For most of the summer, I’ve been doing genetics research at the Columbia University Medical Campus. As a summer member of the Rothstein lab, my project focused primarily on isolating different genetic pathways that, in concert with one another, may be responsible for tumor formation. I was initially excited to have a position like this for the summer, not just because it’s a good thing to have on one’s resume, but because a career in research had been something I’d considered for a long time and this was my chance to finally get a taste of what that life would be like.
The experience itself was really valuable, day to day lab work was not at all what I had imagined it to be. Lab work is, in a word, hard. From the outside it might not seem like much. After all, pipetting and reading articles aren’t exactly physically taxing. What can be so difficult about doing experiments in an air conditioned room sitting by a bench and a computer? It’s not the physical toll of lab work that was so hard, though pipetting a few hundred times a day would be a very Hopkins-esque arms workout. The most challenging part about working in a lab was having to be “on” all the time. Repeating the same procedure over and over again over the course of a day, knowing that simply daydreaming for a second or checking your phone can mess up weeks of work is a lot of pressure. Having to stay focused, and remain really truly present for hours on end is mentally exhausting.
Despite the tiring nature of the work, it felt good to be doing something that was mentally stimulating every day. While it got easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of lab work, the lab constantly forced me to think. Every experiment I did served as a small cog in the larger machine. While that was at times frustrating, that aspect of research forced me to constantly remind myself of the big picture. By being forced to understand the ins and outs not only of the smaller experiments I did day to day, but of the larger project the lab was working on, I really learned about the topics at hand. I can now easily tell you about the life cycle of budding yeast, and which genetic pathways you can tinker with while still getting a viable mutant. I think in and of itself, those two bits of knowledge make the tedium of lab work worth it.
Socially, working in the lab was definitely not a party. With everyone so focused on their own projects, and making sure they’re not making any mistakes, it can get pretty quiet. From time to time it got very frustrating. I consider myself a pretty social person, so to sit for hours on end in complete silence with only my yeast to talk to (I’m kidding…. I swear) was difficult. That being said, weekly lab meetings gave me the opportunity to socialize not only with researchers in my own lab, but all those interested in hearing about the work we’d been doing.
Lab work was certainly not what I expected it to be. It’s a lot less groundbreaking eureka moments celebrated with champagne, than it is small experiments done over the course of weeks to elucidate one tiny part of a much larger hypothesis. While working in a lab over the summer was difficult, and exhausting, it was incredibly rewarding. I learned what a day in the life of a researcher really is like, I learned a lot of the skills necessary for a career in research and got experience with an interesting topic. Despite coming home smelling like yeast every day, I think it was worth it.