Such profound thoughts seemed to resonate throughout my mind when I first started working in a lab as an undergraduate. I was horrified that I would drop a beaker, record data incorrectly or worse—add too much salt to a stock solution and destroy every experiment my lab would perform from that day forward.
I abhorred lab meetings: I was the village idiot forced to fumble my words and stutter over ideas I had no business talking about in front of a crowd of people I insisted (though they repeatedly told me not to) on calling “doctors”.
Each day seemed to perpetuate a downward spiral; there was no possible way I could continue on: something had to give! One day it finally hit me. After spending countless hours in this strange new world of a scientific laboratory, telling myself that I did not belong and that I needed to find an out, it hit me: I was learning.
After a few months of beating myself up about the little things, I took a step back and looked at the big picture: I was slowly but most certainly beginning to be able to do things in the laboratory autonomously and accurately.
I began to take pride in pouring the most beautiful 1.5% agarose gels that had ever graced the ethidium bromide-infused TE buffer tank; I recorded my serologic tests with accuracy and confidently placed them on the research technician’s desk; I even found myself screwing/unscrewing bottled beverages in my own home one-handedly with a flawless rotation of my fingertips, as if I were extracting a precious elixir from the bottom of a screw-top holy grail.
After spending more time perfecting the most basic of laboratory techniques and advancing to intermediacy, it dawned on me that I was beginning to view my position in an optimistic and prideful manner: I realized that I thrived in this environment. My early angst may seem pathological to some, but I would argue that it is at least in part common amongst all young students in their first extracurricular laboratory setting. We grow up learning that science is difficult, and is only for the most intelligent people to pursue. The Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy, is hallowed as an unflawed and omniscient entity, not to be approached by the faint of heart. It is indeed due to these stigmas that, at least in my case, I initially hated the intimidating and confusing world of science. I hated it until science slapped me in the face and showed me what it really was.
It was a late night. I was the last person on the 6th floor of the research annex of the hospital. It was the end of the first day of my new position as an independent undergraduate researcher, and I felt the initial hyper-anxiety I had experienced one year prior creeping up on me.
What if this doesn’t work? What if I forgot to add the secondary antibody? Did I wash the plates four times after blocking?
My first project (which I am still working on to this day) involved mapping the specific regions of a bacterial protein (‘epitopes’) that are recognized by host defense proteins called antibodies. The Enzyme-Linked-Immunoassay (ELISA) was my tool of choice, and I was on the final step of the 6 hour procedure. If I had performed the steps perfectly, after adding an assay solution to the 96-well plates the epitopes would turn yellow with an intensity that correlates with the strength of antibody-recognition.
I will never forget the indescribable feelings that overcame me after I added the assay solution to the plates. I think that in many respects, it was the denouement of my year-long preparation in basic sciences. Under the artificial light over my lab bench, I watched as some wells began to evolve a faint yellow color. I literally sat in awe: I was observing the regions of a protein that were recognized by the immune system during an infection. Even more, for that brief moment in time, I was the only person in the world who knew the information that manifested itself in varying intensities of yellow on the plates before me: I was hooked.
It is this feeling of autonomous self-discovery which I have come to cherish that drives my passion for the sciences. It is a feeling that, unfortunately, is lost on many young students studying science in the traditional sense. The transformation one goes through in the beginning of a scientific career is an unmistakable initiation into the world of science: from the first anxiety-ridden lab meeting to the first feeling of collecting real, meaningful scientific data.
As much as I hated science in the beginning of my laboratory experience, I credit those feelings as a vital part of the passion I have for the field today. There will always be hard times that supplement good times: science is an emotionally trying and fluctuating field, even as an undergraduate. As a Ph.D. student, I have heard (and observed), this reality becomes all-too-apparent.
I encourage all students in STEM fields to seek out extracurricular laboratory experiences. I would tell them that it will be okay, that science really isn’t as frightening as some teachers would make it seem, and that you will be introduced to a true concept of science you never could imagine otherwise. However telling someone this would be futile. One’s first entrance into such a field will always be frightening—but they will come to appreciate that fear and apprehension as they learn to devote their time overcoming it.
The only question is if/when one will take the leap of faith into the rewarding world of scientific discovery.
Resource: Mark Fernandez