A day in the life: Maya

A few days ago, I met a friend for a beer, and he asked me (as politely as possible) what scientists actually do on an average day. Ask and you shall receive! In a series called Day in the Life, we and our peers will share what we do to fill our time. Find them compiled here.

Here’s what I did today:

8:30am – I walk to work most mornings, using the time to gulp coffee and make a mental checklist of tasks that need to be accomplished. Today, I have to hurry to lab to photograph some samples under a microscope before a meeting, so my walk is speedier and sweatier than usual.  

My first experiment: a glamorous on-the-go breakfast.

9:00am – I work in a lab that studies fruit flies (why we use these guys is the topic of an upcoming post). The first thing most fly biologists do when they get to work is sort out the flies that have hatched overnight. This is because we want virgin female flies to set up mating crosses with.

Flies like to hatch in the early morning, and if you wait too long to collect them the females might mate with males of the wrong genetic make-up and be rendered (experimentally) useless. So, when I got into lab, I quickly checked my email and then went to the fly room to sort out the new hatchlings.

Fruit flies are, obviously, very good at flying. We knock them out with carbon dioxide gas while we sort them or move them from one container to another. In our lab, we have small carbon dioxide guns that we use to inject gas into fly containers, and then carefully tap the sleeping flies onto a pad that oozes carbon dioxide, allowing us to inspect the flies while they stay nice and still. Flies are also very small, so we use microscopes to look at them closely.

My flies are immobilized on a carbon dioxide pad. I use the paintbrush to move them around, and the microscope to look at them closely.

An under-advertised perk of the job is developing the ability to quickly look at a fruit fly buzzing around your kitchen and tell whether it’s male or female. It makes for a great party trick!

I collect the newly hatched flies of the morning, and put them into new vials of food for use in later experiments.

The puffy flies at the bottom right are the new hatchlings – I want these. I discard the smaller, older flies in the top left

9:30am – Earlier in the week, I did an experiment: I wanted to distinguish different groups of cells within the developing fly wing, and so I stained wings with different glowing dyes that stick to particular cell types. These samples are now ready to be analyzed, so I grab them from storage and head to the microscope we use for high-magnification imaging. The cells I want to photograph are only five micrometers across — 20 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Our microscope is housed in a particularly dark and chilly room, to minimize the amount of vibration and heat that both the fancy (and expensive) microscope and our biological samples (tiny, delicate fly wings) are exposed to. This is unfortunate for the scientists (me) who must spend hundreds and hundreds of hours shivering in the ‘scope room.

Imaging is the culmination of a lot of experimental planning and preparation, and the opportunity to unveil new results! Today, I’m rewarded for my shivering and suffering with really cool new data: by tweaking how cells move charged particles across their membranes, I was able to change the way they interact to build a wing. I now have a lot more information about a question that I really want to answer, and I mull over future experiments as I clean the microscope and shut down the computer.

One of our microscopes, in its frigid home. That white cardboard contraption at the bottom right is what we use to store glass slides with samples in them — like dissected fly wings — before imaging them.
I’ve labeled groups of cells with different fluorescent dyes, which means they glow when certain lasers are fired at them. In this experiment, I am interested in how a genetic manipulation changes the shape of the developing fly wing.

11:00am – I rush from the microscope room upstairs to our meeting room. An undergraduate student who has been working in the lab for the summer is preparing his end-of-program talk, and as a lab we go over his slides, helping him better phrase and visually represent his ideas.

12:00pm – Before lunch, I check emails (thrilling, yes?). The fall semester is fast approaching, so I enroll in courses and fill out some hiring paperwork pertinent to my appointment as a teaching assistant  in the fall.  

12:30pm – Over lunch, a postdoc and I chat about a new kickboxing class we want to try out at our gym, the sexist manifesto scandal at Google, and where to schedule an upcoming lab beer hour.

1:30pm – I continue some sample preparation that I began yesterday. This is part of the process required to stain and preserve the baby fly wing tissue for future imaging. It involves a lot of moving clear liquids from one small container to another, washing the samples with a predetermined lineup of chemicals. After a year in graduate school, I’ve done this hundreds of times, and have every step memorized. My exciting results from this morning have inspired me to try a few new tests out, so in between steps I try to squeeze in some reading about techniques I’ll use in future experiments.

2:30pm – I head downstairs to the basement of our building, where our fly stock room is located. A significant portion of the day-to-day of my science is maintaining fly stocks, moving new fly stocks through quarantine, and keeping the lab organized and clean. This is a relatively labor-intensive and time-consuming process, but it’s worth it to protect our valuable stocks upstairs from contamination.I ordered a bunch of new flies — with custom DNA! — a few weeks ago, which are now waiting for me in the basement. To move them upstairs to the main lab, I need to wash the pupae in ethanol to kill any parasites that might be trying to hitch a ride into our fly-filled laboratory.

3:30pm – I run into a fellow student in my lab on my way up from the basement, and we spend half an hour or so talking about some difficulties he’s been having with his experiments. We’ve all been there.

4:00pm – The rest of my day is spent attending to small, assorted tasks. I work in a genetics lab, so I spend a lot of time designing convoluted and complex mating schemes to create fruit flies with the exact sets of genes that I want. It’s a bit like a logic puzzle. Today’s are especially thorny, and once I’m done writing them all out on paper, I go to the fly room to set up the crosses in real life. I’m also mentoring an undergraduate student, and spend a few minutes writing up an outline of his project so he has a sense of the questions we’ll be asking, and what experiments we’ll do to answer them. I order some chemicals and short pieces of DNA called “primers” for experiments I’m planning in the future.

6:00pm – Work is done! After I leave lab, I go for a run in the trails above campus, shower and make dinner, and head out to see a play at an independent theater near my house with a friend (the perks of having a student ID well into your twenties include cheap tickets).

Part of what I love about being a graduate student is how variable my day-to-day schedule is. In the fall, a lot of my time will be spent holding office hours and discussion sections for the class I’m teaching, and my days will be radically different from what I’ve outlined here. The types of experiments I do every day also change depending on which directions my research goes. For example, recently I’ve been doing a lot of the dying and photographing I did today, but soon I’ll tackle another type of experiment to assemble a custom genome for a fly, which will involve a very different type of work. I have no idea what kind of work I’ll be doing months from now, because no one on the planet knows which direction my research will go! Exciting stuff.

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