So I thought some people might not know and might be interested in what my job actually looks like. So here's a summary of how today has gone. It's not a typical day as such; one thing I really like about being a university academic is the variety, but it's also not wildly atypical either, it's a non-special day of the summer season.
I slept in 'til 8 because I had scheduled a meeting for 9:30 and Life Sciences is a stone's throw from my front door. In the end I was slightly late because I stopped to chat on the stairs to a colleague who had relevant information about funding options.
The meeting was between me, my #1 PhD student and the professor who is co-supervising her, and who is also my line manager for the research half of my job. #1 student is working on a new protein which controls whether cells die or grow, meaning that it's likely to be important in cancer. We spent most of the time discussing a new paper that has come out which suggests that our protein may also do similar things in gestational diabetes – as well as sometimes making tumour cells grow where they shouldn't, it apparently makes babies grow too big, a common complication of diabetes during pregnancy. We agreed we'll write to the people who discovered this and ask them about methods and reagents; their work is related enough to ours that it makes sense to collaborate, but since they're working on diabetes and not cancer, we're not likely to be seen as rivals. We also talked about what experiments #1 student will do next week and whether we need to buy her any more reagents. We planned an experiment she wants to work on involving looking at which genes are switched on or off when her protein is present. Since it's a new protein we kind of have no idea where to start, but I signed off on about three quarters of her sensible suggestions and substituted a couple of my own instead of genes I think are less likely to be interesting.
After that I went to help my #2 student who is learning to grow tumour cells in the lab. So partly that's learning what healthy cells look like and the practicalities of how to keep them fed and healthy, how to count them accurately etc. But the biggest part of it is learning to work aseptically and avoid contaminating her cultures. Tumour cells are a bit more robust than normal cells, but still they're fundamentally adapted to an environment inside the body where temperature, oxygen levels, pH and all kinds of subtle electrochemical things are very tightly controlled. So if you try to grow them in little plastic bottles, even though you try to keep the conditions suitable, you haven't got anything like as subtle control as body homeostasis, so they're really pretty fragile. On the other hand yeasts are very well adapted to growing wherever they happen to find themselves, so if they get into a culture with lots of nutrients kept at a constant 37°C they will basically be in paradise and quickly out-compete all the cancer cells. There are other, nastier bugs out there too, like some tiny bacteria that will directly infect our cells and multiply inside them, subtly changing cell behaviour so that none of our results make sense any more. And can't be detected except by intentionally looking for genes unique to them, and are resistant to most antibiotics.
So #2 student is learning how to work without letting anything that touches the cells come into contact with non-sterile surfaces. It's quite fiddly, and requires paying quite close attention, because it's impossible to never touch anything but it is possible to notice when you have made a mistake and replace the potentially contaminated item with a new, clean one. It's things like taking lids off one-handed and holding the lid between your fingers, while you use your dominant hand to transfer the liquid between vessels. (Sometimes I do this in the kitchen too, take a lid off a bottle with my thumb and forefinger and hold it between my ring and middle fingers of my left (off) hand; it's a very deeply engrained habit!) Things like mixing liquids by carefully swirling them, but not inverting the bottle or otherwise letting the liquid splash into the neck and lid. The growing cells look a bit like this under the microscope, if you're curious.
I had an awkward half-hour break between helping my #2 student and my next meeting, so I dealt with a handful of emails, mostly about people who want to see me to talk about various things related to planning teaching for next term. Then I walked across the campus to the Medical School, a very pleasant walk at this time of year when the campus is nearly empty of students but full of roses and strawberries and all kinds of growing things.
This meeting involved counselling an undergraduate student who has just failed her major end of year exams. She's very upset because she's never failed anything in her life, so some of it was just reassuring her that one poor mark is redeemable, it doesn't mean she can never be a doctor. And some of it was looking through her paper and trying to troubleshoot what went wrong. (The students have to book appointments with members of staff to look at their papers, and they're not allowed to take them away, because there's a thriving black market in medical school exam papers, which is extremely annoying to us and to the 99% of students who are totally honest and wouldn't dream of selling past exam papers.) We did a bunch of strategizing about how to improve her marks enough to pass her resits, and also about how to improve her learning and revision skills if she does make it to the next year of the course.
At this point it was nearly 3 pm and I hadn't had lunch, so I came home and put on some pasta and made myself a pot of tea. Since then I've been basically internet shopping, pricing up reagents we might buy for future experiments. This is one of the least intellectually stimulating parts of my job, so I'm procrastinating from it by updating DW. And I shall probably knock off a bit early since it's Friday and nobody I need to interact with is likely to be around much after 5.
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