Very Superstitious.

Knock on wood. Cross your fingers. A black cat crosses your path…

I just finished isolating RNA from cells. For those of you who aren’t science inclined, a quick reminder: bmicrocentrifugetubeefore proteins are made in your body, you have to make RNA from your DNA (which you have probably heard of—if not, you need to watch the educational film ‘Jurassic Park’). Isolating RNA is relatively straightforward, but there are lots of things that can degrade it. So it is EXTRA important to handle everything very, very carefully.   Also, and this is especially true if you are trying to isolate RNA from only a few thousand cells (or maybe even a single cell!), you have to come to terms with the fact that nothing you are going to do will be visible. You must believe that you put the cells in the tube, that the RNA was isolated from the rest of the cellular gunk, and that in the final steps you successfully re-dissolved a tiny bit of invisible RNA in a tiny bit of water. Oh, and in between there are many other invisible processes that could destroy your precious RNA. Often, I find myself dedicating large chunks of my time (days!) going through the steps to do something like RNA isolation only to find out that all the work was for nothing.


Not surprisingly, it is easy to become superstitious when you work with things that can’t be seen. Need to check the Farmer’s Almanac before you start your experiment? Great idea! Moon phase may be indicate conditions are not perfect for experimentation.

Now, this may come as a surprise to you. Superstition AND science? At the SAME time? Yes. In fact, I might argue that this is at the heart of scientific reproducibility—the notion that an experiment performed several times will yield the similar if not the same results. For example, if when you isolate RNA you perform a chicken dance after your last ethanol wash before you elute it from a column (Quiagen RNAeasy kit step 8-9, for those of you following along at home), then you should always do a chicken dance after your last ethanol wash. And, most importantly, when you publish your paper, please make sure to include it in your methods section.


So you stumbled upon a time-machine…

First of all, congratulations!  You found a time-machine!  Second–what are you still doing here?

If I ran into a DeLorean just sitting around with a fully charged flux capacitor, I would travel back in time to warn myself about a career in science (er…I mean, ‘to provide some helpful advice’).  Here’s what I would tell my naïve self:

You (I?) will spend a considerable amount of time making things.  And it’s probably not what you are thinking.  I mean, really building things, using power tools, various glues, soldering irons, 3D-printers, you name it.  Sometimes it’s because science is ridiculously expensive and a couple hours of “crafting” can save hundreds of dollars.  Other times it’s because a specific component doesn’t exist.  The following skills will be extremely useful to you:

  1. Computer programming.  Many of my daily problems to be solved if I possessed more than a wisp of knowledge in this area.  For example, I could be a whiz at sorting and analyzing excel spreadsheets with custom-made macros.  I could breeze through data using programs written in Matlab.  I could finally get those two pieces of hardware talking to each other again so I don’t need to scream in panic as precious samples get liberally sprayed around the room by robots.  But I digress…
  2. Soldering.  I first learned to solder as a kid with one of those “build-it yourself” kits where you attach little LEDs onto a Christmas tree shaped circuit board.  I wish I had done more (there are some surprisingly awesome kits available now).  Despite being more expensive than equipment  you would buy for your home, science equipment is often much more “custom” and far less robust.  Sometimes the only thing between finally completing your experiments and catastrophic failure is the gumption to grab a soldering iron and put it all back together.
  3. A knowledge of power tools.  Some scientists work in specialized rooms that were designed and constructed for a very specific purpose.  Some don’t.  I’m not saying that I have drilled holes through walls and tables in our building…but sometimes the environment does need a little modification.  Knowing which tools to use when and where is important.

In other words, I would say to myself “learn to be more handy, past me!”.  And “work out more, your upper body strength is deplorable”.

Your future self will thank you.