The new lab rat on the block

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Using a pipette: one of my first lab lessons.

I’ll be the first to admit that I know absolutely nothing about working in a research lab. Pipettes? I vaguely remember them from high school chemistry lab. Bunsen burners? I know they burn things (Captain Obvious), but don’t ask me to light one. Petri dishes? I know you grow cells in them, but anything beyond that is beyond me.

So it was with a humble heart and spirit that I entered the pharmacology lab at the University of Illinois’ College of Medicine building at 1853 W. Polk St. this past Tuesday.

Research lab positions are coveted among pre-medical students, as medical schools look very favorably upon them. But getting a research job – especially if you don’t have any experience – is a difficult matter. It’s a catch 22. Without any experience, you can’t get a research lab job. But you can’t get any experience unless you get a research lab job to begin with.

I, however, networked my way into this position. Several months ago, I decided to try and contact some local physicians and ask to shadow them. But if you ask just anyone – someone who doesn’t know you – they’re more than likely to say “no.” So I turned to my alma mater’s online networking group (kind of like Facebook or LinkedIn, but for UIUC alums) and messaged several Chicago-area MDs. One, a pediatric anesthesiologist named Dr. Richard Berkowitz, got back to me. He agreed to meet with me at his office in Munster, IN. We talked about medical school, residency, all kinds of things. When I asked him what I should be doing to prepare myself for medical school, he mentioned the obvious – community service – but also brought up research work. He put me in touch with a former colleague, Dr. Gina Votta-Velis, an anesthesiologist and researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago. After meeting with her, and her research partner in pharmacology, Dr. Richard Minshall, they agreed to let me come on for the summer as a volunteer.

Tuesday morning, I timidly poked my head into lab E420, looking for Olga Chernaya, the post-doc researcher who is my supervisor (and mentor). Luckily for me, Olga is friendly, funny, gracious, and patient – and a good teacher.

But rightly, she was also a bit wary of having a completely untrained pre-med student poking around her cell cultures and taking up her precious time.

“Do you have to have your own project?” she asked me. Apparently, some students who come into the lab need to work on their own research project and write a paper about it within eight to 10 weeks – not much time to get much done, especially if you don’t have any prior experience working in a lab.

“No,” I told her. “My goal is to stay out of your way, to be helpful, and to learn as much as I can.”

“Wow, that’s rare,” she said.

The tension lifted.

From the beginning, Olga included me in what she was doing. That first day, Tuesday, we looked at her fibroblast and epithelial cells under the microscope. That might sound simple, but I hadn’t used a microscope in years, so even focusing the microscope was something she had to (re)teach me. I felt a little embarrassed, but her patience eased any of those feelings.

On that first day, She showed me how to use pipettes. She showed me what kinds of cells she grows in petri dishes. (We haven’t gotten to bunsen burners yet, but I’m hoping that will come soon.)

The second day, I got to try things for myself. I used suction to draw out the high-calcium media (the liquidy stuff cells grow in) from flasks of cells, washed the flasks out using pipettes and a sterile solution of DPBS (phosphate buffered saline), and then replaced the high-calcium media with a low-calcium media solution, again using pipettes and suction.

What would have taken Olga 15 minutes probably took me 45, but it was a learning experience. And Olga must have been satisfied with my progress, because she’s leaving for a conference Friday afternoon and she wants me to “babysit” the cells while she’s gone – replacing their cell media twice next week, this time all on my own, no supervision.

It feels like a huge responsibility. And I’m nervous. What if something goes wrong? What if I forget what to do? What if I break something? What if I contaminate the cells? What if I – gasp – KILL them?

Then I remind myself that she wouldn’t ask me to do this if she didn’t think I could handle it. And really, it’s not that hard, once you break it down: Suction, pipette. Suction, pipette. Suction, pipette. Suction, pipette. That’s basically it (and try not to contaminate anything while you’re doing it).

Someone else believes I can do this – this is an opportunity for me to practice believing in myself, too.