Last week I was feeling somewhat hopeless about my project and realizing that our lab isn’t really set up for what I was trying to do. On Friday Dr. Chang asked me how things were going and I brought up my concerns. He was sympathetic and persuaded me to jump on to working with a couple of undergrads in the lab on dormancy in E. coli. So, I’m now embarking on project number 3 in the Chang lab this summer. This project involves working with a system developed by the just-graduated undergrad in our lab that causes only dormant E. coli cells to produce green fluorescent protein, and thus glow green under UV light. This is very convenient because it provides an easy way to identify which cells in a culture are dormant, something that was formerly not so easy. This is achieved by transforming the bacteria with a plasmid she designed and synthesized. The plasmid contains the gene for GFP and regulatory genes. When the cell is happy (not dormant) a repressor is produced that prevents the production of GFP. When the cell is dormant the repressor stops being produced and GFP is produced, allowing it to be visualized. More details might be forthcoming.
I was feeling very stressed by the lab situation as I felt isolated and ignored by my labmates (since I wasn’t really working with anyone and it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world for them to speak Chinese), but after explaining that I want to be involved with this project and told what’s going on each day I’ve gotten to be fairly involved this Monday and Tuesday. We’ve just been growing competent cells (able to be transformed with the plasmid) and today we transformed them and are waiting until tomorrow while they grow, so we haven’t had a lot of work to do. I feel better about the whole situation.
Notable events this weekend included going ice skating, buying a shirt (guys clothes are much much harder to find than girl’s clothes…), having dinner to celebrate Yun’s birthday, Watching the movie Moon (which has my recommendation) on Saturday. Sunday I went with Lily and Ray and a family friend of Ray’s to a day of exploring a small shopping street of Beijing followed by returning to the family friend’s house for family dinner followed by some games.
On Monday I played pingpong with Veronica for a while after a full day of blog reading and otherwise entertaining myself on the computer. I had some good conversations and wrote a couple of emails that have led me in a happier direction in terms of lab work, and thus life (because I no longer feel guilty for not working in lab or disappointed by being totally isolated). I also began looking seriously into study abroad possibilities for the future. I’ve found this experience to be valuable in a variety of ways and would like to do something similar again. I’ve read fairly thoroughly about The University of Leiden in the Netherlands; The University of Granada, in Spain; and Uppsala University, in Sweden. I have many many other tabs open and many many people to talk to and many many things to consider before I make any decisions but at least conceptually and emotionally I am excited by the prospect of more time spent in interesting new cultural and linguistic settings. (Hint: If you have any information about study abroad things or advice relating to such send it over my way.)
Yesterday I played pingpong with Linxuan, one of the undergrads I’m working with, and a number of my American friends in the Life sciences building. It was a good time playing round robin (running around the ping pong table) while occasionally people would walk by carrying stuff for experiments and looking a little confused by our crazy game.
Today I slept in a bit then went in to lab and transformed our bacteria. After that I was free to go since the bacteria needed to grow so I met up with Chanan and helped him get some videos of PKU’s campus. He is borrowing a video camera from a lab-mate which we rigged up in the basket of his bike, peeking out of a hole cut in a carboard box while packed in with towels for security. The videos definitely need editing but there’s some good stuff in there, and it made for a fun afternoon. After dinner I hung out with Sarah, Yun, Taylor, Matt, and Megan (at various times) and we played some Mahjongg, which I’m getting more familiar with and thus feeling more in control of the strategy of what you choose to keep and discard.
And now it’s time to go to sleep.
Though my blog thus far may have led you to believe otherwise, the NSF is not paying for us to be in China just to have an all-around good time. They also want us to do some science and gain some valuable research experience while we’re here. As such we all chose a few top picks for which lab we’d work in and depending on various factors were placed into one of those labs. The lab I’m in is that of Dr. Zengyi Chang. I was interested in his work because his site and biography said that they studied proteins related to the aging process, a topic that I think is fairly interesting because I’d like to do my best to prevent aging. Andrew Bernier is in the same lab as me this summer. Most of the students with our group have their own labs but Andrew and I and another pair, Taylor Carlson and Lester Sabo, are both in the same lab.
When Andrew and I first met Dr. Chang he asked a bit about the program and was very inviting but a bit disconcertingly unprepared in terms of what we would do. He asked us what we wanted to do in the lab, we said we didn’t know what was going on in his lab and he proceeded to sit thinking for a few minutes. Eventually he called in one of his students and conferred with her. The decision was that we would help her, Anastasia Ngozi (who is from Nigeria, originally), with working on dauer formation in C. elegans. And now, a brief introduction to C. elegans.
Caenorhabditis elegans is a species of roundworm. It is a common, well-studied model organism. It is harmless (as far as I am aware) to those working with it, it feeds on E. coli bacteria, another model organism that is easily cultured in the lab, the developmental fate of every cell in its body has been determined, it’s life-cycle is rapid (3 days from egg to reproducing adult under good conditions), it is a eukaryote so it is evolutionarily slightly similar to humans, and it grows to about 1mm in length, so it is visible to the naked eye.
I mentioned earlier that the lab is studying dauer formation, and to understand that statement I need to bring in a handy-dandy chart of the C. elegans life cycle.
- The C. elegans life cycle
- The normal life cycle for C. elegans takes about 3 days (for an egg to become a sexually mature adult worm). The worms proceed through 4 larval stages which are characterized by different physiological markers before becoming adults. They go through this normal life cycle when living in a place with plenty of food, enough space, at a nice temperature, and away from any chemical dangers. In the face of unfavorable circumstances such as a lack of food, overcrowding, high temperature, or toxic environment developing worms have the capability to enter a dormant state called “dauer” from L1 instead of proceeding on to L2. (Dauer is pronounced dow (as in dow chemical)-err (as in “err… what?”) and is simply the name for the dormant state of C. elegans.) If a worm enters dauer it stops pharyngeal pumping (it stops eating), forms plugs at both ends of its digestive tract (it’s not eating anyway, right?), and only moves if it needs to actively escape from danger (such as a scientist poking it with a platinum wire).
- So I’m working with C. elegans for the next couple of months and I’ll do my best to keep you informed on the why’s what’s and how’s of the whole shebang. Hopefully you’ll get to hear from some of my fellow Americans about what they’re researching too(I’ll try to force them to write guest posts).