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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Science is apparently not for the easily-frustrated by Mollie B. '06

Stories of woe from the lab

Although most of the time I coast through my days in lab in a whirlwind of science glee, I have to admit that every once in a while, the lab doesn’t love me back.

Yesterday, for example, I was trying to get a little ahead by running a protein gel — I had run the samples before and gotten a nice result, but my postdoc Albert asked me to run the samples in a slightly different permutation in order to get a nice figure for our paper. Since I had some free time yesterday, I thought I’d run the gel and get it over with.

The gel ran for about two hours, then I set it up to transfer the proteins to a nitrocellulose membrane (which binds proteins and is much more hardy than the acrylamide gel).

As you might notice, a successful transfer requires the frazzled lab monkey to correctly orient several components — the gel, the membrane, the electrodes on the gel box — and yesterday, the complexity apparently got the best of me. When I checked the protein after the transfer, it wasn’t there. Probably it ran away in the other direction shouting “Freeeedommmmm”. I don’t know. It was pretty frustrating to realize I had wasted an entire day.

That, of course, doesn’t really hold a candle to something I did this summer — I was boiling some protein samples in a beaker with water in the bottom, and all the water boiled off. The beaker heated up and cracked, causing the plastic sample tubes to melt (and, obviously, causing the immunoprecipitation samples in them to become completely worthless). I got so flustered about having lost five days of work that I forgot about the DNA gel I was running; the samples ran off into oblivion. That was an ultra-trainwreck day.

One day my sophomore year, I was working with the mice in the basement of the biology building. We have different mouse genotypes, and to tell them apart we have to take a small piece of their tails (don’t worry, they don’t mind), extract DNA from it, and run PCR. I take the tail sample with a straight razor blade.

So one thing you should know about three-week-old mice is that they can jump really high. And they are really skittish around people. So naturally, as a sophomore new to my job, I was a little skittish around them.

On this particular day, one of the mice had been wriggling around viciously, and I thought he was going to get loose. I was paying more attention to the mouse than to the razor blade… and sliced my finger open with the razor blade. To add insult to injury, I didn’t know where the band-aids were (I was new! and scared!), and didn’t want to go back to the lab without having tailed the rest of the mice. So I wrapped my finger in some gauze, double-gloved, and tailed the rest of the mice.

Hmm, what else… one day I was doing a DNA extraction using phenol chloroform, which is a really nasty organic solvent. As you can see, the material safety data sheet strongly advises you to freak out if you spill it on yourself. I spilled some… and decided to see if it really was as bad as the data sheet suggested.

Um, yeah. It was.

Trust the material safety data sheet. It doesn’t lie. (Although phenol chloroform gives a really cool burn — it turns your skin all white and bubbly — so it was totally worth the experiment. But damn, it hurt.)

On to questions!
1. s, who is now the official Queen of the Nerds (woot), asked why I didn’t do the 5-year bachelors/masters program. Actually, that program (it’s called MEng) is only available for certain engineering majors, most notably course 6 (EECS) — biology doesn’t offer one. (For that matter, I don’t even think the biology department at MIT offers a masters degree to anyone — masters degrees aren’t really all that useful or common in the pure sciences. Check out the registrar’s data.)

2. Anna asked if it was possible to defer enrollment at MIT. According to this site, “Occasionally, students may wish to take a year off between secondary school and college. In such cases, it is recommended that the student follow normal admissions procedures, as if going directly on to college, and then request deferment. Deferrals are granted for any reason except full-time enrollment at another university.”
As for whether you’d get rusty on school stuff, you might shoot that question to Anthony, who took two(?) years off between high school and MIT.

3. (A question from a while back that I forgot to answer last time.) Mohan asked if writing the application “which major/department are you psyched about” essay on a less common major will help your chances of getting into MIT. Nope! The brilliant and wonderful readers will just use that answer as a way to gauge what you’re excited about at MIT. MIT doesn’t admit students by major, and you’re totally free (once you get to MIT) to major in something entirely different from what you wrote down on the application. Writing that you want to major in something common won’t hurt you, and writing that you want to major in something rare won’t help you.

4. Anonymous asked what my GPA and GRE scores were. (For the record, I do not think these two numbers got me into graduate school. PhD programs in the sciences are all about your research experience and recommendations. Nonetheless.) My cumulative GPA when I applied was a 3.44 (on a four-point scale). On the GRE, I got an 800 (92nd percentile) in math and a 740 (99th percentile) in verbal. I got an 870 (97th percentile) on the biology subject test.

5. Christina asked why I said Complications “reminded me why I’m not premed”. It had nothing to do with the description of life as a doctor — it just got a little graphic at times, and blood and gore makes me sick to my stomach, that’s all. :)

…and as a final note, I will mention that I may not be a premed, and I may not have straight A’s — but I did get into Harvard Medical School! :D Thanks, everyone, for your congratulations — I’m still walking on air. So everybody who ends up at MIT next year, I’ll still be around!

EDIT: (for people who didn’t follow the link!) No, I’m not going to medical school — the Harvard PhD program to which I was accepted is administered through the medical school, but it’s a PhD program, not an MD program. And I haven’t decided yet where I’m going — I still have five interviews in front of me!

17 responses to “Science is apparently not for the easily-frustrated”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Congrats Mollie, HMS is my dream school *I know it’s early* so is there where you will be going next fall?!:D:D

  2. Anthony says:

    Wow — *congrats* grin

  3. shen says:

    Awesome! Congrats, Mollie!

    And see you around campus next year (maybe even CPW?). smile

  4. Phil says:

    Wow. Hopefully I’ll be able to pull off the academic insanity you have almost completed. I find out the result of my first step in March smile.

  5. Christina says:

    Wait, I’m confused! Why did you apply to med school if you’re not pre med?

    I just bought Richard Feynman’s, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” after reading about the sequel on your list and it is FABULOUS! (I can’t read it in school, though, because it makes me laugh far too much) Complications will be next!

  6. Christina says:

    (That question should actually be, ‘Why did you apply to med school if you don’t want to go to med school?’)

  7. Dan says:

    holy good GRE scores…not that I know anything about them.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Holy shit. Congrats about Harvard Medical School. Are you going there? I thought you weren’t going to med school but were instead choosing graduate school.

  9. ymous says:

    Goodday, I would like to enquire about your statement: masters degrees in the pure sciences are not that useful or common. When you say not useful is your reference to career opportunities? Could you explain your statement more and give advice on more useful masters programs within the scientific fields of say physics or chemistry? Thank you for your time and consideration.

  10. Anonymous says:

    So out of curiosity, do you have any papers published yet?

  11. Anonymous says:


    Did you have a paper published while you were an undergrad? What did your extracurriculars entail besides cheerleading and research? Thanks!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Strangely enough, the Harvard Medical School link refers to a page on the schools Ph.D. programs, which include biological sciences.

  13. Laura says:

    Hey wait, so have you decided where you’re going?

    Oh and P.S.- I looked around on the mp3 site I use (not itunes) and found that supergirl song. Haha. Made my day. My roommate and I were playing at top volume and laughing about how lame we are. =)

  14. Anonymous says:

    did you know both western blot membranes and pingpong balls are made from nitrocellulose and so are both extremely flammable? just two things you wouldn’t associate with each other, but both go whooosh!

  15. Mridul says:

    Wow, Congrats.

    I saw the SDS PAGE Technique.

    Is DNA seperated in a similar way? Using Electrophoresis.

    Pingpong balls are made of Nitrocellulose!

    that is the reason (I guess) it smells so nice when punctured.

  16. Alexandre says:

    I like how the MIT Student/Future Harvard Medical Student read a material safety sheet that warned of “irreversible effects” and decided to test some on her fingers! smile

    Congrats on the Harvard acceptance!