Friday, 13 August 2010

Error bars

 I am currently about half way though an eight week summer placement in a lab. I'm part of a small group working under one supervisor, in a larger group all doing research with a similar 'theme'. It's remarkably diverse, though. And strangely, each lab seems to have a 'trademark' technique! For example, I have done a lot of real-time PCR. Another summer student in the same building seems to do nothing but western blots. Another is doing a lot of gel-based PCR; others do a lot of tissue culture... I'm not sure if it's just the nature of a summer project, or the nature of the research done in each lab, but it amuses me. And actually, doing nothing but designing and running real-time PCR is suprisingly not that tedious, although I am excited about maybe getting to do some FISH next week (yay, glowing things!).

Anyway, background aside, a post by Dr. Isis recently made me think about why I'm doing this placement. In her post, Isis mentions that almost all of the undergraduates who intern with her say they want to go to medical school. That probably is more common in physiology research than it is in cell biology - although at least one of my fellow summer students is studying medicine. Also, the situation is somewhat different in the UK because the vast majority of medicince courses are undergraduate degrees. Applicants for these will be eighteen, or maybe not even that at the time of applying. Working in a lab, or even shadowing someone, at that age and level of knowledge would be more or less pointless in my opinion.

Admittedly I didn't study biology at A-level, so I don't know how much that knowledge would help. It wasn't at all essential for my first year cell biology course, though. But when I left school I had never even seen a Gilson pipette. I sort of knew that organelles existed, but that was about it. Having just finished my second year of university, I struggle to follow and understand all the research that's going on around me - a sixth form student would have no hope. It seems to be more common, from what I remember, that applicants for medicine degrees will volunteer in hospitals, hospices and care homes, rather than in a lab. I suppose their skills may not be that much use in that setting, either, but it's certainly going to give them a better idea if they want to be a doctor than being in a lab is.

And that brings me to why I'm doing this placement, and it's pretty simple really - I wanted to know if research is for me. I already knew, second hand, that obviously research doesn't always work, that often there are disappointments and delays and data just not being good enough to do anything with. And now I know that first hand, too!

It hasn't, so far, put me off a career in research. Right now I kinda hate my project. But I hate it not because it refuses to do what I want - I want more time, and I wish I was more experienced, because I feel like I'm not doing it justice. I have three weeks left and I don't think I'll end up with any real conclusions by the end of that period. But that's okay. If nothing else, I'm now really really good at real-time PCR! No, seriously - I'll have learnt what it's like to spend time in a lab, with other researchers, to design and run experiments and analyse data. Also, there's the opportunity to discuss areas of research with experts, and learn from them. All in all, it's awesome so far, and I'm pretty sure that even if I end up with a lot of slightly inconsistent data and no conclusions, it'll have been a good thing to do - and hopefully the work I'm doing will end up being useful to the lab in some way, too.


  1. Are you in a lab in Cambridge? I'm doing a summer project here too...we should meet up for lunch some day!

    The feelings about the project are perfectly normal. I found with most projects you usually get a perfect grasp of what you need to get done about a week before you have to's one of the most frustrating things in the world.

  2. All work done is a step forward. Even if the only contribution you make is to be able to everyone else "dont try that, it doesnt work" then you have been useful. I'm writing up 3 years of "dont try that" into a thesis now :)

  3. I completely agree with Lab Rat! I've just finished a 7 month placement, and while I think that I've made a nice start, I feel I've just skimmed the surface of what's possible. The idea behind the project is really cool, but now that I'm leaving I feel like leaving a half-finished project behind.. Just remember that more time does not equal more finished projects ;).

    Good luck with your last three weeks!

  4. @ Lab Rat: I'm at a place just outside Cambridge, so I'm generally not in town during the week, but if you are around and want to meet up some time, that would be cool :)

    @ everyone: thank you for the encouragement! It's good to know that stuff not working as you expect it is normal (although I guess I sort of knew that already...)

  5. @Liz: my emails on my blogger profile (so we don't end up splashing personal details all over your blog!) Would be nice to meet another cambs student blogger :)