Thursday, December 20, 2007

Getting my hands wet

My undergraduate days were full of laboratory work. I got involved in student research as an undergraduate, spent a xmemorable summer being unsuccessful at DNA sequencing, and enrolled in a new very laboratory-intensive program. Between my mishaps in my coursework & my mishaps in my independent work, eventually it was suggested (and I didn't need much convincing) that maybe I could combine my hobby of computer programming with my focus on biology in some useful way.

After that, labs were on the radar intermittently. My department at Harvard insisted I do one 'wet' rotation, and so I spent a very enjoyable spring in a fly lab, mostly sorting flies & mutagenizing some but also mapping some transposon insertions by in situ hybridization. I also was a teaching assistant, and one year that meant running lab sections. My committee once seemed on the verge of insisting I do some lab work & I started cooking up a suitable experiment involving in vivo footprinting of DNA binding factor sequence preferences, but nothing ever happened.

At Millennium I failed to follow up on a golden opportunity, one that I rue to this day. Soon after joining one of the senior Mass Spec guys invited me to consider spending some time learning the equipment. Now, I had used a 'toy' mass spec as a high school intern to find the leak in some high vacuum equipment (successfully, which led to figuring out that you-know-who had inadvertantly put it there!) -- the spec is built into the instrument & you run a Pasteur pipet hooked to a helium tank around all the suspect spots -- when you see the helium spike, you've found the leak. Plus, my father worked on electronics for a mass spec that got a one-way trip into the Jovian atmosphere, so I had an interest in the things. Alas, I never quite followed through.

Later, it was suggested & I had started making concrete plans to learn how to work the HTS screening robotics at Millennium. Those plans were being laid when I got the pink slip (alas, they don't actually print the letter on pink paper!).

So, it is with some pride I can report I actually did some lab work yesterday. After several polite invitations from our headmistress of sequencing, I spent a bit of time observing & doing some 'scut work' -- having asked for as much as they dared give me. I labeled plates, recored them into the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) & later helped load & unload the robot preparing them. I sealed the plates (with a polite admonition that I was being too gentle with the roller). I also got to load the thermocyclers, select the right program & then unload them when done.

Not exactly the solo conquering of megabases that my imagination whipped up, but still very informative. You don't just pour DNA in one end of the sequencer and get data out the wires at the other end; there's a lot of manual tracking & care involved, even in a highly automated modern sequencing laboratory. It actually turns out that the process I observed will be upended in the near future for a much less hands-on, much higher throughput one. And, I couldn't help thinking of the various next-gen technologies, where you just do away with all those 96 or 384 well plates & instead run much larger numbers of sequencing reactions in a much smaller area.

It's all very different than when I was trying to use Sequenase, single channel pipettors, radioactive S35 & slab gels nineteen years ago. And one difference in particular relates to the title of this entry -- no water baths! You don't actually get your hands wet anymore -- nice dry thermocyclers do all the incubating instead.

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