Why the daily grind is different for scientists

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “A Moment in Time.”

“What was the last picture you took? Tell us the story behind it.”

The last picture I took was this:

mutant spine

What you see here is a cross-section of mouse spine. It’s not supposed to look like that.  For some reason, the mice in this model develop growths which protrude into the spinal column, limiting mobility, causing altered gaits, and in general doing more harm than good.

When we set out to make these mice, which have been bred for the specific purpose of causing mTOR activation of pericytes in the kidneys, we never intended for the above to happen.

This is not uncommon. This is science.

You have a hypothesis: that if you manipulate gene A in this mouse you will get phenotype B.  What actually occurs is a different matter, and one of the reasons I even have a job.  The issue remains, however, that your experiment is an animal.

When you are working with animals and altering their genetic makeup, you begin to become inured to the various phenotypes you may see around you.  For example, if working in a neuro lab, it may become run-of-the-mill to see mice seize (this has happened to me).

One mouse model I was reading up on ablated pericytes, which stabilize capillaries and other small vasculature.  These mice would die in 2 months from global internal bleeding.

Another mouse model I worked with, again, for a neuro lab, literally went insane.  It had no fear, due to improper amygdala connections, and would run around like it was on amphetamines before seizing.  These mice typically did not last longer than a month and a half.

We were trying to develop a model for facial angiofibromas for patients with TSC, and caused elevated mTOR activation in fibroblasts in mouse skin.  These mice would develop loose, flappy skin that would itch and tear easily.  They were literally uncomfortable in their own skin and at times would attempt to scratch it off.  Not to mention the females had a fifty percent chance of developing ascites at a late age.

We scientists do not just witness these vignettes of suffering, but think long and hard about how we will make it happen and how we will show it happened.  This wears on a person more than words can describe.

The daily grind of a scientist is looking at the image above, recognizing that you were the one to bring about this physical change which dominates how an animal views its world, and moving forward with trying to parse out the mechanisms by which it occurred.  All this gets processed, at some level, with each glance in the microscope, each mouse handled, and each manuscript submitted.

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2 thoughts on “Why the daily grind is different for scientists

  1. just before reading this, I was talking to a lab member who works with animal models..I was saying, THIS much animal are sacrificed! I know they are all doing it for good, but I feel very sad about it, when I look into their eyes, so didn’t go there, working with molecular things till now…

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