Biology research has been at the pinnacle of scientific inquiries since the beginning of time. We want to understand our bodies and the world around us. At Tufts and the surrounding Boston facilities, research is booming and we have access to the brightest and most curious minds, the most technologically advanced equipment, and a myriad of resources.
Before you get into wet lab research, you may want to consider that you’d be taking care of some living, breathing (metabolically speaking in terms of cells) things. I can hardly take care of myself, and have been hit with some hard realities of cell care. Cells are like delicate, non-interactive, needy pets. They require constant attention, yet don’t love you back the way a pet would. Some cells require constant maintenance, some proliferate at an unreasonable rate, and some are so sensitive that even the slightest breeze may upset them.
Here are some testimonials about cell culture from some of the brightest Tufts undergraduates about their wet lab experience:
“Hmm… should have asked if I needed to feed my cells today. Oops, hopefully they’re still alive…”
“It’s like taking care of babies with training wheels. if you forget to run to the lab and feed them three times a day, they die.”
“Who in the world used my [insert tool, chemical, any lab equipment]??”
“I’m a small person and hit my forehead on the hood glass all the time trying to reach things”
My experience has been culturing neurons and astrocytes for my experiments. Neurons act as the main functional cells in the brain, and astrocytes are their ever-so-supportive sidekick, providing them with abundant nutrients and physical support. In your brain, this is a great system, because your body has evolved the perfect environment for these cells to thrive. However, as soon as you take them out of the brain and stick them onto a piece of glass, they get agitated. Neurons are especially finicky, and are difficult to work with because they don’t divide, and require the perfect mix of nutrients to thrive. Astrocytes are a little more hardy, but every cell type is different. I recently talked to a friend who is doing a PhD at UCSF. She works with an immortalized cancer cell line, which means they’re easier to handle than my neurons, but with the side effect of them actively spewing infectious particles. You give some, you take some, you know?
The hardest thing about cell work is that there are a ton of variables beyond your control. You can literally do everything right and follow the protocols to a T to find out next day or a week later that your cells have died. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw – the realities of biology are that every individual organism is different from the next one in some way, and even those tiny differences may affect how they grow and respond. Unlike machines and computers, there is no guaranteed output for a specific input, and there are hundreds of thousands of details that scientists don’t yet understand. Failures in culturing, such as contamination or detachment, can lead to hours of work down the drain. Despite these challenges, cell work can be especially rewarding when biology and luck are on your side. After all, the whole reason we slave over our 50 micron sized babies is to get closer to understanding a single one of the hundreds of thousand unknowns. All in the name of science, am I right?