Apprentice in the Harland Lab (Molecular & Cell Biology)
When I was in high school, I had no idea of what research actually meant beyond lab coats and safety goggles; I didn’t know what pipetting or other lab techniques were. After my first semester here I decided to try URAP and was invited for the initial interview with Professor Harland, along with one other student. Doctor Harland asked us about our previous experience, and the student next to me started to talk about all his research experience. He had done some research including stints at UCSF and Stanford. I remember thinking “Darn, I don’t even know what pipetting is”. I told Dr. Harland that I had never done research, and didn’t know if I wanted to go to grad school or med school. I was applying to find out. It turned out that I got the position. That was great. That is the advice I would like to give to anyone who reads this: If you wonder “Should I say this or that about myself” I would say just be honest, and try to show them who you are more than what you have accomplished by making a long list. Be honest, and it will work out better for you.
That is very good advice. Let’s talk a little bit about what is it that you are currently working on.
We were assigned individual projects from the very beginning. There are ten chromosomes in the frog Xenopus tropicalis and each of us was assigned one to two chromosomes. We needed to find the centromere, which is the point where the sister chromatids attach in meiosis. This got us used to PCR (polymerase chain reaction), gel running, and all the other lab procedures. Once we did that, each of us chose one mutation for mapping, and I chose ‘Grinch’. This is an early developmental defect which results in a huge bulge in the chest. From the work of a past undergraduate we suspect it is a defect in the circulatory system or the lymphatic system. The object is to find where this mutation occurs in the genome – to map it. It could be anywhere on anyone of the ten chromosomes.
The first step involves me doing what other postdocs do, which is gynogenesis (Harland Xenopus tropicalis Site). Then I screen the tadpoles for the mutation and extract their DNA. I use these DNA to find where the mutation occurs by doing PCRs and analyzing them through gel electrophoresis. We are zoning in on the actual location of the mutation.
Can you describe a typical day in the lab?
I have collected about 200 embryos that need to be tested. To do all of them at once is a little hard, so I choose anywhere from 15 – 100 and do PCRs- we amplify the DNA. Then I take the amplified DNA and run gels to get the results. Once you know what the results are, you decide what to do next. It is an entirely different story for the rare days when I need more embryos. Then, I first need to figure out which two frogs I need to mate to get mutant embryos
So you are starting at the very beginning.
Yes, at that stage, I have to plan a week ahead, because it takes a while for the eggs to grow.
How often do you meet with your faculty mentor, Professor Harland?
Wednesday mornings is the general lab meeting, where usually two of the lab members present their research. The undergraduates usually don’t present at that meeting (although we are encouraged to), but we usually attend. In fact later in July, another undergraduate and myself will present at this meeting. This will be my first time presenting my project to the entire lab.
After having witnessed a lot of presentations before by the other lab members, do you feel confident about this?
Yes, I’ll be ok. It will be very good practice, and the questions that they’ll ask will make me think more deeply about the project. In addition to the Wednesday meetings, every Friday the undergrads (the trop team) also meet with Dr. Harland and Mustafa Khokha (who started the tropicalis team and is now at Yale University). Mustafa attends the meetings via video chat
Was there anything that surprised you about doing research when you started?
What surprised me the most is how often Dr. Harland is actually there – he is almost always in the lab. In fact it is very rare that he is not. I can talk to him anytime I get results and I talk to him almost everyday. That really surprised me – how accessible and nice he was. It also surprised me how Mustafa is still very involved and I can always ask him for help. Also, the next International Xenopus Conference will be held in Germany this September and Mustafa and Dr. Harland are both going to attend. Mustafa asked me to write an abstract for our project and so I sent it to him and he submitted it. What surprised me the most was that he put me as the first author on it. Mustafa will be presenting for us and I am very excited.
We talked about some advice you would give to prospective applicants a little earlier – is there anything else you would like to share based on your experience?
Don’t choose a project or apply to a lab because you think it is something that will look good on a resume. You are not going to like it as much. Choose something that really interests you and can keep you engaged. Choose something you can enjoy even if it is not related to your major. If URAP doesn’t work, go and talk to the professors on your own; take that initiative. URAP can be pretty competitive. You get your three choices, but if that doesn’t work out, don’t give up.
Thank you very much!