Tag Archives: internship

Science Is Real

I had a realisation last weekend.

A collaborator from abroad came to visit this lab and I had the chance to sit in / participate in all of it. And it was very cool and pretty educational. I realised, for instance, that I need to learn how to properly introduce myself and the work I do. However, that was not the big realisation.

At some point among all the talks about different trials and experiments, it suddenly hit me:

This science shit is real.

(Pardon my foul language but I need that to express the greatness of the realisation.) It’s happening. It’s making changes. And stuff, you know. It’s difficult to explain. I mean, I sure better know it’s real, after all, I’ve been working at it, too, for over 3 years now. Folks from different countries visit the lab back home, my co-workers and supervisors are coming and going all the time, to the extent that some of them seem to be out of the country more often than not. And I keep toiling away at my projects, which feels more like playing at times. I love it, of course, but it’s very easy to forget the bigger picture and start to wonder about the point of it all. Thankfully, my thesis supervisor often (whether consciously or not, I don’t know) reminds me of it. But this is the first time I feel like I actually belong to the picture. Well, at least sort of.

I don’t know if I made any sort of sense here, but there you go,


WTF Is My Area/Field/Forest of Interest?

It’s been rather slow these past few days, so I’ve been thinking a lot. Mostly about the prospect of starting my PhD studies. I’m working towards a Master’s degree right now; I’m graduating next summer. It seems quite a long time, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it, right?

There are, obviously, a load of factors to consider, and quite a few of those will probably ultimately boil down to be determined by “whichever place accepts me”, but I decided that I should at least determine what sort of topic / area / field / whatever I’m most passionate about and would like to devote 3 or 4 years of my life for.

Because, the thing is, I had never made an entirely conscious decision to choosing a research project. Let me explain. I first started looking for research opportunities when I was a freshman at university because I was bored out of my mind and because doing research was what I wanted to do, but being freshman I didn’t really know what I could do and how to find a lab and stuff. So, I simply went to my study programme’s supervisor and was, like: “Um, I want to do research, can you help me?” He asked me what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know, so we determined that using a simple process of elimination, and I ended up deciding that I’d like to work with small things (like cell cultures and stuff), and he helped me set up a few meetings. After a couple of misses and some more help from other people, I ended up at a cancer research lab which was fascinated with Nanoscience applications in cancer detection and treatment. I worked there for a couple of years and a series of baffling and unreproducible results (but I had an excellent supervisor and learnt loads). Then I found out about a summer science internship program which came with a stipend. I applied for a number of bio/chem/phys field internships that sounded interesting (a lot of them sounded interesting). Funnily enough, the only internship I ended up accepted for was one I almost didn’t apply for because the description sounded rather intimidating. And here I am, two years later, continuing and expanding on the project for my Master’s thesis, making stuff with laser light. It would seem that this slightly random process has been rather lucky for me. But I don’t know if I want to trust that same process with my PhD; I think that I should have at least some sort of sense of direction.

Thus, I come to my problem – I find the whole frigging world fascinating. Nice problem to have, when you come to think of it, isn’t it? Well, at this point I probably won’t head into Geology or Astrophysics. But the part of Nature that replicates is still rather wide open. Though I can narrow that a bit further because I don’t fancy field work much, I prefer the controlled environment of the lab bench or even laminar-flow hood for cell cultures (which, after 6 weeks of internship I hardly ever find annoying anymore). But where to go from there? Do I try to decide what problem I find most pressing in the world? That would be climate change, I guess, but that’s largely a political problem too and I just get frustrated by that sort of thing very easily. I don’t know if I’d like it to be my job. And at this point it occurs to me that perhaps the advice to not do a PhD until you’ve figured out what you’re most passionate about is not so bad (even though I actually decided that I didn’t want to wait, though I reserved the right to change my mind). At the very least, it gives you time to explore (maybe I’d find that environmental science or solar panel development is actually something I’d like to do). But what if several years from now I still won’t have found THE area? Because I know one thing right now – I know that I love doing research, I love learning, I love exploring how Nature works, be it in the form of a bundle of cells growing in a flask, or tiny balls of atoms glowing in the dark. And, ultimately, I want to share it with other students, and I pretty much need a PhD for that (or at least be in the process of getting one), so why wait? Perhaps THE area isn’t so important because I’m fascinated by so many things? I also must consider the fact that if I narrow in too much*, I won’t have much choice and the chances of not finding a position increase. And it’s not like I’ll be stuck with whatever I do my PhD in for the rest of my life, right? Perhaps I should just trust that the slightly random process that led me here, will continue bringing me to cool places? Are there any options I haven’t considered?

Lost in thought,


P.S. Yes, I realise that I started the post with the decision that I should determine an area of interest, but ended up thinking that it’s not so important after all. That’s how my thought process works sometimes – I’ve just been turning this around in my head for a while now and wanted to get it out there (and hopefully get some feedback), so I can move on.

*And I don’t want to narrow in too much at all – I chose to major in Biophysics (partly) because it covered the widest range of subjects in the first place.

Cells and Cakes, Or What I’ve Learnt During This Internship So Far

Nothing particularly interesting happened last week, and I realised that I haven‘t talked much about what I‘m doing at this lab yet. I was a bit apprehensive about writing about it at first, actually, because thanks to the scientific blogosphere I was recently made aware of the horrors of something called prior publication and the debate whether it‘s ethical to blog about one‘s own work. But I figure as I‘m only doing something that just about everyone* working with cell cultures is doing, it‘s OK.

This post was somewhat prompted by a conversation I had with a new curious friend (I love new curious friends). It went somewhere a long this line:

– So, what do you do during this internship?

– Right now I‘m just growing cells. Trying not to kill them.

– And how do you do that?

– Well, I keep them in a sort of flask and the cells attach to the bottom. We put some liquid that has all sorts of good things that the cells eat in it. When the cells eat up all the good things, the liquid changes colour (from raspberry pink to yellowish), and I need to suck it out and put in new liquid. And also cells divide and multiply and eventually they cover the whole bottom, then I need to pry them off and take only a little part of them and put them in a new flask.

– And how do you pry them off? With some very small tools?

(Here I paused for a moment because I had a very vivid image of myself trying to pry cells from a bottom of a flask using tweezers whose ends are so thin that one can‘t see them.)

– No, we use certain chemical materials. Cells hold onto the flask using proteins, and we use an enzyme trypsin** that sort of melts those proteins. We put some of it into the flask and after a short while the cells come off. I suck them out with the liquid and only take a little part of them to put into a new flask.

I‘m actually not sure if I managed to explain it that well during the actual conversation. In any case, this is basically what I (mostly) do. However, while it sounds fairly straightforward in theory, it is rather more complicated in reality. For one, all the work has to be done with your hands inside a box that looks something like this:

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The glass only comes up a little. Like, probably less than 30 cm. It‘s like working through a cat flap. I‘m still not used to it and get annoyed with it at times. Also, you have to be careful not to contaminate your materials and your cells. So, you have to be careful not only about what you touch but also about holding your hands above certain things. I’ve only done the cell detaching procedure by myself a couple of times now and every time I work I get so tense that afterwards I‘m actually shaking. Hopefully, by the end of the internship, I‘ll be confident enough and skilled enough not to get so stressed.

The second lesson I‘ve learnt so far: if you don‘t know what you‘re doing, find and ask a person who actually knows the stuff you‘re doing. If such person is not available, look at some articles on the topic or something, before you actuallly do something.

And finally, I‘m going to explain the last lesson I‘ve noted so far using a baking analogy, because baking makes everything better. So, let‘s say you have 3 new fancy baking dishes that you have never used before and cake batter that you never made before. So, you don‘t know how it will turn out (based on previous experience with other cakes, you have, however, a couple of ideas about it). These baking dishes are very fancy – they are all flippy-flappy and you can turn them inside and out. During preparation process you suddenly notice that you can‘t tell which is the right side out or in anymore. So what do you do? You turn them inside/out at random and fill them with your batter and bake all three cakes at once. Then they all don’t look how you expected, and you don‘t know if that‘s because they‘re the wrong side in or just because that‘s how cakes turn out in these baking dishes. So, you don’t actually find out how the cake is supposed to turn out. What you should have done is just try one dish and after noticing that you lost the in- and out- sides, make sure not to do that with the other dishes and not bake them all at once. At least not until you can handle it all***.

Wondering if that might be the most complicated cake analogy ever,


*I wonder how many people there are who work with cell cultures, in the world… 100 000? 10 000? More? Less? I wonder how one goes about finding that out. Thoughts?

**Incidentally, trypsin is the same stuff that breaks down proteins in our stomachs into the tiny aminoacids so they can be absorbed by our organisms. That’s what it does to the proteins that cells use to attach to the flask. Are you wondering now, how come the stuff doesn’t break down the proteins of the cells of your stomach?

***Sometimes you also need to know that each dish produces the same result. So, next time you might want to bake a few cakes together in order to avoid the result being different just because you use different brand of flour or something.