August 8, 2011

Wrapping Up

This week all that I have left to do is prepare two presentations to give the BU community and the rest of the RET participants information on just what Jared and I accomplished this summer.  I'm in the middle of setting up a poster right now, but figured I'd stop to share some random reflective thoughts.

I'm really happy that I was able to get good data on my experiment, and even happier that the data confirms our hypothesis.  I've also learned to appreciate how rare it is for that to happen, so I feel pretty lucky.  The major downside of the data story though is that we didn't collect more of it.  Mainly this was because neither Jared nor I know how to use the software which processes the data that we collected with the high-magnification IRIS.  One of the students who works in the lab did it for us on just two of our images, and he did things so quickly that we had no chance of being able to do it on our own.  In fact, while we have data which supports our hypothesis, our data isn't that convincing because we didn't collect enough of it.  Imagine people voting for president: 100 million votes are usually cast in an election, but imagine that whoever is in charge only looked at 1,000 of them before deciding who won the election.  That's what our data is like.

I'd say that the major hurdle to getting research done at first was a lack of supervision.  We were mainly working with Carlos, who was sadly also in charge of helping two other RET teams.  He ended up not having a ton of time for us at first, so we didn't really start working independently in the lab until the very last week, when in fact we could have started a week earlier.  We wasted a lot of time in that first week just waiting for him to have a free moment to work with us, and that held us back.

Instead of giving you a final word, I'll end with a quote that sums up pretty much the main thing I learned this summer.

"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
-Thomas Alva Edison

August 4, 2011


Today, a story of success.  I know, just about the last thing you'd expect, right?  Same here.

Yesterday we looked at our latest batch of chips.  Our gold beads have anti-HGH attached to them, which means that the beads should want to stick to the chips that have HGH on them, but not stick to any other chips.  We took a lot of pictures of the chips yesterday and saw a lot of white spots on the HGH-coated chips, so we assumed that those were the gold beads and left the lab feeling really good.  On the last day of working in the lab, it seemed like we had finally accomplished our goal.

Today we got some help from a undergrad students in the lab, Joey.  He used some specialized software to look at our images, and he analyzed the same regions of the chips that we did.  When he saw the white spots though, he was instantly skeptical that they were in fact beads, and our hearts fell.  Had we failed after all?  In a sense, yes.  The spots were actually dirt of some kind, perhaps salt crystals or some other debris, but they were clearly too big to be the gold beads.  However, rather than give up, Joey decided to study part of the chip that appeared to have nothing on it, just to see what would happen.  Turns out it had nearly 100 gold beads on it.  Finally, we have tasted success, and I can only hope that the rest of the research groups were able to feel the same.

As this experience comes to a close, I can say that I have changed.  No longer do I see research as a process of speed, where scientists are continuously at work in a lab working on machines, pipetting solutions, or furiously completing calculations.  I understand that most of the work is expected to fail, and that successes come well spaced.  I feel that in my time I have mostly acclimated to the process but lack deep background on the content of the lab's work.  If I were placed in a microbiology lab I would doubtless have been more effective from the start, but would likely have learned less, and so I am glad that this lab expanded my horizons.  I pepper my teaching with stories of science, and now that I have some personal experience with research, I can add it to my growing repertoire.  I know my students will appreciate it.