Inexperience: Frustrations of a Liberal Arts Graduate

I watched with nervousness as my PI scanned through the wells of the plate.  Five of the six wells held happy little pericytes growing blissfully, while one well was fraught with contamination.  Some sort of fungus or bacteria had taken up residence, killing my precious culture.  The thing is, I have very little experience with cell culture.  So when my PI looked at the Well Of Shame, he, understandably, became very upset.

SEM of pericyte

SEM of pericyte

You see, cell culture contamination can ruin experiments, even month-long projects.  As soon as you even suspect the presence of contamination, you need to bleach the plate, spray everything it ever touched with ethanol, and maybe burn the clothes you were wearing.  It’s seriously that bad.  But me?  After I had noticed it I simply marked it with a red marker and moved on, thinking that I would take care of it later.  That’s like noticing you’re not wearing your glasses and you continue driving anyway.  It’s stupid and irresponsible, and is representative of the many encounters I’ve faced as a liberal arts graduate, all of them stemming from inexperience.

This is not to say that I don’t value my college education.  Having attended Grinnell College, one of the premier liberal arts institutions in the country, I consider myself intellectually equipped to face almost any challenge.  I can adapt easily, and have been trained to think critically and creatively, attributes highly praised in science.  The problem is, I have very little experience with the technical aspects of science.

Grinnell College in winter is a beautiful, bone-chillingly cold, thing.

Grinnell College in winter is a beautiful, bone-chillingly cold, thing.

I could tell you every step of PCR, but that doesn’t mean I know why a reaction might fail or how I should dilute my primers to create easy-to-use stocks.  There are so many minutia in the day-to-day workings of a lab that never go into a liberal arts education, and at times, like yesterday in the culture room, I really feel that lack.

It’s an odd dichotomy of feeling intelligent yet inexperienced; mentally equipped yet technically lacking.  It often creates this frustrating feeling of helplessness, that can only be overcome by asking for help.  But sometimes it’s difficult to gauge what you need help with, and what you can figure out on your own.  I’ve learned that asking for help is almost always your best bet, but there are only so many hours in a day, and research is an incredibly time-consuming endeavor; sometimes post-docs are simply too busy, and sometimes you’re so busy you think it’s too small an issue to get worked up about.

As someone who enjoys science, is currently working in research, but it not anticipating a career in it, I am glad that my education affords me a macroscopic view of science as a discipline and as a human endeavor, but sometimes I really wish someone had told me to bleach the contaminated well.

Happy (belated) International Women’s Day!

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which celebrates women all around the world.  So today, I want to tell the (abridged) stories of three women in science whose work has shaped my life in science.  Often ill-credited and over-looked, these women have made contributions in a field that largely rejected their ideas as inferior, and in doing so, they not only proved that women can achieve amazing scientific feats, but paved the way for generations of scientists to come.

Rosalind Franklin


Sometimes referred to as “The Dark Lady of DNA,” Rosalind Franklin is the real scientist behind Watson and Crick’s famous “discovery” of the double-helix structure of DNA.  Franklin was an X-Ray crystallographer, which means that she took pictures of crystal structures, which are often biological substances in crystal form.  This requires a math chops like you wouldn’t believe – modern day x-ray crystallography involves heavy computational use.  But Franklin, being the badass that she was, did them all by hand.

Now, according to many first-hand accounts, Watson and Crick were imaginative and creative, but also kind of jackasses.  Franklin, being the hard-nosed scientist she was, did not work well with them.  However, they did collaborate, and together they tried to elucidate the structure of DNA.  Watson and Crick were more interested in modeling than in the science though, and, when Franklin viewed their premature model, acerbically noted “It’s very pretty, but how are they going to prove it?”

Eventually, of course, Watson and Crick did manage to build a model of DNA, largely based on Franklin’s work.  The picture below, for example, which is an x-ray diffraction picture of DNA, definitively shows DNA as a helical structure.  Rosalind_Franklin_Plate_1_DNA_B_form_1000

Did Rosalind Franklin receive any credit for this monumental discovery?  No!  It wasn’t until TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER that Franklin’s contribution was even acknowledged, and it was buried behind some pretty sexist bull-shit in Watson’s The Double Helix.   While Watson has since changed his tune, saying that Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the fact remains that his Nobel stands on the unseen shoulders of the real scientist behind the discovery: Rosalind Franklin.

Marie Curie


You cannot talk about women in science without bringing up Marie Curie.  To quote Wikipedia, “She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, the only person to win twice in multiple sciences, and was part of the Curie family legacy of five Nobel Prizes.”

This is a woman who quite literally devoted her life to science.  Before her pioneering research, radioactivity wasn’t even a word – she coined it!  She discovered two elements, began the first radiation treatments for cancer, and developed novel techniques for isolating isotopes.

During the time of her research, people still were not convinced that there was anything smaller than the atom; after all, atom literally means indivisible.

Curie’s work on radioactivity was dependent upon the hypothesis that radiation is not the result of molecular interactions, but from the atoms themselves.  This of course proved to be correct, and was instrumental in the shift of how we view the fundamental particles of our universe.

Sadly, Curie was a pioneer in a field where the dangers had not yet been mapped.  She died due to aplastic anemia as a result of radiation exposure.  She is immortalized in her field of research, as the unit of radiation is a curie.

Carolyn Porco


Last, but certainly not least, I want to introduce you to a wonderful woman named Dr. Carolyn Porco.  Dr. Porco is a planetary scientist who has devoted much of her career to studying Saturn. She has been involved in the Voyager missions (no, not Star Trek), as well as the more recently the Cassini mission.  The discoveries she has made through the fantastic images taken way out in the deep space of our solar system, has changed how we view ourselves.

Don’t believe me?  Well, Dr. Porco is not only a great scientist, but is also an amazing speaker and science advocate as well.  She has been on the TED stage several times, and has spoken at several other conferences around the world.

I STRONGLY encourage you to watch her TED talk on her Saturn work.  She can inspire you in a manner that a mere blog post could never hope to aspire to.

Dr. Porco continues to do research and push forward the boundaries of human intellect wherever she goes.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my short blurbs on these amazing women, and I want end by saying that science is a genderless endeavor, and all who are gripped by scientific curiosity should be allowed to pursue it.