doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

My Birthday Wishlist: A Histological Study

Smooth Muscle Isolated Fibers

My 30th birthday is in three months and nine days. And let me tell you, I’m counting down every one of those days. Not because I’m particularly eager to be 30 – though it doesn’t bother me at all that I’m about to hit the three-decade mark – but because I’ve discovered what I want for my birthday. All of the Etsy.com science items I recently posted go on my wish list, of course (although I want the colored pencil chemistry labels, rather than the crayon ones I listed – I don’t own crayons anymore). But today I found something else: microbiology posters.

Neurons: Human Brain
Cognition Synapse

No, I’m not joking. And so to answer the question burning in your mind: Yes, the nerdiness continues. I love it.

Ever since last summer, when I started at the research lab, I have been fascinated with stained slides. One of my tasks last summer was to count cell nuclei (which were stained blue, by the way) for Olga. It was pretty tedious, whish one of the reasons she asked me to do it (she admitted as much), but I didn’t mind. I knew I was contributing something. And honestly, the images were just gorgeous.

Blood Clot Formation:
Showing Trapped Red Blood Cells
(Erythrocytes) in Fibrin

So today, after I posted that image of the pancreatic cells, I got to thinking: I wonder whether there are posters of such images that one can purchase? I assumed it must be so, in this day and age of Internet shopping. I tried a bunch of keywords on Google, and finally came across Allposters.com. It took me a little while to find the site’s microbiology subsection, but when I did, I knew I had hit the jackpot. I ended up e-mailing myself more than 20 fantastic posters of green-, red-, and blue-stained neurons; a blood clot formation; red- and teal-stained muscle cells; a purple-, pink-, and blue-stained neuromuscular synapse; and so much more.

The Neuromuscular Synapse:
The Junction Between a
Nerve Fiber and a Muscle Fiber

My living room decor is set, as is that of my bedroom. But the walls in my office / music studio are glaringly blank. In the taupe-y sense. They are just begging for me to hang framed prints of erythrocyes and collagen protein on them. I figure I’ve got space for five or so prints, frames included. It would be so perfect: to study biology, genetics, and chemistry amid such poignant, beautiful, and educational imagery. And what conversational pieces they would be!

Fact or Artifact?

Prior to last week, my only exposure to “artifacts” was something like this:

This artifact is an ancient Chinese pot, the kind of piece you would see at Chicago’s Field Museum, or in a similar collection.

But last week at the lab, Vasily, my research supervisor Olga’s husband, told me about biological artifacts. Here is a definition from Biology Online:

Artifact. Any visible result of a procedure which is caused by the procedure itself and not by the entity being analyzed. Common examples include histological structures introduced by tissue processing, radiographic images of structures that are not naturally present in living tissue, and products of chemical reactions that occur during analysis.

Vasily told me that the researcher has to be very careful to distinguish between what might seem like fantastically interesting results and an artifact. I was intrigued. So I looked up some articles on PubMed about these so-called artifacts. Here are some of my findings, along with some pretty cool images that illustrate the concept.

One type of article that kept coming up was about radiological artifacts. Basically, the idea is that the quality of a CT scan or MRI can be compromised, leading to “image artifacts” that can result in the improper diagnosis of a disease. For example, according to one paper I read*, there are several categories of radiological artifacts. The artifact type that I understood the best (the others had to do with rather sophisticaed nuclear technology) results from motion. If there is either involuntary (i.e., sneezing, heart beating) or voluntary (i.e., swallowing) movement, there could be distortions or shadowing on the film. Above is an example of a artifacts pictured in the paper.

On a subject that I understand a bit better (and that results in prettier pictures), there are artifacts on the biological side of research as well. Another article I found** was about a very specific aspect of pancreatic epithelial cells. Its authors reported that a type of cell transition that had been observed in their laboratory was likely an artifact. They hypothesized that their cell isolation procedure might have introduced some type of genetic changes in the cells that caused the artifactual result. Below is an image from this paper, representing the artifact that they observed: the coexpression of MSC antigens CD29 and vimentin in a two-day cultured pancreatic digest. (Don’t worry if that’s Greek to you. But I know some of you out there are research folks, so I figured I would mention a few details.)

So what’s the point, other than looking at cool cell stainings (which is fun on it’s own, in my opinion)? The point is that as a scientist, and as a clinician, you have to be cognizant of what is normal. And then when results come back that are abnormal, you take a close look to make sure that there is not an alternate explanation other than true abnormality (or perhaps an amazing discovery, in the case of research). It’s always about questioning things. That’s the nature of science, isn’t it? I think so, at least.

* Popilock, R., Sandrasagaren, K., Harris, L., and Kaser, K.A. (2008). CT artifact recognition for the nuclear technologist. J. Nucl. Med. Technol. 36, 79-81.

**Seeberger, K.L., Eshpeter, A., Rajotte, R.V., and Korbutt, G.S. (2009). Epithelial cells within the human pancreas do not coexpress mesenchymal antigens: epithelial-mesenchymal transition is an artifact of cell culture. Lab. Invest. 89, 110-121.

I amplify DNA. Yes, I really do.

“I trust you.”

That was about the greatest thing my research supervisor, Olga, could have said to me. She was referencing my skills at setting up PCR (polymerase chain reactions). And it’s quite helpful that she trusts me with these reactions, because the work in our lab involves doing quite a bit of PCR.

Not only am I precise and accurate with these reactions, I am also building up my speed. I was setting up 24 tubes of PCR last Thursday, for example. Olga came in to check on me and asked how I was doing. “I’m done,” I told her. “You’re done?” she asked, brows raised in surprise. “Pretty soon you’re going to be a machine!” Another high compliment from a highly intelligent woman with a PhD who can pipette with lightning speed. Compared with my snail’s pace from last summer – when I came in not knowing what a pipette was, and certainly not knowing how to use one – I’ve come a long way.

While those of you familiar with lab protocol likely know what PCR is, most people don’t. I certainly didn’t until last summer, when Olga expertly and succintly explained it to me. It’s quite marvelous, really, how it works. I thought I would take a blog post to explain it, since it’s been such a big part of my lab work lately.

The goal of PCR is to amplify a specific region of DNA. There are three steps in PCR: denaturing, annealing, and elongation. These are fancy, scientific words for breaking apart the entire strand of DNA, using what is called “primers” to bind to the broken-apart DNA, and then employing a special enzyme called taq polymerase to synthesize a copy of the specific DNA region you want. You do this through cycles of heating and cooling to promote these different steps. This yields an exponential amount of the region of DNA you want. Pretty cool, eh?

Here is a visual representation of the process*

The technique was developed in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, its inventors were awarded a Nobel Prize. It’s amazing to me that less than 30 years ago, we did not even have this technology. Science has come such a long way, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

*This image was downloaded from the online edition of: Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, et al. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000.
Available on the NCBI bookshelf: Molecular Cell Biology