My experience as a student researcher

SAC I

By Chloe Nevitt

chloe nevitt 1

Undergraduate researchers like Chloe Nevitt gain first-hand experience of the challenges and rewards of lab work. In an environment where a simple error can ruin an entire day—or even an entire week— of work, students quickly learn the value of focus and precision. Chloe was the 2014 recipient of the Stephen and Jane Savidant Science Undergraduate Research Award.

When a professor dims the lights and turns on PowerPoint, it’s easy for students’ eyelids to droop and their heads to nod. It can be difficult to make the classical learning experience an exciting one, especially with necessary, albeit dry,  subjects.  Some students prefer a more experiential  learning approach—running their own experiments.

I’ve always thrived in an environment where I’m left to my own devices. In these situations, I learn from making mistakes, talking to experts and searching for information. Like many others, I sometimes found it hard to learn in a classroom.

During class, the biggest — and easiest — mistake a person can make is forgetting to pay attention.

In a lab, the margin for error is small

In a class, this may have no immediate consequences — but in a lab, it does.  A simple error can ruin an entire day—or even an entire week— of work.  In a lab, the margin for error is small, and when the mistakes happen, which they do, it means they’ll never happen again. And I was excited to try this for myself.

I spent my summer working under the supervision of Prof. Karine Auclair. Her focus of research is antibiotics and P450 enzymes. Liver P450 enzymes play a critical role in drug metabolism, and are responsible for breaking down 50 per cent of drugs currently on the market, so it is extremely important to understand their function in antibiotic metabolism. However, P450s have an incredibly short in vitro lifespan and are notoriously delicate, making them difficult to work with.

In order to counter this problem, the focus of my project was to wrap the enzymes in a membrane scaffolding protein. This would help protect and maintain the protein, enabling other members of the research team to test their own P450 sample activities and store their samples for longer periods of time.

My plates leaked, and leaked and leaked again

Adding the scaffold to my P450 sample was a relatively straightforward and simple protocol. Unfortunately, I realized that after starting my lab work, because this had been my first experience in a true biochemistry lab, I was a bit over my head. So when my supervisor handed me a pipette and asked me to prepare an SDS-PAGE, to test whether our protocol was successful or not, my plates leaked, and leaked and leaked again and I couldn’t make a proper gel. It wasn’t until I reached out to some of the other people working in the lab that I learned tips and tricks about how to prevent blots from leaking, how to keep pipettes sterile, and how to read an NMR.

The project itself didn’t go very far.  The bumps on the road appeared like mountains to me. None of my experiments were working, and I kept getting incredibly frustrated.  I was embarrassed to meet with my professor because time and time again I felt like I was failing. But when I finally admitted my apprehensions and fears, she taught me something  I’ll never forget.

Learning to think like a scientist

“You have to interpret your results,” she explained. “You can’t expect something to happen, and when that doesn’t happen, think you’re failing.” It was only then that I could step back from my project and realize that I wasn’t making mistakes, that there was something flawed in the experiment that no one had predicted.  It was then I realized the value of experiential learning – it had taught me to think like a scientist, instead of a student.

 

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