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I arranged the bottles in front of me: 30% acrylamide, TEMED solution, ammonium persulfate, Tris buffer, and distilled water — all of the materials I needed to run electrophoresis on the protein samples I had isolated earlier that morning. Oh, and isopropanol to even out the gel, I remembered. I reached for the bottle labeled “99% isopropanol,” but after angling it slightly, I realized that it was empty. I walked to the storage cabinets on the other end of the lab and peered inside. No isopropanol.
I found my mentor in the cell culture room, hunched over a microscope. Spraying antiseptic alcohol on my latex gloves, I hurried over.
“Dr. Wang, we’re out of isopropanol in the lab,” I announced after waiting several seconds.
Still staring into her culture medium, Dr. Wang replied, “Did you sterilize yourself before entering?”
“Yes, I did, with — with the alcohol over there.” I pointed to a green plastic bottle that lay next to the electronic pipettes.
“The isopropanol is in the cabinets. I showed you yesterday,” Dr. Wang stated.
“I checked there and there’s no bottle of isopropanol. There’s just propanol, but–”
“Really? We’re out of isopropanol?” Dr. Wang finally looked up. “Remind me to place an order.” She returned to her cell culture.
I remained standing there. “So should I–”
“Try using something else. Maybe methanol or ethanol.” She pointed to the green plastic bottle I had used to sterilize my latex gloves. “That might work. Tell me what happens.”
Suddenly curious, I asked, “What about glycerol?” I remembered seeing a tinted glass bottle of glycerol at my work station.
“Sure,” she replied, too busy to notice my exuberance.
That was my second week interning at the Winship Cancer Institute and the third time I had been able to dabble with a standard procedure. The methods I improvised usually did not work. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every opportunity to reinvent laboratory procedures and observe the results.
I have been involved in lab work in biology and chemistry classes since the beginning of my freshman year. However, the experiments in these classes were prepackaged and bland. I was always handed the precise instructions and exact materials beforehand; I invariably knew what results to expect; and consequently, I never discovered anything new. Before long, the excitement I associated with conducting experiments diminished. But the “investigations” in my high school classes were nothing like the research I experienced in the Emory-Winship Summer Scholars Program.
At Winship, I jumped into research with no idea of what results to expect. I met researchers who dug into the unknown for eight hours a day every day, often only to be stumped with indeterminate or self-contradictory data. The postdoctoral researcher who worked across from me once described an occasion on which he analyzed four cells from the same cell line using the same immunofluorescent dye to stain the same protein — and finished with four entirely different sets of data, not knowing which, if any, was correct. Astonished, as I listened to him, I remembered an experiment from my AP Biology class in which my teacher promised extra credit to whichever group obtained the “best” data regarding the effect of osmotic pressure on diffusion rates.
At Winship, I realized that improvising and compromising were inherent in research, as the ideal materials and procedures were not always known and not always available. Before I even began research into metastatic cell receptors, my mentor informed me that because of financial constraints, I would not be able to use quantum dots to stain the receptors. Instead, I had to rely on the less expensive and less precise dye-coupled antibodies. Although the antibodies initially spat out inconclusive data, by fine-tuning the serum in which I grew the cancer cells, I was able to minimize stain interference and obtain positive immunofluorescence results. But as I labored through the calculations required to produce the correct serum concentrations, I thought back to my AP Chemistry labs, for which we had memorized procedures line-by-line as if they were hallowed scripts. And I realized how little I knew of research before that summer.
Most importantly, at Winship I came to understand the importance of research as a means of gathering scientific information. Before my internship, I always preferred the textbook to the beaker, the conclusion to the hypothesis, and knowledge to speculation. Without a doubt, I had had the scientific method imprinted upon the folds of my brain ever since elementary school, but only after working at Winship did I realize that lab work was required to produce every paragraph of every science textbook I had ever read.
I have always enjoyed learning scientific facts and concepts. But the Emory-Winship Summer Scholars Program instilled in me a love of scientific research: I realized that only by plowing the grounds of research could true knowledge ultimately be reaped.
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