Undergrad, Underdogs

The undergraduate student culture in a science research lab is very interesting, and I didn’t realize how interesting it was until my second summer in the lab. As an undergrad, you walk into your lab on your first day expecting so much of yourself. You expect to find the most promising results of your life. You expect to impress everyone in your lab. You basically expect to become the next Albert Einstein. But your mentors and fellow grad students and post-doctorates think otherwise. They’re not expecting you to fail, but they’re definitely not expecting you to be an Einstein…they’re STILL aiming to be half the brain Einstein had. Mentors are trained and taught to expect undergrads to be toddlers running rampant around a lab, lighting Bunsen burners necessarily, and mixing up materials because we can’t read. Funny isn’t it, especially since all we want to is find the cure for cancer? This conflict of expectations between undergrad and mentor/lab superiors can often be fatal….well mentally exhausting. No undergrad wants to come into lab feeling like their mentors don’t trust them, but no mentor wants to ruin months or even years of work on a toddler. So where do we compromise? The answer is that there is no compromise. The undergrad is actually the underdog. But the great thing about being an underdog is that you’re being paid to learn. Remember the billions of times we screamed and whined as kids, “if only we got paid to go to school!” Well, being an undergrad-underdog is that dream come true. Undergrads (most of the time…) are paid (quite a SMALL AMOUNT), to learn about numerous projects, dip their hands and feet in for a quick swim, and then step out of the water if we don’t like it. But for mentors, they’re already 100 feet deep. They’re almost fish by now and there’s no turning back. So while to the outsider, being an underdog seems degrading and simply unfair, I’ve learned that being the undergrad-underdog is one of the best jobs and educational experiences to have ever existed. Where else would I be expected to be a reckless undergraduate student and still be paid for it?

Show Case!

It’s not exactly a show case, but it’s called a lab presentation….where I get to show-case my work for the summer. Every week in our lab, we have lab meetings where someone is assigned to talk about the progress of their project, what’s working and what isn’t working so well. For an undergraduate like myself, it’s interesting and sometimes exciting to be able to learn about others’ work, especially when it involves concepts that I’ve never heard of before. Last week, myself and another undergraduate student had the pleasure of presenting our work to the lab. While most people might think this is exciting, I was more skeptical than anything. I had no access to any results and it felt almost pointless to present. I figured if I’m presenting how I went about conducting the research, most, if not all, of the lab members were already familiar with the protocols. If they were already familiar with the protocols and their purpose, I then started thinking this would turn into a test of what I do and don’t know well . Now you can understand why I was skeptical to present. But after putting together my 20-minute presentation, I was shocked to see how much I had actually learned and did within a 9-week span of time. I was also surprised to see how many people weren’t familiar with some of the protocols that I discussed in my presentation, which made presenting more fulfilling because I actually felt like I was teaching something new. While presenting is supposed to be mostly for the audience, I appreciate that I had this responsibility.  It forced me to think back to day one in the lab and recollect everything that I completed and learned. Presenting what I did and learned forced me to sit back and acknowledge that I actually learned a lot more than I thought I had on a daily basis.

Clubbing

With Journal Articles! Every two weeks in the Handelsman Lab, we have “Journal Club” where a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow leads a discussion about a journal article related to the Microbiology field.  When I first learned about this journal club, I thought, “Don’t you guys already have enough work on your plates?” But after one or two discussions, I realized it’s a brilliant idea. The only way that any project in the field of science can work is by looking at previous work done by other scientists and critiquing that work. Everyone is  expected to read the journal article ahead of time so that we’re all able to chime in the discussion. From an undergraduate perspective, it’s always interesting to see when everyone laughs at how absurd some of the methods in these articles are. In my opinion, the methods and results always seem perfectly valid, but that’s the beauty of learning from people who have so much experience in the field. It amazes me how much the people in my lab know, to the point that they’re able to look at an article and critique the work put into an experiment they’ve never worked on a day in their lives. Most people might find it a little obnoxious, but I find it pretty impressive actually.  My favorite journal club would have to be one lead on “Bacterial-Derived Uracil as a Modulator of Mucosal Immunity and Gut-Microbe Homeostasis in Drosopholia”. The title alone is enough to make anyone want to run away and hide. But the beauty of Journal Club is sitting down with students and fellows who have seven to ten years more experience than you and hashing out what that long and obnoxious title really means. This was also my favorite journal club because both of my mentors reassured me  they barely understood half of the article. For the first time, I was reminded that I’m not alone in feeling like I have an eternity’s worth of knowledge left to learn.

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Mastering Science!

Once a year at the Handelsman Lab, a week-long workshop, Mastering Metagenomics, is hosted to target undergraduate students interested in microbiology, and scientists who desire training in metagenomics.  In the past, we’ve had participants from the University of Puerto Rico came and this year, I had the wonderful experience of working with participants from the University of New Mexico. The idea behind functional metagenomics is to create a library of DNA from soil samples that is around 30 kilo-bases long. I’m sure you’re wondering why students would travel so far to just to isolate extremely long strands of DNA.  Well, DNA tells us the function of every living being on earth, from bacteria to human beings. It tells us what enzymes they’re able to produce, what hair color they have, how tall they will be, etc. Using this DNA that we extract from out soil samples during the workshop, we can screen it for various genes such resistance to antibiotics (my project this summer), antibiotic producers, nitrogen producers, etc. Creating libraries of DNA from various samples such as soil and bacteria can help understand where our critical medical inventions and issues stem from. How cool is it that the antibiotics we use could come from bacteria in soil. When I think about soil, I think about plants and trees….but never antibiotics. But that is essentially the entire purpose of this workshop. Looking at DNA from soil-bacteria from places all around the world and screening various functions that we’re personally interested in investigating.  In addition to doing science, we incorporate a bit of discussion to keep things interesting, like reading primary literature and discussing current and future trends in metagenomics. The best part of this experience is being able to interact with current and future scientists who have had so many different experiences in the science field and are so eager to share them. For instance, one of our participants had just traveled to Iceland and went into a cave to get soil for the workshop and another participant had traveled to Antarctica for his sample. These unique travel experiences and the great lengths that our participants go to for science is interesting and inspiring to learn to about.

Lunch on Wheels…

Lunch-time at the Handelsman Lab is not your average meal.  On Yale Science Hill where my lab is located around 11-2pm daily, you can find a multitude of different cultures….in carts. To everyone who works here, we refer to them as “the carts”. The carts consist of dishes from various cultures across the world including Thai, Ethiopian, Mexican, Bengali and more. The best part is, unlike so many fast food chains and restaurants that I know of, the servings are so large that you can pretty much purchase lunch AND dinner…for five bucks.  With the career center grant, I can spend purchase my lunch and sometimes even dinner, at an affordable cost.  The great thing about the carts is watching how it gradually unifies lab communities and researchers with cart workers. Unlike most restaurants, these workers remember our faces and genuinely great us when we arrive at their carts.  If you walk into any lab lunchroom, at least one topic of conversation begins with, “what’d you get at the carts today?” The carts easily becomes most researchers go-to place to gain some energy through eating and creating conversation away from their lab benches.  photo (3)

A Morning in New Haven…

I live off-campus in the suburban part of New Haven, right outside heart of Yale’s campus and the New Haven Green.  While most people would imagine living off-campus is difficult, it’s not nearly as inconvenient as I anticipated. With my internship grant, I’m able to have a morning walk AND a 10-minute bus ride to work…two for the price of one. Unlike the hectic MTA buses in New York City that I’m used to, Connecticut Transit buses have a set schedule for when buses will be their stops…and it’s reliable! To top that off, Connecticut Transit system charges $47 for an unlimited monthly transit card while New York City charges $104…I could get used to living here.  Most people under-estimate the value in commuting to and from work. However, I’ve learned a significant amount about New Haven geography, the culture of the community, and the livelihood of New Haven residents through my daily commutes. Like myself, most people on the bus patiently ride with their music to wake them up as they head to work and young children with their parents pout because they don’t want to go to school. The afternoons are also filled with tired adults, but with a sense of relief that the day is finally over.  While the community layout of my neighborhood and lab location are noticeably different, I appreciate that I’ve been able to have two different learning experiences here for the summer. With a simple metro-card, I am able to learn not only in my research-lab, but also on the very streets that I walk on, about the city of New Haven.

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Clean Up, Clean Up, Everybody Do Your Share!

One day out of the year in the Handelsman lab is dedicated to cleaning up the entire lab and replenishing stock-solutions. On a daily basis, everyone does a fairly good job of cleaning up their personal messes…pipette tips, dead flies, fecal matter all go in their respective waste bins. But you’d be surprised how much dust accumulates under weigh-balances and how many bottles you’ll find with liquids dated all the way back to 2010. That makes me wonder why they weren’t trashed during last-year’s lab clean-up, but that’s besides the point. As a lab, we collectively spent three straight hours assigned to our assigned areas, cleaning and laughing at the gross sites of filth that we found and boxes of materials belonging to people we forgot had ever worked in the lab. It’s on days like these that you learn who was forced to do chores growing up. Those who scrubbed endlessly at every spot on the counter and offered to help with jobs that weren’t assigned to them obviously aren’t new to cleaning chores. But it was those who swept dust underneath their beds instead of the garbage that did minimal work. You’d think that a group of working adults would be more productive at cleaning a lab, but we made sarcastic jokes about old, nearly unidentifiable liquids and one another. I’ve come to learn that my co-workers are some of the most sarcastic and laid-back scientists I know…who would have ever thought. The best part of lab clean-up day is never cleaning; it’s the pizza! Post clean-up, we reward ourselves with boxes of yummy pizza for lunch. In my last few weeks here, I look forward to watching the lab become progressively filthier.

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Rolling Around in Cow Manure

Well, I’m not rolling around in cow manure…but my pipette is. For the past three weeks, I have been conducting microbiology research in  the Handelsman Lab at Yale University.  My project involves screening for antibiotic-resistance in dairy animals, specifically in cows. Current farming techniques have contributed a significant amount to increased resistance to antibiotics in dairy farm animals. Have you taken a good look at the chickens in the supermarket lately? They’re HUGE. Many farmers treat their animals with various antibiotics to foster their growth and/or to prevent their animals from illnesses. Sounds like a smart thing to do, right? The issue is that these microscopic gremlins called bacteria are some of the sneakiest and most dangerous creatures known to man. Let’s pretend antibiotics are the police force while bacteria are the “bad-guys”. When the police force first enters the area of the crime (the animal’s gut), they successfully kill the bad guys in the area. Unfortunately, there was no way for the police force to get ALL of the bad guys…that would just be unrealistic. So more bad-guys who were in hiding committed more crimes. Long story short, the more that the police force came to put a stop to these awful crimes, the more bad-guys wreaked havoc in the community. Theses antibiotics are effective at killing most of the bacteria that are causing illnesses in farm-animals, but eventually, the bacteria out-smart the antibiotics. But who cares? Good Question. Humans care. Most Americans on average consume farm-animals or farm-animal products. The bacteria that live in these animals invade the human population in various ways and affect the way that our immune system respond to these antibiotics when we need medical treatment. We hope to find a number of genes that are resistant to numerous antibiotics and learn more about the nature of these genes.

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