.
I’m not sure what lesson to take away from these experiences I’ve had. Perhaps it is that the human aspect of scientific methods often goes underappreciated or ignored. In the polished, succinct methods sections of publications, the depths of frustration, the ecstasy of eureka moments, and the fun (the most important part) is not conveyed. Hopefully, informal blogging — and certain hashtags on twitter — will begin to better communicate the strange process of doing science.