Monday, June 23, 2008
The adventures of an accidental scientst: part I
Last night, I spent some time talking to a good friend who's studying to take the GRE, or graduate records exam, in preparation to go to grad school. He was a little concerned about his potential performance on the math section, since his math is a little rusty. In an effort to cheer him up, I told him how low my math score was on the GRE- a pretty low percentile. I don't feel like posting just how low it was. But, on the bright side, I scored in a very high percentile with my verbal part of the test. And my essays got one mark below a perfect score.
At this point in the conversation, we both realized that based on my GRE score, nobody would place me in the sciences for advanced study. In fact, I got comments about my scores when I spoke with professors from different schools about attending their programs. Fortunately, nobody saw fit to use my test score to prevent me from getting accepted to their program.
However, I've been thinking about it a bit today, and I really am a little surprised that I ended up studying science. I love it passionately, don't get me wrong. Anyone who's seen me give a presentation on my research or sub a class for a professor can attest that I get maybe even a little too excited about it (my little sisters probably have something to say about this, too, when they come to me for biology and chemistry homework help). But, I'm really a right-brained person. Numbers and other sciency things are not my forte. They're not even my mezzo-forte. Maybe a mezzo-piano.
Yet, here I am. Somehow I didn't wind up studying humanities, although I find the written word and studying languages and history fascinating. One of my guilty pleasures is reading dictionaries for fun to learn new words. I didn't end up in a music-based major, although I've pursued music as much as I could in college, playing my flute in the nonaudition groups and taking music lessons. Nope, I am a botanist and a geneticist. I assure you there was no pressure at home to pursue either of these majors.
So, I find myself to be something of an accidental scientist: I'm not completely sure how I got here, but I'm quite pleased to stay along for the ride. And so I bring you the first installment of The Adventures of an Accidental Scientist.
This introductory installment comes to you after some debate, but it's such a funny story that I have to share it.
A little background: in the lab, one of the most basic things we do is separate very small things (ie molecules) according to their size, shape, or charge. One of the most common things to separate by size in a genetics lab is pieces of DNA. We do this by putting the mixture of DNA into a large slab of something called agarose, which is essentially like really thick jell-o. You could eat it if you wanted to, but I don't recommend it. Gels come in powder form, just like jell-o, and you make one by pouring the powder into a buffer solution and heating it up and then pouring it in a gel box, which is also a lot like making jell-o. However, unlike jell-o, gels can be reused. We put them in Erlennmyer flasks in a big fridge in the lab until the next time we need a gel, and then one of them gets taken out, melted down, and recast:
Anyway, a lot of times it's necessary to run an agarose gel to see if different reactions worked or not. A few months ago, I was running a lot of gels and coming to dislike them strongly because each time I did so, I discovered that my reactions weren't working. I tried to take the approach of not shooting the messenger, but one day I'd had enough and I got rather hot and bothered with my little gel.
I picked it up and looked at it for a minute. Just then, my friend Ryan walked in to the room and could tell I was frustrated with the way my research was going. After he sympathized with me, I suddenly got an impish idea.
"Ryan," I said, "would it be terrible if I threw my gel at the wall to relieve stress?" Ryan laughed and then he realized that I meant it. So, being a gentleman, he replied that he didn't think it would be too bad, as long as none of the professors walked in right then. Also, it should be noted that gel gets on the floor all the time and nothing bad results.
Consequently, I took careful aim and chucked my gel at the wall. Well, not at the real wall, strictly speaking. I threw it at a large fume hood that happened to be in front of me.
What I wasn't counting on was the fact that the gel was very slippery and flew out of my hand at a much sharper angle than I intended. Thus, Ryan and I both watched in amazement as the gel arced up and landed gracefully on top of the fume hood, a good ten feet up. Then we both burst out laughing. The unintended result did more to relieve my stress than just chucking the gel would have.
Two months later, Ryan and I were both at work late in the evening, finishing some things up. It was probably after 9, and we were both ready to go home. As we waited for our reactions to finish, we suddenly thought of the gel I had thrown, and Ryan climbed up on the sink to see if he could see it on the fume hood. Lo and behold, it was still there! It had become completely dehydrated and was super thin and brittle by then. We got a good chuckle out of that.
Although hurling a gel at the wall was fun and provided much entertainment, I don't think I'll make a habit of it. It doesn't seem like good science somehow.