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Week 2: Lessons on Patience and Mistakes

I entered my second week raring to go, ready to work as hard and as fast as I could. I wanted results, and I wanted them NOW. After three intense days, I end this week feeling very different. I care more about doing my work carefully and correctly, even if it means spreading my work over more days. I also care more about taking care of myself, since this neglect made me susceptible to making mistakes.

Last week, I ran my first set of lac assays. Now, I had to do the experiment over again to see if my results were reproducible. This was my main task for week 2. I felt impatient, since I wanted to move on to the next steps quickly. I therefore planned to try to reproduce my work twice and do lac assays on samples kept in anaerobic conditions. In retrospect, those goals were terribly unrealistic: a lot of work in a very short amount of time, with no allowance for unexpected events or results.

On Tuesday, I found myself juggling multiple tasks to stay on schedule. My main task was to run a lac assay under aerobic conditions, which involved taking and processing samples every 30 minutes for five hours. Processing would take me 15-20 minutes each time. During my 10-15 minute "breaks", I learned how to do my assigned lab chore, snatched bites of food (I did not make time to eat lunch), made plates for the next set of lac assays, and charted my experiment's progress by inputting my data into Excel. While I was relieved to see that I was getting good, reliable-looking data, I was also running myself to the ground. By the end of that day, I was very tired and ended up making a simple mistake: I accidently touched my thumb to two plates (control and a mutant of interest) while streaking them. 

As luck would have it, I did not have replacement plates. I had to scrap all the plates I streaked. Because I could not grow the bacteria I needed for the next batch of experiments, Michiko suggested scrapping the rest of the week's plans. I would not be able to get my third set of lac assays and the anaerobic condition experiments done this week. I was really frustrated! However, I realized something important. Because I was impatient, I pressured myself to work hard without taking breaks. Because I had refused to take care of myself, I had become very tired and susceptible to making silly mistakes. This method of working was not healthy or good for my research.

The next day (Wednesday), I did the ONPG-β-galactosidase reaction part of the assay. After getting advice from a grad student in the lab and my PI, I discovered that I had made some crucial mistakes when doing the lac assay previously. Those mistakes were the results of my inexperience with lab work. Last week’s ONPG-β-galactosidase reaction data could not be trusted. In addition, the new results I got were intriguing and confusing. They were quite different from my previous results AND did not match our hypothesis.

Michiko reiterated the importance of reproducibility, so I will do at least one more run of this exact same experiment next week to see if my new results are reproducible. This time I will not be so rash. I know that I can and will make mistakes, especially when I am impatient or am doing something for the first time. There is value to doing things more slowly and carefully so that they are done right.