I don't know where the time went! We have been learning and doing so much that I can't believe the program is almost over. If only we had more time!
The past two weeks have been a crash course in 'real' research. When I say 'real' I mean the kind that doesn't always work as you planned. Or work at all for that matter. As we continue to build and test our chips we have been running into a few issues. The main problem we are having is that the polymer layer that is used to hold down our antibody probe is constantly being washed off when we clean the chip before adding the antigen target. The first thing we tried to do was to change how we wash the chip. Remember that the standard pattern is 3, 3 minute washes each of PBST, PBS, and DI water. What we tried instead was 1, 5 minute wash of each solution as well as 3, 6 minute washes of each solution. Unfortunately, neither one worked. We then tried changing the way we layer the chip: instead of placing photomask down and then the polymer, we just layered the chip with polymer. As you might have guessed, this did not work as well. This afternoon was therefore spent brainstorming new ways we could try on the chip to prevent the polymer from washing off.
As frustrating as it is to have your experiments repeatedly fail, it's also exhilarating to brainstorm ideas to try and identify the problem as well as solve it. You have to use all the information that you know (like the stuff in class you always ask, "Where am I ever going to use this?") from many different areas and put them together. When you finally produce an idea that you think may work, you have to has out the details. It becomes more and more exciting as you get closer to actually conducting the experiment. And this is what research is all about. You get idea, try it out, and see what happens. If you run into problems you troubleshoot. If you get great results you look for the next step. Yes, some days can be very stressful and disappointing but none of that matters when things finally go right. The other thing that's great about research is it's a very social profession. Contrary to popular belief, you do not grow white frizzy hair and sit in a secret laboratory all day by yourself, working feverishly on some crazy experiment. In reality, you're working with many people who specialize in many areas. You all interact to brainstorm an experiment as well as to set it in motion. In fact, you may work with people in another country! You look at scientific journals and attend conferences to get ideas and to get the advice from other researchers who have doe experiments similar to yours. Before you know it, you'll know people in multiple states AND countries!
As awesome it is to be part of team like this, I'm also humbled by how brilliant my coworkers are. They know so much in their respectful fields. They say some of the most intelligent comments I have ever heard the same way I would announce that it is raining. But after talking to one of the researchers, he told me something that is very true: All these people sound brilliant because they have been practicing their specialty for years, day in and day out. I, on the other hand, have been practicing biology. When he asked me a question about the immune system I was able to provide him with a complete and accurate answer. He replied that I had just proved his point: I knew my field as well as any of the other team members knew theirs. And that's something very important to take away. You don't have to be knowledgeable in many different areas or be born with skills that help in research. Anyone can be a competent researcher; you just need to love what you do and get excited about working in teams.
When I head back to the classroom I definitely want to bring the reality of research into the curriculum. Following the procedures in a lab workbook is not going to cut it. Students need to develop a curiosity and learn to ask the right questions, or to even ask questions at all. More of the curriculum needs to be based on inquiry as students need to learn how to synthesize what they have learned so far to find the answer to a problem.