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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

An actual day in the lab by Mollie B. '06

Hectic is my middle name.

7:45 AM. The alarm goes off and I hit the snooze bar. My first class this semester started at 11 AM every day (and I’ve been on an extended vacation since finals ended due to moving and setting up the apartment)… my body is not pleased that I’m getting up so early.
7:54 AM. I roll out of bed and get ready for work. It takes a long time. I am not what one would call low-maintenance, mmkay.
8:40 AM. I consider leaving, then check ShuttleTrack and decide that I would get to work faster if I wait for the Tech Shuttle. Man, I need to fix my bike.
9:02 AM. I arrive at work. I made out a detailed schedule for the week yesterday, so I already know exactly what needs to be done. I stick my cell culture media in the waterbath and grab a bucket of ice.
9:10 AM. My postdoc and I discuss the transfection I’m doing. He mentions that he doesn’t have a particular plasmid that I thought he had, and that I need. (I am annoyed.) He tells me to wait until some of the other postdocs come in.
9:15 AM. Since I can’t transfect yet, I calculate the amount of each DNA which will be added to my transfection mix. I use Excel, because my postdoc’s calculator is sketchy. (Sidenote: Who’s ridiculously excited about Google Spreadsheets? This girl!)
9:30 AM. I move on to the next thing on my list: subcloning some pieces of DNA into a GFP-containing plasmid. I mix the DNAs together with ligase, an enzyme whose job it is to stick pieces of DNA together. 45 min, room temp.
9:45 AM. I am putting the DNAs back in my box when I discover that I have the DNA that my postdoc doesn’t have. I actually say “Bonus!” out loud, and one of the postdocs gives me a strange look.
10:15 AM. I mix the DNAs together with Lipofectamine, which will scrunch them into little bite-sized pellets of DNA which my cells will want to eat up. 30 min, room temp.
10:30 AM. I start making LB agar, a kind of salty Jello for bacteria. One of the ingredients is “extract of autolyzed yeast”, which I think sounds really intriguing. One time, I wanted to know what autolyzed yeast smelled like, so I stuck my nose in the container and took a big whiff. Do not try this at home. It smells bad in a way that I cannot even describe, which really disappointed me, because I like the smell of LB as a whole.
10:50 AM. I wash my HEK 293 cells (they’re a human kidney cell line) and add my DNA mix to each well. 5 hours, 37 deg C.
11:10 AM. I go back to my subcloning. I add some of the DNA mix to a tube of bacteria, heat the tube to 42 deg C, then plate the cells. 37 deg C, overnight.
11:30 AM. I stick my salty bacteria Jello into the autoclave. 45 min, 121 deg C.
11:40 AM. I write in my lab notebook. As you might expect, my lab notebooks are absolutely stuffed with detail. And all the photographs are neatly trimmed. I call Adam to see if he wants to have lunch together; he tells me to wait a few more minutes, so I play the “what was I doing on this date in history” game with my notebooks. Apparently on this date last year, I was subcloning, and on this date two years ago, I was running my mice through the maze.
12:00 PM. I meet Adam for lunch at the Quizno’s in Tech Square — they have delicious sandwiches and they take TechCash. I have an unspeakably delectable turkey sandwich.
12:45 PM. I check on the media. The autoclave is still exhausting. I am somewhat scared of the autoclave, and have had bad experiences with it in the past — once I tried to get my media out before the autoclave was done exhausting, and I almost broke the autoclave. I’m not a huge fan of breaking expensive lab equipment, so I’m extra-careful (and extra-superstitious) around the autoclave now.
1:00 PM. I play on the internet in the lab computer room for a while. Usually I would go chat with the lab techs, but almost everybody in the lab is at the annual Picower Institute retreat on Cape Cod, so there’s nobody to talk with.
1:45 PM. The autoclave is finally done exhausting, so I remove my media and pour 59 new plates of agar. I go a little crazy with the sterile technique, because the last thing I need this summer is a bunch of contaminated plates.
Sidenote for dorky story involving plates. So last summer, I had the sniffles, and I was concerned that there was mold inside Adam’s and my air conditioner. We had the AC in one of our rooms, and no AC in the other, so I took a few plates from the lab and opened half in the room with the AC and half in the room without, for an hour. The result: No, there was no mold in the AC. The room without the AC was actually a lot more mold- and bacteria-infested — probably because it’s on the river. Ick.
3:00 PM. I inoculate some cultures with bacteria, because I need to prepare some more DNA tomorrow so I can transfect neurons next week. 37 deg C, overnight.
3:30 PM. I ask my postdoc if he’ll change the media on my cells at 4:00. He says he will, so I head home.

I always find the first week of summer very exhausting in the lab. It’s a pretty big transition to go from working in the lab 15 hours a week to working 40 hours; while during term I’m actually limited by the number of hours I’m in lab, during the summer I’m only limited by the actual time involved in each experiment. Well, that, and the number of experiments I can do at once without a) making stupid mistakes or b) having my head explode. It wears me out — not just the fact that I’m on my feet for a large part of the day, but the running monologue in my head: “15 more minutes on the transfection… I wonder if I can mix the media now, or if I should wait until after? But if I do it after, I’ll have to spec the DNAs some other time…”

The moral of the story is that lab work is tiring. And that autolyzed yeast extract smells awful.

1. Sara asked,

if you’re not initially selected for an rba dorm but decide you want to live there, can you pick that dorm for the second housing lottery?


I’m not totally sure about this, but I suspect that the answer is no — even if you wanted to move in, everybody in the dorm would be participating in RBA and wouldn’t be allowed to move out. The second lottery only works when a significant number of people participate — spots need to be freed up in order for people to move in.

2. Charlotte asked,

Is Morgan’s lab a “multinational” one as well?


Yes, it is, and it’s wonderful. We have lab members from at least ten different countries (and I’m sure I’m missing somebody, too). Those of us from the US are also from lots of different states and ethnic backgrounds. Once, the postdocs had a snowball fight — postdocs from Asia vs. postdocs from Europe. :)

By the way, according to Cox News, Dr Jackie Ying, who became a full professor at MIT in 2001 while still in her 30s, shifted her work to Singapore three years ago, saying that “the equipment, including US$500,000 DNA sequence analyzers, is new and better than what is available at MIT”. Do you forsee yourself following her footsteps one day in the distal future?

I think it’s worth noting that this is really an issue of the US government vs. the government in Singapore — most of the laboratory equipment in MIT labs isn’t owned by the school, it’s paid for by research grants, which in the US come almost exclusively from the federal government. MIT provides the lab space and the raw human labor, but researchers are expected to supply their own labs via their grant money, which is notoriously difficult to obtain.

My friends Stephen ’05 and Swapna ’05 spent a summer doing research in Singapore, and they really liked it. Personally, I don’t see myself becoming a citizen of the world anytime soon — Adam won’t even move to California, let alone to another continent.

9 responses to “An actual day in the lab”

  1. Christina says:

    Is it bad if we can’t understand what most of this actually…is? :-X

  2. Sevi says:

    Hi Mollie,

    here is a question for you about MacGregor rooms’ size. I consider MacGregor as my first choice in housing lottery, but some slarifications is needed.

    What is it in feet/meters, approximately

    (or, exactly sizes, if known)? Is it possible to find in Internet the floors’ layouts?

    Then, on internet connection. Does MacGregor have wireless access in all rooms? According to the mit wireless access map, it has, but on the page about MacGregor housing there is only wired connection is mention. Whom to believe? smile If it has no wireless access, is it inconvinient, how do you think?

    Thank you.

  3. Andrew says:

    Awesome post, Mollie. I was very curious what exactly went on in the labs, and this also satisfies my first craving of Biology since the end of AP Biology. :D

  4. Danielle says:

    Can we install our own window ac in any dorm room on campus?

    and when you do the procedures in the lab, do you have an instructions sheet to go off of or do you know what you’re doing like the back of your hand? when do you get to learn how to do all this anyways?

  5. Jon says:

    I love your detailed time-outlines of your days in the lab! I was actually just assigned all our summer work for my AP classes next year, and briefed on what we would be doing, and sort of got nervous, thinking, “Ahhhh, is that what I really want to do for the rest of my life?”….but then I decided ya….it really is.

    So now a question, when did you decide that you wanted to be a scientist “when you grew up”?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I bet you found yourself using a couple tenses, picked one of them, and went back to meticulously change all the ones already in the tense you decided against using. But I must ask you, why present if it’s all past stuff?

  7. Melodie says:

    If there’s one advising seminar that I really, really, really want to take, and I’m ok with two others, should I just sign up for one for the lottery, or do all three?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Are buildings and dorms on the West Campus connected by underground tunnels, as buildings on East Campus are?

    Thank you.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hi Mollie, It’s me a frequent anonymous.

    I wanted to say congratulations. If I am not mistaken It will be tomorrow on Friday. YAY


    By the way, I do not if you like soccer. Tomorrow I will cheer for my team from Home…