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Students

How students see scientists: Part IX

Rarely do scientists regard failed experiments as ‘exciting’ (in fact, one would imagine they have a variety of choice words which they might use instead to describe such occurrences). However, in the latest in our series of blogs written by students who undertake work placements at the WIMM, Aliya Chandaria and Lisa Li remind us that what many scientists regard as routine and mundane procedures are actually pretty remarkable, and enable scientists to investigate human biology in fascinating detail.

Within the first hour of arriving at the WIMM (after two rigorous health and safety talks) we nervously went to have our blood taken, and the reality of the week finally set in.

As soon as we were done, we put on our white coats, safety glasses and blue nitrile gloves, and prepared ourselves for the day’s work.

The first experiment we did after stepping into the lab was isolating our own DNA from the blood samples taken that morning. We broke open our cells and then their nuclei in order to get to the DNA inside, in the process becoming somewhat ‘experts’ at using the high-tech pipettes and all sorts of machines such as the centrifuge and the vortex.

After completing the extraction we performed a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), to amplify a specific section of our DNA. The mechanics of the reaction were explained to us in fascinating detail by the researchers, but in simple terms it worked through the polymerase enzyme repeatedly copying a specific part of the DNA, thus ‘amplifying’ it.
With our amplified DNA, we performed gel electrophoresis to look at the size of the specific part we had copied. This involved pipetting our DNA into tiny wells in a block of colourless gel and then passing an electric current through the block to make the DNA in each well ‘migrate’ towards the positive end of the gel.

DNAGel

DNA (white) separated by size using gel electrophoresis. The current runs from top to bottom and small pieces of DNA move faster through the gel, hence appear as lower bands. By Jackie K via Flickr

The results were converted into a black and white image and this was definitely the best souvenir we have ever taken home!

On the second day, we performed a cell transfection, using a plasmid (a loop of DNA) to carry a gene (a defined region of DNA that contains the instructions to make a protein) into a cell.

As well as carrying the gene, the plasmid had also been modified to fluoresce (emit a specific wavelength of light) when it was present inside a living cell. This meant that we could tell whether the transfection had been successful because when the plasmid was taken up by the cell, the cell would fluoresce.

However, the experiment did not go to plan and from all five of our transfections, we only saw one fluorescing cell. Nevertheless, this was an exciting result and it taught us that experiments do not always give the desired outcome, preparing us to be true scientists.

One of our favourite parts of the week was learning how to create blood films with two microscope slides. We definitely began to appreciate that what looks easy from a bystander’s perspective can actually be incredibly difficult when you put yourself in the scientist’s shoes!

Throughout the course of the week, we were shown a variety of machines, including a FACS (Fluorescence Activated Cell Sorting) machine, which can pick out cells that are fluorescing a certain colour and then collect them in a dish for the scientists to use.

It was amazing to be able to see the inside of the machine and have it explained by someone who operated it; it made it even more exciting to see the machine in action. Equally impressive and memorable was seeing a massive microscope, of which there was only one in the whole world!

Our week at the WIMM was an amazing experience, and we were so lucky to not only watch the incredible research but also take part in it and do our own experiments. On each of the five days, the heads of the two labs (Doug Higgs and Richard Gibbons) even took the time to sit down and explain everything that we didn’t understand.

What made the whole experience even better was that all the scientists in the institute happily explained their research to us, in detail and perfectly to our level. The week has taught us a lot about genetics, blood and ATRX syndrome and has at the same time greatly fuelled our interest in biology and chemistry.

Post edited by Bryony Graham.

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