Lab Days

In the summer of 2017, Guananí participated in an undergraduate research program at the University of Iowa’s Microbiology Department, where she was introduced to the ways of the research lab. This was accomplished by learning about the swarming of bacteria, how time works in a workaholic field, and why toothpicks are the most important tool in a bacterial genetics lab. But when all the experiments were said and done, she came to understand that beyond all the technicalities, science is about failing profusely and systematically, and the people you work with are as or more important than the subject being studied.

 A particularly busy week at Guananí's lab bench. Photo by Guananí Gómex. 

A particularly busy week at Guananí's lab bench. Photo by Guananí Gómex. 

I don’t remember much from my first two weeks in Iowa City. A cultural hub in the southeastern corner of the state, Iowa City is home to a lovely river, a vibrant square mile of downtown, and a massive research university. I had been assigned to work with Dr. Linda McCarter, whose lab is tucked into a fold of the Bowen Science Building, a research park monolith that looks like a fifties bunker seen through 3D glasses. Deep within Bowen’s maze, between a rabbit endocarditis lab and a herpes virology lab, past the break room and the autoclave room, lies the McCarter Lab, where I spent ten weeks testing the hypothesis that bacterial cell walls play a role in the ability of bacteria to adjust their survival strategy based on whether they find themselves submerged a liquid or on a surface.

Those first few weeks passed in a slow-motion blur. I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the project I was undertaking, the array of unfamiliar bottles and machines that surrounded me on all sides, and the explanations Linda sweetly repeated as she showed me once again which of the fridges and freezers full of bacteria and DNA I was supposed to keep my samples in. I remember making media: clumsily weighing and mixing yeast, salt, and other bacterial nutrients into huge flasks that were then steamed and boiled sterile inside autoclaves, belching ticking metal bellies that looked like old furnaces or steampunk livestock. My first time using the autoclave, I didn’t crank the door closed tightly enough; a strange clanking sound filled the lab, a shrill scream of steam, and the grad student, Maria, jumped up from her bench, rushed into the autoclave room and turned it off, explaining the dangers of spilling steam.

Life in the lab bumped along as I stumbled through various misunderstandings and failures. I returned to the university housing every evening discouraged, wondering how I could have possibly been chosen for this program and googling the techniques I was learning in an attempt to feel in control, on track. A few weeks into the internship, I called my dad in a moment of insecurity. How could I ever be a scientist if I kept making so many mistakes? My dad said he didn’t know about all this wacky science stuff, but he suspected I just needed to “rasparme las rodillas” (scrape up my knees). “Just keep doing your best and don’t zone out. You’ll get it.”

As the days went on, I gradually grew used to the lab’s yeasty smell, the hum of twelve refrigerators, and the steamy belch of the autoclave. I learned more about the background of my project, the series of experiments and students who came before me, and felt like I was part of a knowledge-seeking lineage. The more I talked to Linda and my lab mates about their projects, the more the various details and techniques started fitting together. “Science takes a great tolerance for failure,” Linda said at one point, and even though I had heard and experienced this before in my biology classes, this summer was when it really started sinking in.

While I settled into my project, Linda’s friendly cackle and steady guidance created the kind of atmosphere in which I was challenged and increasingly independent but never alone. Eventually I was able to complete procedures and work out next steps on my own. My favorite technique involved dipping a glass wand in ethanol, setting it on fire with a Bunsen burner, squirting bacterial culture onto a fresh petri dish with media, and spreading it evenly with the wand by spinning a tiny Lazy Susan. I loaded gels with DNA products, designed primers, and grew E. coli cells to harbor the specific genes I was trying to copy. After about five weeks of frustrating repeats, days of work wasted by simple mistakes, and mysterious malfunctions, I set the wobbly umpteenth electrophoresis gel onto the UV reader box, expecting yet another empty row devoid of any sign of the gene I had been trying to isolate. As the machine clicked and whirred, Linda appeared behind me, and we both looked on in amazed relief as a few glowing bands appeared along the expected row. “You cloned it, kiddo!” she said, beaming her benevolent smile, and I started to believe that maybe I could do this science thing after all.

My favorite thing about working in the lab was the pace of the work, the way I learned to divide and focus my attention on a new rhythm of multitasking. I set up PCR reactions while waiting for the centrifuge to be done, carefully labelled petri dishes as various types of media cooled enough to be poured, and did my best to keep all the delicate and preposterously expensive molecular biology ingredients on ice while rushing to stop a running gel or scribbling things down in my lab notebook. It was all about keeping careful track of details and figuring out how to keep two or three procedures going at once so that no lab time was idle. Linda assured me that this was the only way to get things done at something resembling efficiency. We met in the lab most weekends; when Linda wasn’t there, she was gardening in the stultifying Iowan humidity.

By the time the cloned genes had finally been coaxed into the actual bacteria we wanted to study, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, there were only three weeks left of the internship. By now the lab work had become less intimidating, less repetitive, and I was finally getting to do the experiments that might answer our questions about surface sensing. After running several gene expression assays that smelled like sulphur and relied on a spectrophotometer telling me how yellow my samples had turned, I had real data. A second experiment revealed how exposing the bacteria to antibiotics that interfered with their cell walls changed their gene expression in a similar way to the cell-wall disrupting strains I had created. In a frantic week of creating graphs and summarizing methods, I put together a presentation for the program’s final hurrah, a poster session. There, I had the opportunity to explain my project to members of other summer programs and place the data we had collected into a larger story of how bacteria, the most abundant form of life on the planet, go about the daily business of sensing their environment and adapting accordingly.

While most of my experience in the Iowa lab felt like clumsily learning the steps to a fiendishly complicated dance, the parade of mistakes I made and the small, gradual triumphs of understanding I reached taught me what it means to do research on a day-to-day basis. It could have been unbearable, had I not been surrounded by such lovely and supportive mentors. It could have been crushing, had I not slowly come to enjoy poking lumps of slimy bacterial colonies with toothpicks or gotten comfortable asking for help every day. If I stayed in the lab late on any given evening, I would overhear Linda and Maria meeting in Linda’s office adjacent to the lab, where they would inevitably burst into uproarious laughter. Sometimes I could hear that they were discussing Maria’s projects, her upcoming graduate qualifying exam, and the endless details of bacterial iron metabolism and signaling, but I never found out what, exactly, was so funny about all that science. A part of me would love to find out.