Longing for the lab

I’m a final year PhD student, studying the relationship between gut bacteria and colon cancer using a benign cell line model. Last Tuesday, the UK government announced a lockdown, and those institutions that were still open, closed their doors.

So, like a batch of fresh samples, my experiments have been put on ice. It’s a scary time for a lot of fledgling researchers, with no contingency plan for bursary or lab time extensions currently in place. Many PhD students, like myself, will find themselves attempting to write thesis chapters a lot earlier than they had planned.

I’ve witnessed first hand, as my peers have battled through the ordeal, that tackling the big beast of thesis writing can lead to all kinds of delirium. In my recent writing-induced malaise, I’ve found myself longing to be back in lab. Surprisingly, I’m even finding myself reminiscing about some of the more tedious tasks, such as:

  1. Passaging cell lines. Looking after cells, particular benign or primary cell lines, is like having a child. They always need something, and if you dare to upset them, pray for your lab results/sanity. Shared tissue culture facilities also pose their own problems, and I’m sure most cell biologists would admit to a small level of constant paranoia: Are my cells ok? But, what I wouldn’t give for the simplicity of easing myself into a busy week of lab work by splitting a flask of cells on a Monday morning.
  2. Visiting the liquid nitrogen freezer. Liquid nitrogen freezers are scary. Lab managers just love to regale fresh inductees with horror stories as a way of teaching the importance of appropriate eye protection. They’re also usually kept somewhere out of the way and with good ventilation. In my experience, this is almost exclusively a damp, cold, cellar-like room somewhere far, far away from where you actually conduct your lab work. There is, however, a sort of tranquility about lifting the lid off of the freezer, and watching the gas silently flow out like the world’s quietest volcano.
  3. Transporting samples between labs. As part of my work, I’m lucky enough to work with some foul-smelling anaerobic bacteria. Fortunately, the university moved on from anaerobic jars long before I started, and we have a rather high-end anaerobic workstation. The problem, however, is that this workstation is not in the main microbiology lab, but a smaller lab approximately 3 feet down the corridor. We have no open lab zone, so this means painstakingly sealing, bagging and boxing all cultures, in order to, for example, read them on a spectrophotometer that’s a mere 20 paces away. Come to think of it, maybe I don’t miss this so much.

Perhaps the biggest challenge many of us are facing right now is that of isolation. The hustle and bustle of a busy lab is gone, supervisors are more distant, and there are no fellow researchers to complain to about a failed experiment (or a cantankerous lab manager). Hopefully by facilitating discussion and keeping connected, we can make getting through this difficult time a little easier.

What are you missing about science? Comment below!

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