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.
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.
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.