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It’s job search time. I’ve been looking into both academic and non-academic (read: academic-adjacent) posts.  So far I’ve even had a few interviews that would have taken me away from academic research, well, the front-lines anyway. What can I say, I’ve been in some manner of school, either as a student or an employee since I was five. A thirty-five year addiction is tough to break. Even while I’ve been courting the grey side (remember…adjacent), I must confess to having been keeping a steady eye on academic posts.

The paths through academia are many and varied.  As the adage goes, there are many ways to skin that (academic) cat. A common factor in whatever path you take through academia is the large amounts of work it will take to secure and maintain the position (for usually less money than you think you deserve). Work-wise, for every bit that makes it into print (read: exists as non-published research, hasn’t been peer reviewed and is not in the public domain for scrutiny), there are days, months, years of optimisation experiments as well as failed attempts and avenues of investigation that never see the light of day, so to speak.  Watching the first couple of years of my Ph. D. lab work get reduced to a supplementary figure and two or three lines of text in the expanded methods section of the supplement of a publication wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow. Cambridge showed me that the celebratory haze around a Nature or Cell paper fades quickly and those impactful publications need to keep happening throughout one’s career. The money issue, well, that’s a whole other story.

For many, a tremendous element of luck is involved. Perhaps the first optimisation just works and gives you what you need to make reproducible observations. Some people are just naturals and manage to quickly develop the Jedi-like skills to just get things to work. Others achieve results through a lot of repetition.  This isn’t a luxury that everyone is afforded though as post-doc grants don’t last forever, and as I was repetitively reminded, don’t often provide for more than salary.

Working in an embryo microinjection lab in Cambridge let me witness this first-hand. For me it was a steep learning curve, and all things considered, my work was made easier by being able to inject when the cells are nice and big, comparatively.  Some of my colleagues astounded by injecting several stages later when the cell sizes  were MUCH smaller.  Some colleagues opted to focus on other aspects of their research, nicingup to the Jedis when it came to the microinjection work.  Now I sometimes work with single stem cells–IT’S FIDDLY WORK!  The point is that just like in every other profession, there are naturals in science too, who work their ass off, publish well, and become instant academics.  Sometimes these naturals are kept on as long-term research associates and lab managers because their gifts are too great to let go.  Others move on to start their own groups here, there and everywhere, and the academic big wheel keeps on turning.

Also making that wheel turn, there are just as many (if not more) very good scientists who work just as hard, (if not harder), but luck, in whatever gender they wish to personify it, fails to smile on them. They produce, but maybe they’re secondary or tertiary authors on lower-impact publications, so it takes a few more of them.  You can play the quantity v. quality game in academia too, but limited funding is forever forcing institutions to demand more higher profile publications within their researchers’ bibliographies.

Then there’s teaching and scholarship. My training is a mishmash of the Canadian, American and British academic frameworks. There are a lot of similarities, but just as with the cultures in general, there are also some reasonably fundamental differences.  The tenure track concept more common in North American institutions doesn’t function the same way in British Unis. And with universities increasing the emphasis of their research programmes, meaning if you’re not publishing well, and bringing in grant funding, you don’t have tenure to fall back on and could find yourself out of work after a seemingly good career.

There are usually one of three paths you can be on.  You can be a teaching-only lecturer; your role is primarily teaching, and possibly some other commitments to the university through committee involvement. You can also be on a teaching-scholarship path where you also primarily teach, but you take on administrative and strategic responsibilities that effectively help run and direct the department’s teaching programmes.  The final path is a teaching-research path, where you can fulfil teaching and departmental obligations, but then you have to also maintaining a viable research programme (read: a good track-record of publication and funding)–the triple-threat of academic science, if you will.

The post I’m currently chewing on appears to be rooted in the teaching-academic path, but I spent a day speaking with various people within the department, trying to get their take on the position, perhaps provide an insight that I couldn’t. I was repeatedly advised to keep an eye out for the possibility to move back into the research pathway.  This is an especially important consideration to bear in mind in a university that has a mandate from its principal to increase the profile of its research. And let’s just say that I get the feeling that the only real notion of tenure in the British system comes from wanting to keep the ratio of triple-threats to others on the higher side.

So why not just go after an academic-research position? While I’ve got a couple of projects that are about to bear published fruit, they’re not there yet, so I wouldn’t be the most competitive candidate for early career fellowships were my application to go in now.  Then there’s the fact that the ideas I do have in the works for grant applications still need some preliminary investigation, another requirement to be competitive for research funding in this day and age.  Good ideas and a track record aren’t enough, you also need to demonstrate that your line of investigation is both feasible, and to some extent going to succeed. One person I worked for in the past put it as needing to virtually do all of the work you were proposing, submitting it as preliminary data, just so you could get the funding necessary to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and send it out the door to prepare for the next one. Cat skins, cat skins, everywhere.

However there is yet another factor to consider with this post I’m pondering.  The teaching is at Nanchang University in China. The lecturing would be in English, but the teaching takes place over four two-week(ish) stints,  jetting back to London in between.  A bit more of a loaded decision.  It’d be an opportunity to immerse myself in a culture I’ve only experienced through the the various immigrant communities I’ve come into contact with in Canada, US and the UK. Maybe I’ll pick up a smattering of the language.  All pluses so far.

The post involves a strategic role; developing the burgeoning joint-programme between QMUL and the pre-med programme at Nanchang University. Plus.

One thing I’ve started to think about is how that I may have to change my teaching tactics for a predominantly Chinese student group. Hmmm. I know this programme has been modelled on and modified from another similar joint programme with another Chinese Uni, and there have been  lessons learned and improvements made.  I’ve asked a few Chinese colleagues here at QM and elsewhere if they could generalise the student-experience in China versus the one here or in another English-speaking country. One answer I didn’t expect was, “Chinese students tend to be quieter [and] need to be inspired.”

I write this with great caution, not wanting to earn the label of gweilo. My secondary school in Canada became an ESL-haven who saw its Cantonese-speaking student population explode in the years leading up to 1997.  Being one of the few white ghosts amongst a group of Chinese kids wasn’t uncommon.  From a friend, it was usually meant in jest, but from a stranger the term tended towards its more pejorative meaning. At any rate, generalising that Chinese students are quiet and withdrawn is just the sort of thing that could get a Caucasian person in hot water, but that’s what he said. The hot water bit comes in admitting that these are descriptors that would apply to some of the Chinese postgraduate students (studying in English countries) who I’ve met in my career. Not wanting to generalise, I always assumed that the lack of gregariousness came from issues in communication in English.  OK, one opinion, one person, but still…interesting.

But can I give up the rush of discovery that comes with research?  That is the question. Another thought instilled in me  from the various faculty members I’ve discussed the position with was: distancing myself from research too much by taking on such a teaching-heavy role brings with it the other consequences. Past publications, even impactful ones, have a window of five years (generally) in which they are considered to be constructive to your publication record.  After that, you’re not considered active if you haven’t produced more.  Makes sense, as competition for positions and funding is fierce.  So leaving the lab behind risks not being able to make it back, even without having left academia, as by that point there will be plenty of others who have been productive during my (potential) downtime.

And finally, there’s this.  I’ll work with researchers, probably even have a say in the recruitment of future researchers, but I may not be one myself. This last bit is a concept I’ve been wrestling with for some time. And from what I’m lead to believe, this process–this decision–is not uncommon amongst academics, early on in the skinning process.

So it’s decision time.  Here kitty kitty.

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I decided to do a little electronic housekeeping with my Gmail account this morning; archiving all of my old mail to save on space.  While I was scanning some subject lines from the Cambridge days and I came across this little gem.

One of the down-sides to working with living biological material is that you’re subject to their rhythms; a slave to the organism, if you will.  This was the case whenever working with a developing mouse embryo.  I was trying to understand the first fate decision the embryo makes: make placenta or make embryo.

A quick (if not slightly surreal) embryology primer

In mammals, embryos implant to some extent inside the mother’s uterus.  The connection between mother and embryo is mediated by a placenta, and this organ is embryonic in origin, and the cells that make it up become specified in development quiet early.  Think of it this way, if you put eight marbles in a small bag and started adding marbles, eventually some of those marbles would have to be on the inside of the mass-of-marbles, surrounded by the remaining outer marbles.  Similarly in the embryo, once the 8-cell embryo divides to make 16-cells, two groups of cells emerge.  The outer group of cells will go on to form the placental tissues, and the inner cells will go on to form the embryo itself.  Our group at Cambridge was trying to understand these early fate decisions in the mouse embryo: why do some cells decide to make one type of tissue and others make others?  In developmental biology, this is referred to as differentiation, when an unspecialised (stem) cell adopts a more specialised function.  Often, this happens because some cells, like say your muscle cells, utilise certain genes in your genome that others, say the cells in your brain, do not. So if the genome was a magazine that cells could subscribe to, then every cell in the embryo has the exact same subscription.  However for some reason neighbouring cells have differing reading habits. One cell decides to only read the articles in the odd-numbered issues whose authors’ surname begins with the letters A-M, while the one right beside it keeps to the articles whose titles contain less than ten words.  There will be some overlap, but ultimately cells read from differing sets of instructions, leading to different shapes and functions.

So at any rate, if the goal is to understand what’s going on from 8-to-16 cells, then all experimental manipulations have to happen beforehand.  In the case of the day the universe smiled on me, I was having to work with 4-cell embryos.  The goal was to modify one or two of the four cells by injecting them with fluorescent markers or something to alter their genetic circuitry.  By observing how the embryos develop and comparing the relative contributions of inner or outer cells between modified and non-modified cells, we can start to understand how those genetic circuits control this decision process.

Here are some stills from time-lapse imaging of one of the first embryos I ever modified. In this case the embryo was injected with two genes, one that coded for a fluorescent marker in the cell membrane (RED) so that the individual cells were visible, and a fluorescently tagged tubulin (GREEN), part of the network of proteins that makes the spindle that pulls copied chromosomes into daughter cells at cell division.  What you’re seeing here are sections through the centre of the cells.  The black spots in the green are the nuclei, where the genome is housed.  The orientation of the spindle helps guide cells to either the inside or outside position in the embryo. What orients the spindle is still very much an open question.

Meanwhile back at the lab, those mouse embryos would arrive at the late-4-cell stage somewhere between 2-4 AM.  Factoring in arrival time and prep, etc, my night-before was pretty much reduced to dinner, some down-time then back to the lab. [sigh] It took me a good few months to figure out the perfect dosage of coffee necessary to produce adequate alertness without getting so jittery that I would lose all fine motor skills.  Microinjection involves using a glass needle, pulled to a point that is less that 1 micron or a one-millionth of a metre, and injecting it under a microscope using (quasi) robotic manipulators into a cell that’s about 10-15 microns in diameter, without running it though with the needle, or poking the nucleus which usually results in the needle coming back covered in stringy DNA (also not good). Delicate to say the least. [hand-tremour]

So after injecting, it’s about six-ish AM. I was feeling good; it had been a good injection session. The Strokes were playing on my MP3-player. I put the embryos on a warming plate, while I started preparing a new dish for the embryos.  While still looking down the oculars of the microscope, I flipped over the dish containing my little embryos, my experiment (read: about four days worth of planning and work). I watched everything in that dish ooze out all over the work bench.  The whole situation happened out of my view in a fraction of a second, but I imagined the whole thing in slow-mo, like in the movies with the voices slowed down to that demonic drone.  What followed were the 4-STEPS of grief experienced by all researchers who watch days of their work flash before their eyes.  1. An impressive barrage of vulgarity and profanity. 2. Denial: No, I didn’t just knock over [the dish with my experiment], it was [that OTHER dish]. 3. More vulgarity and profanity.  4. Existential Crisis:  Why didn’t I go into [insert profession], I bet THEY never have to deal with this [profanity]!!!

But then the universe smiled down on me in those wee hours of the morning.  In a last-ditch, semi-defeated attempt to reclaim the previous four days and six-ish hours of lost sleep, I put the dish, now empty save for an oil slick with microscopic droplets of the medium we culture embryos in (we keep them under oil, hence the slick).  The miracle that is the physico-chemical relationship between water (well, media+embryos actually) and oil came through for me! In one of those tiny droplets, there were all of my embryos; my masters. Sigh. Existential what?!  Five or so hours later was a brand new day.

AND NOW LADIES AND GENTLEMEN…HEEEEEEEEEERE’S GRACE!!

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