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: before 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.
I hadn’t planned to leaved the lab so late and I was worried that the light jacket I had brought wouldn’t be warm enough outside. I stepped through the heavy building doors to walk home.
It was surprisingly pleasant outside though, and walking at a brisk pace felt good after sitting still so long. I had spent most of my day motionless in a cold room, looking at tiny things through microscopes. My neck hurt from being bent over and I was tired, thinking about how I would have to repeat the whole experiment again and it would likely take just as long to finish tomorrow. I rolled my shoulders and stretched my head back feeling the tenseness in my spine dissipate a little as I did so.
The movement brought my gaze up from the pavement–up above the orange glow of the street lamps and up to the cloudless night sky. It seemed like the sky was blacker than it should be with all the light pollution from the city, and the crisp air was bringing several stars into sharp focus. Small dots were rapidly changing colors and burning with a light that was all at once more intensely bright-hot and cold-hued than the artificial lamps around me. It stuck me how these pinpoints of light were, in reality, orders of magnitude larger than anything I had thought about or looked at today.
A light breeze picked up and I shivered for the first time, my gaze returning to the sidewalk.
I still had a ways to go.
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:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
Oops. I did it again. (Brittany Spears reference, ha! Geez, I’m a postdoc, and thus not particularly cool, ok?).
Anyway, I managed to apply the same process to this blog as I am to my research. Here are my “Ten Steps to Success”:
- Start a project. (Oooo, this will be fun!)
- While researching that project discover something else that looks more interesting (because that first project already seems boring and/or ridiculously difficult).
- Start that next project.
- Realize you are being an idiot and try to simultaneously work on the first one as well.
- Start a third project just for the hell of it.
- In your stress-induced haze of frantic working, have an ah-ha! moment and realize that if you just work on “this other thing” you can actually have something completed in a day or two.
- Work frantically on all four projects.
- Realize that four projects is really eight.
- Spend a day planning how to work on all eight projects.
- Effectively end up not getting anything done.
No. Please do not EVER follow these steps. Not if you are a postdoc, undergrad, blogger, stay-at-home mom, rocket scientist, or otherwise. In fact, if your actual intention is to do nothing, then following these steps will ultimately result in doing WAY too much work. And the loss of your sanity.
So I guess what I’m saying is…I have been working on several exciting blog posts over the month of December and I may eventually get one of them up in the next month or two.
Remember those things I said are universal to the pursuit of science? I found a couple more items…
#3 A really great travel mug.
Because face it. You need coffee. A LOT of coffee. But everytime you get a cup of coffee from your favorite terrible coffee place, someone comes and asks you a question about experimental methods before you can drink it and then you have to fix a microscope for someone else. So a travel mug becomes critical to the pursuit of science. Look for one that has a) adequate volume for your coffee drinking habits and b) top-of-the-line insulation for maximum drinkability later (because cold coffee and hot coffee are both great, but that middle range is really quite aweful).
#4 An extra pair of pants.
For when you spill a large volume of really-hot-even-though-you-got-it-hours-ago coffee all over the pair of pants that you were wearing just before you have to meet with the boss. An extra pair of pants can be extremely useful.
Hercules (or Herakles) was ridiculously strong. So strong, in fact, that as a baby he strangled poisonous snakes that were sent to kill him. He then went on to complete the 12 labors—which included defeating a nine-headed hydra, wrestling a lion, driving away a flock of man-eating birds, and capturing a deer with golden horns and bronze hooves. Pretty. Legendary. Stuff.
What could this possible have to do with being a postdoc? Next to nothing, in fact! Except it seems highly doubtful that there was ever a hydra, or man-eating birds, or a magical deer. Maybe there was a lion, but did someone named Hercules ever wrestle it? Or maybe he just happened to see one once, and told all his friends how cool it was.
Ever hear of the postdoc who ran ten 384-well plate ELISAs all at the same time? Or who stripped and reprobed a western blot with 50 different antibodies? Or who pcr-amplified, digested, ligated, and then grew up and sequenced a whole new plasmid all in one day? Well, maybe not exactly. But I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon that when a tech, or grad student, or postdoc leaves the lab, they occasionally reach “legendary” status and are remembered (and spoken of) for having performed incredible feats of science during their time in the lab.
I like to consider how I can reach such a level—the postdoc who rode into lab on a unicorn every morning, with a flask full of rainbows, and who’s every experiment she touched magically worked and turned to gold. And who had perfect hair.