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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

On being a lab rat by Mollie B. '06

I flail around trying to explain what I do at work every day.

Wow, lots of questions to address today!

I guess I’ll start by talking about my UROP (and for those who don’t yet speak MIT, my lab job). A few months ago, I wrote a summary of my last project; a paper describing the results of that project is currently being reviewed for publication in Cell. (For anyone who follows science journal impact factors, this is a Really Good Journal.)

But anyway. Since the completion of the mouse project, I’ve been working on a yeast two-hybrid screen. Basically, you have a DNA that encodes a protein you’re psyched about, and you put it into yeast along with a DNA that encodes for some random snippet of something. If the two proteins interact within the cell, they will allow the transcription of another protein that allows the synthesis of a certain amino acid.

I’m sure that made very little sense (it’s a very confusing assay, even for biologists), so I have made another handy Paintbrush figure.

If the cell gets both a red (your gene) plasmid and a blue (unknown gene) plasmid, and the proteins interact, then the yeast cell lives. If not, the cell dies. There’s another flowchart here. It’s a little short on colorful Paint pictures, though.

So at the end of the two-hybrid (which actually takes an obscene amount of time, because it involves a lot of plasmid purification from yeast, which are rather tough customers), I found five proteins that interact with the protein I’m interested in. I’ve been exploring the interaction between my protein and one of the proteins I found since the beginning of the summer.

I’ve done a lot of assays to explore the interaction — Western blotting, immunocytochemistry, and overexpression in COS cells. I’m currently drug-treating neurons which express my proteins, staining them with fluorescent antibodies, and imaging them on the worth-more-than-my-life confocal microscope. (I’m not kidding. If you were to sell my organs piece by piece on the global black market, I’m pretty sure they would be worth less in total than this microscope.)

I wish I could tell you right now the exact nature of the interaction… but to be honest, I’m not really sure. It is likely to be connected with remodeling of the actin cytoskeleton, which is involved in learning and memory because neurons “learn” by changing their physical connections with other neurons. Further than that… I’ll have to investigate more during IAP, when I’ll be working at the lab 40 hours a week.

I got my UROP at the beginning of sophomore year, when I went through the faculty research interests of MIT biology professors to see which professors were doing interesting research. I emailed about 10 professors, and interviewed with two… I’ve been working in Morgan’s lab ever since. I get paid $10 an hour, and since I’m a workaholic who works 15 hours a week during term… well, you do the math. ;)

I work directly with a postdoctoral associate in Morgan’s lab, although I do meet with Morgan somewhat frequently to discuss both my research and my schoolwork — Morgan is also my biology faculty advisor. On a day-to-day basis, I work independently… after working in the lab for two and a half years, I know what I’m doing in a technical sense, but I still consult with my postdoc about experimental design and the further direction of the project. Still, the two-hybrid is my project — my postdoc has other projects of his own that he works on with his lab tech, but the two-hybrid is all me.

Other Questions:
1. Shannon asked if Eric Lander (the god of the Human Genome project and intro biology instructor) takes UROPs. In fact he does; I have a friend, Dennis ’06, who’s been in Lander’s lab for several years now. Almost all professors take UROPs at some point — after all, we’re much cheaper than grad students.

2. Anonymous asked if Stanford was grade-inflated. Well, I don’t have any personal experience with Stanford’s grading, although I have heard through the grapevine that it’s inflated. I don’t think that causes Stanford students to have problems getting into good grad programs, however!

3. Alexandre asked if it was possible to go to grad school in course 8 (physics) if one went to MIT for undergrad. My friend Fadam ’07, a course 8 undergrad, says that the department does accept MIT undergrads, but that it’s often harder for MIT undergrads to get into the MIT program than it is for them to get into similarly-ranked programs. I don’t think this should be a factor in the decision to come to MIT.

4. Japanther, Katie, and zoogies observed that 4000 students is perhaps not a “small” school. I guess “medium-sized” might have been a better adjective, but 4000 undergrads is certainly a great deal smaller than the other school to which I considered going, Ohio State (50,000!). I think it seems smaller sometimes than it is — oftentimes there aren’t so many degrees of separation between people.

13 responses to “On being a lab rat”

  1. Laura says:

    Complementation! Haha bio final coming up…..

    Re: ” I think it seems smaller sometimes than it is — oftentimes there aren’t so many degrees of separation between people.”…I think I might know Dennis ’06. If he’s the same Dennis ’06 Course 7 major I’m thinking of. =)

  2. Sam says:

    You’re UROP sounds really interesting. If I get into MIT I’m definatly going to get a UROP in physics.

    How do the postdocs and professors treat the undergraduate researchers?

  3. Shannon says:


    Well, I think I owe a huge thank you. The fact that (a) you’re doing research on PROTEINS and (b) the fact that Eric Lander takes UROPs has made my… let’s say, next 365 days. That’s awesome that such prestigious individuals actually teach intro-level courses. Wow.

    Thanks a TON.

  4. Hamster says:

    Your work sounds really impressive, even though I don’t understand it.

    I really need to stop reading these blogs; it’s like staring through a shop window at something tantilizing I can’t buy.

  5. Dan says:

    What is the difference between dual, double, and joint majors in college?

  6. Nick says:

    Hey Mollie,

    I was wondering if you could tell me what you know about the differences between biology and biological engineering? One of my professors said that biologists make the big discoveries while the biological engineers figure out how to use those discoveries in a helpful manner. Do you think this is true? Thanks a lot for your time!

  7. Hey Nick, I think you’ve got that one. Biologists and Biological Engineers probably follow the same distinctions between scientists and engineers, although the lines of distinction should be blurred out by now, with all the inter-disciplinary research going on.

  8. Elisabeth says:

    “Your work sounds really impressive, even though I don’t understand it.” – Hamster

    I agree.

    I read your entry about “How to do everything wrong and still get into MIT”, and I was curious if not liking chem and physics caused you any problems at MIT. I love chemistry and biology, but loathe physics…how much of it would I need to go through (y’know, assuming I get in when I apply next year, unlikely as it is) before moving on to more interesting things?

  9. anonymous says:

    hi mollie,

    thanks for answering my question. i wanted to play football before i went to high school, but my school didnt have one (much like caltech). i have been working out some i guess (though not a common MIT activity haha) and other people say im just somewhat big (O-line). i might be interested, but MIT seems too busy for sports.

  10. Adnan Esmail says:

    Hi Mollie,

    Hope you have a little more time on your hands, now that most exams are over.

    I was wondering if you would be able to answer some of the questions I had posed on majors.

    Here’s a recap of the question I had asked before:

    1. BioE is typically defined as the application of Technology in Biology. I was wondering if the reverse is still considered BioE. That is, would you consider the application of Biology to Technology as Biological Engineering? Or would it be considered “Applied Biology” or some other field.

    Anyway, it would be extremely helpful if you could post your entry on Science majors soon, as most people are either finishing or have finished their RD applications. Any guidance you could provide would be greatly valued.

    A Specific Question I had:

    2. If I’m applying to colleges and I want to pursue alternative energy research what would you recommend I post as my intended major? I was thinking BioE, since the majority of my research deals with microbe modification and enhancement in producing hydrogen to fuel engines. Given my strong Biology background (and letters of recommendation from a psychology and a physiology teacher), I was thinking BioE or Environmental Engineering, but wasn’t sure.

    My application doesn’t seem very cohesive and I don’t want the declared major to further distort the picture. While I do have an interest for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences, my primary pass times and passions lie within alternative energies (hydrogen power research for 2yrs) and mechanical engineering (most of my patents are automotive-related). Any advice in making my application more cohesive would be valued.


    Adnan Esmail

  11. mohan says:

    hi every one: merry christamas and happy newyear

    I am mohan an international applicant. I dont know either about SAT or toefl untill I completed my 12th.In june or july i came to know of sat and descided to take a chance for this year as these may lead to a brilliant future although I recieved admissions in the local universities. My scores in maths level II c, physics,chem 720/660/700. my score in toefl is 247. I am taking my SAT in jan as my scores in nov are very poor. I am sure that i would recieve a very good score in this sat, because last SAT is taken with just a 15 days preperation and toefl with a 10 day prep and these tests are totally of new shape of what I had been taking all these years. Please tell me whether the score in toefl and sat II will help me? I cannot again afford to take toefl as time is a factor.

    Thanking you

  12. it is very true and you represent it in new way