Saturday, March 15, 2014

The state of the Zombieverse: spring 2014

No matter how many times I resolve that I will post at least once a week, life always seems to get in the way. So I figured I’d make lemonade from the lemons and tell you guys about what I’ve been up to. I know a lot of you enjoyed the posts about life as a shelter medicine intern, but I’ve been suspicious that life in the lab would be less interesting. (“Today I found the perfect set of pipetters! It was awesome!”) Still, it seems possible that there are people out there who wonder what first year PhD students spend their time doing, so here it is.
Me escaping from lab for Scio!

I went to ScienceOnline Together 2014, which was a great deal of fun. The head of my lab smiled tolerantly and let me go — she doesn’t do much layperson-level science communication herself, but she knows I love that stuff and figures there’s probably a good reason for me to get better at it. I went to a discussion about engaging undergraduates in science (run by two undergraduates), where I learned that Facebook is the Thing right now but Twitter might be catching up; a brainstorming session about providing explanations of various scientific concepts to people at a variety of levels, elementary school through expert; and an intergalactic gala, where I met Malcolm Reynolds, the Doctor, and an inflatable Dalek, and ate carbonated ice cream which was made before my eyes.

Back home but still on the science communication track, I have been kicking around ideas with another science blogger here about improving science communication education at UIUC. Let me tell you a story about how much the world needs help training aspiring scientists about science communication! I was in class with some undergrads, and they were talking about our recent midterm. One said: “I didn’t really understand that question where we were supposed to explain the findings as if to a scientist, and then as if to a non-scientist. What did that mean?” The other replied: “I don’t know, so I just wrote the same thing twice.” Ouch.

So yeah, I had some midterms. The one mentioned above was for an excellent class on genes and behavior. I really dig the structure of this class: every week we read some articles, then discuss them on the message board. We come to class already understanding the articles fairly well, and we discuss them more in person, both in small groups and as a full class with the professor. It’s a great design, though it does suffer around midterm time when the students are too tired to muster the energy to do paper analysis. Still, it is always better to read articles than a text book!

I also had a project for a statistics class. Statistics can be mind-bogglingly boring, but it is really essential to understand it if you want to be able to analyze your data well. In my experience doing my Master’s work, asking a statistician for help will lead to some terrifyingly complicated analyses that you will only understand during the moments that he is explaining them, and will immediately become completely opaque when you are trying to explain them to your advisor the next day. Anyways, this stats class was designed for grad students, not undergrads, and this project was to do some analysis of our own data. I am a first year student, so what do I not have yet? Data. I have a bunch of RNA which had been sitting in the sequencing machine for weeks. My hope was that sequencing would finish up in time for me to analyze that data for the class. Nope. So, with the teacher’s permission, I made up the data. It was kind of fun. Not enough significant results? Let me just change those numbers... This is apparently not something we are supposed to do in real life, unfortunately.

Did you hear me mention RNA in the sequencer? Yes, I am also doing research! Last semester was a lot of time at the bench, doing ridiculously finicky extraction work to get RNA out of tissue samples. RNA, you will remember from high school biology or some such, is a single-stranded copy of DNA. The cell makes these single stranded copies for use in making proteins, so RNA is part of the whole translation mechanism whereby DNA turns into an organism. Because RNA is single stranded, it isn’t as stable as DNA (which is double stranded), so handling RNA is a really annoying process involving gloves and this magic spray bottle which kills the evil RNA-eating demons which apparently live in the air, your hands, on counters, and on the mobile phones that undergraduates like to leave in your work area.

But once you get the RNA extracted into teeeeny little vials, you can send it off to be sequenced. What I will get back (what I got back a few days ago, but which involves a lot of processing before I can extract useful information from it) is information about which genes are expressed at different levels in particular tissues. I am using tissues from foxes selected for tameness versus foxes selected for aggression. (Remember, I work on the tame fox project.) Why is that interesting? Well, it seems likely that a lot of the differences that we see in tame foxes aren’t due to changes in their actual genes, but changes in how those genes are regulated. So maybe tame foxes express more of a particular gene rather than a different form of that gene. If I know which genes are expressed at higher or lower levels in tame foxes, I can start to guess at the functions of those genes, in foxes and, eventually, in dogs and humans.

What else? Helping the head of my lab teach her class in domestic animal behavior. I have been working behind the scenes to find good papers for students to read and writing questions to assess the students’ understanding of those papers. It’s the perfect job for me. I get to read a lot of papers about domestic animal behavior, and I get paid to do it.

Finally, I’ve been working on another project which is days (DAYS, I tell you) away from being ready to be announced here. I think it’s safe to say I find it more exciting than you will, but I still think you should check this blog daily in breathless anticipation!

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