Let Loose in the Lab

I was just so nervous about going into the lab. I almost felt like I had no right to be in there, like I’m a fraud. I still feel like that to an extent. The inductions, although useful, did nothing to quell my fear even when I extracted the most DNA from E. coli! Deep down I know I can do labs and carry out my work effectively; I’ve been in practical sessions at least once a week since my first year! These, however, were very directed classes with detailed instructions sheets given to us and it was within our best interests to stick to them.

Now there is no detailed instruction apart from the one that I spent hours putting together for a module last year. I’ve found already though that this will not be much use in terms of technique; the writing is based on theory because, until the induction, I had never encountered a PCR machine, pouring a gel or centrifuging something except in videos that I watched to try and get my head around the procedures.

Of course now all the worrying seems pointless and silly. My first session was stressful and involved a lot of asking for help my bench partner, my designated PhD student and anyone else I could find to show me where the hell everything was kept! My head was buzzing around everywhere and I became so self- conscious of everything I was doing, terrified that I was doing it wrong and somehow contaminating the lab with a deadly disease. When it came to the PhD student trying to explain how to add antibiotics to my agar, I couldn’t fathom anything she was asking even though, looking back, it was so simple.

Everyone was extremely helpful and patient when I could find something or didn’t know how to do something and after putting all my bottles in to be autoclaved and pondering whether to do the antibiotic part or not, I decided to go home. Even though I had poured over 30 plates, in my mind I had achieved nothing more than increasing the confusion in my mind about my project along with inhaling more media powder than I weighed out. I even skipped a climbing session because I was so down and instead, cried to my housemates and on the phone to my dad and my best friend.

The next day I resolved to just get on with it; crying was going to get me nowhere so I metaphorically grew some balls and went back into the lab.

I was approached by one of the post docs and she kindly told me that XLD (a type of agar on which to selectively grow Salmonella) didn’t need to be autoclaved. She instructed me to go and look back at the pot that I got it from which I did. I looked in dismay at the instructions; something to do with boiling and stirring. I went back to the post doc and after further instructions I cornered the lab technician to help me make the media properly.

He was beyond helpful! Whilst carrying out his other jobs he kept an eye on the flask, and even sat by it for over 15 minutes, heat resistant gloves at the ready, until it boiled. This sounds like I abandoned my media flask but I did keep popping back to check, just not as regularly as the lab technician. I did sit there for most the last bit before it boiled but he was already seated when I arrived.

After I’d put the boiled media in a water bath I returned to the PhD student who I had abandoned in favour of my XLD. She was also beyond helpful. After my apparent mental breakdown the day before, she had gone home and made me a sheet to help me get my head around antibiotic concentrations. I enthusiastically worked through this while waiting for my second lot of XLD to boil, sitting next to it so that the lab technician didn’t feel obliged to, although I did see him checking it as he passed the area.

No boil-overs occurred and I poured some more media before going for lunch. The day was already going better than the one before and I had achieved in making almost all of my media required for the initial testing I was going to carry out.

Since then I have become more comfortable in the lab environment, most of this is to do with knowing where things are and knowing who to ask for help (basically everyone). I still bumble around a bit, splitting stomacher bags and getting chicken solution everywhere but I’m a lot happier, mainly because I have clear aims for this part of my project. The next part will be more uncertain but if I take time to plan and be organised then it will all run smoothly. Fingers and toes crossed.

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