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URSS Diary: the rite of passage of making a mistake in labs

When I first sat down with my main supervisor, we both thought the project could be completed in eight weeks. I thought it would be a simple experiment and wondered if I’d have enough time left over to help with other projects. How wrong I was.

My project was mutagenesis of E. coli SE11 bacteria strain in the human gut that breaks down carnitine in red meat which can cause atherosclerosis; it’s simple to describe but was hard to conduct. This wasn’t because the method was long or laborious (technically that counts as a pun? Right?), but the reality of putting it into practice meant there were lots of preparations and sections where things went wrong.

I thought it would be a simple experiment and wondered if I’d have enough time left over to help with other projects

My numerous attempts at polymerase chain reactions (PCR) were a disaster. It’s a rite of passage for all burgeoning scientists to make a simple and stupid mistake that sets back the project, and mine was mislabelling my PCR products so that I couldn’t distinguish them, having to start again. Even after doing another PCR, my product didn’t purify which meant halfway into the project we were no closer to completion and down several hundred pounds. Fortunately, I managed to make some progress in culturing the E. coli but was held back by preparation or having to re-do sections.

It’s a rite of passage for all burgeoning scientists to make a simple and stupid mistake that sets back the project

Doing a URSS (Undergraduate Research Support Scheme) project wasn’t just valuable work experience, but a valuable lesson in experiencing and managing failure. When your only experience is school or summer jobs, it can be quite easy to not deal with major obstacles. Even if you fail a test or drop glassware as a waiter, it’s a minor setback compared to the weeks-long nightmare of trying to insert plasmid DNA into bacteria to grow it. Being in an environment where I was constantly researching and troubleshooting problems in our project was an important experience to have.

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