Sunday, November 13, 2011

Be a wet lab scientist: Done!

People usually imagine a science lab to be full of bubbling flasks, petri dishes of bacteria, and lots of expensive, heavy machinery. My degree is in the sciences, but my lab looks like an ordinary office, complete with cubicles and personal computers. To differentiate, we call  the flask/petri dish/centrifuge lab a "wet lab", while my lab is a "dry lab".
I have a lot of wet lab friends, and would occasionally visit them in their natural settings. Last week, I decided to put on a pair of latex gloves and try my hand at some wet lab work. JM was my mentor/boss for the day.
Here I am with a pipette (also called a pipet, pipettor, pipetman, or chemical dropper according to wiki). Once you learn how to use a pipette, you are officially initiated to the wet lab club.

I found out that a lot of wet lab work is labeling lots and lots of samples. Here I am labeling Eppendorf tubes (1.5 mL plastic test tubes):

When I was young, I had numerous science kits, two of which included a monocular (one eyepiece) microscope. However, I never got to use a binocular microscope until I took a cancer course during my second year of grad school. That course included one lab session, in which my computational biology friends and I were so lost. Each group was given a diseased organ on a tray, and our task was to find the tumor.
I had no idea what a tumor looked like in real life. No one in my group did. Our group was assigned a heart. When the prof came over to check in on our progress, we pointed to what we thought might be a tumor. Apparently our conception of a tumor was actually just fat.
The conversation with the professor continued kind of like this:
Dr.: Where is the aorta?
Us: ... umm... ?? The term sounds familiar...
Dr.: Where is the left side of the heart?
Us: ... umm... ?? Both sides look the same...
Dr.: Which side is thicker and more muscular?
Us: ... umm... That side?
Dr.: No.
Us: Ah yes, ok. This side.
Dr.: So if this side is more muscular, what does that mean?
Us: ... ??? ...
He must have been wondering how these idiots were able to sneak into this class.

Going back to the binocular microscope... If you don't ever use them, then you think they're easy to use: just put one eye over each eyepiece. If you use them all the time, then you think they're easy to use: just put one eye over each eyepiece.
In actuality, using these microscopes is akin to riding a bike: If you already know how to ride a bike, you forget what it was like when your training wheels were removed and you wobbled around your driveway. If you're trying to get used to using a binocular microscope, it takes (for me, anyway) a lot of adjusting. I don't quite know how the optics work, but somehow I ended up seeing my eyelashes flash across my line of vision whenever I blinked. Or I would see cells in one eye, but not the other. Then vice versa.
I now know my pupillary distance is 57.

Once you get the hang of it, you see incredible images. It's amazing to think about what you're seeing. I was like, "Wow... science... is sooo cool!"
JM gave me some interesting samples to look at and compare. I was able to take pictures of what I saw by putting my camera lens over one of the eyepieces. On the left, you see normal cells. On the right are the same line of cells, but because they are sensitive to a particular drug, they look dead/dying/shriveled up after being exposed to that drug. (You can click on them to enlarge the pictures.)

Sooo cool, right?!?
It was a pretty eventful day in lab for me: Pipetting, labeling, and microscoping.

Writing this post reminded me of a Research-in-progress (RIP) talk I gave in 2008. Although I was in the computational biology program, my lab advisor is in the pathology department, so my RIP talk was in front of predominantly wet lab biologists. To close my talk (and this post), I pointed out some differences between the wet lab and the dry lab.