I have fully entered the intricate maze that is molecular lab work.
* ai ai ai… *
You know that feeling when you are getting back from a long trip away from home and you have all these positive plans during the flight about how life is going to work from now on? Super plans of endless productivity and drastic life changes? I had one of those on the way back to the UK a month or so ago – midway between catching up with an indefinite amount of hours of lost sleep, average films and less than average plane dishes (but when plane dishes were ever top notch?). Admittedly, one forgets to add quite a lot of random but essential tasks on this ideal future life, like food shopping, clipping your nails, keeping in touch with all the people that matter, providing yourself with an unlimited supply of sorbet, discovering new music on Spotify, reply to emails… all that while making sure you don\’t burn that butternut squash and sweet potato soup…
So at the moment, my average week goes: manic very early morning running around – catching the bus to Bristol (if and when that shows up – always a gamble) – uni work until 5pm – coffee and uni work in Thali (a cafe in Easton that I seem to share the same taste in music with) – training (most evenings I double as a Shaolin kung fu bear, sweating, kicking and punching the stress of the day off) – bus back to Bath – \”oh, look, it\’s 11pm and I am now at home and ready to shower and start cooking tomorrow\’s meal\”. Life is pretty busy and I am loving it all. Apart from the bus bit – that bit can go throw itself off a cliff.
Eh, who needs sleep when one has bears, kung fu, lemon sorbet, and music?
I started this PhD in April 2017 and, even though I partly designed that project and was fully aware there was going to be a fair amount of molecular work involved (alongside the habitat mapping and fieldwork I was a lot more confident about), I decided to gracefully ignore my lack of knowledge of most things labwork. Seemed that knowledge would come smoothly, spoonfed to me by my supervisors and comprehensive tutorials online. Ha! You fool…
The period of graceful ignorance jumped out the window one day, and great big rocks of incomprehensive science dark matter fell on my head and knocked me the heck out! I repeat: \”ai ai ai\”. It is incredible, especially in academia, how quickly you switch from feeling like a genius, getting it aaaaaall done and ticking off your daily to-do lists, to feeling like a total moron. Me, I have been feeling like a moron for a while now. Leave me in the middle of a forest to track bears any day, but I still crumble at the sight of a pipette and DNA extraction protocols.
Time to embrace the beast.
So I did. I embraced the moron inside. Not easy to admit what you don\’t know, especially when most of your questions are stupid and you are constantly surrounded by pretty outstanding scientists. When they are looking for the cure to cancer, but your questions are more along the line of: Who will think I am less stupid if I ask where the used pipette tips are disposed off? How do you even prepare the disinfectant solution? And why, oh, why do men wear long lab coats with shorts small enough to look like they are not wearing anything at all under the coat? Yah… Saving the world here, one idiotic question at a time.
Feeling stupid is silly though. In settings like that, there will always be things we don\’t know, right? Some people are just better at hiding what they don\’t know than others. I am terrible at it! But I stopped worrying about what people think the moment I decided to spend a good few years of my life studying fly butts and bear poop to eventually become a shit doctor – by the way, if that blessed moment ever comes, I will make everyone call me Shit Doctor and then it will all be worth it.
Lab! When I worked on my habitat models, I used to shout at my computer a lot. Since I started working in the lab, the number of machines I swear at has increased dramatically. I am that person who, when learning something new, most things that could go wrong with it, do. Centrifuges exploding, PCR machines giving error messages midway through the reaction… Like a cold shower, it\’s like someone is testing if I have the balls to go through with it all. If it wasn\’t for the fact that I can see the humor in pretty much most situations, I would have evaporated in a cloud of anger and embarrassment by now. Humor, apparently, has gifted me with the tools to fend all that off.
I think if my father was around, he would see me off to uni every day saying: \”You go be stupid my child. Go be stupid and ask all the questions, and come back home a genius.\”. He would do that every day, I know it, because he understood that in order to trully become good at something, you need to reset yourself every day, let go off all things that make you feel like the supreme leader of the universe, and humbly allow new ideas to come, corrections to be made, and what was good from the days before to really settle in.
Today I went in the lab early, expecting nothing, but hoping for the world. And by \’world\’ I mean \’finally find some bloody bear DNA in the samples extracted from fly guts\’. I have taken my research to a few levels above looking for needles in haystacks. I am looking for tiny fragments of bear DNA in fly abdomens! Frustrating? Oh, yes. I have been cooking tiny tubes in a PCR machine, baking the world\’s tiniest cake, praying that my primers will bind to anything other than their bloody selves and give me some proper products. And by \’proper products\’ I mean bear DNA that has travelled from the bowels of a bear in Greece, to a great heap of shit in the forest, into the guts of a fly, in a suitcase to England, through some intricate chemistry I don\’t really understand, and onto a gel in a UWE lab. Ambitious? Heck, yeah!
Impossible? Not since this afternoon!
I am very happy today. You know the feeling when something great happens and suddenly you are adamant that life is going to be one fucking glorious party from now on?
Yes, yes, I know I need to replicate the experiment about 15134561308745630845 times and also dance around the fire under a full moon and sacrifice a virgin capibara in the name of science to be absolutely sure that my primers and extraction kits are indeed working properly, but today I will go home happy.
And hopefully won\’t burn the soup either…