It was a very exiting to be back in the lab after a 5 year stint as a teaching-only academic. This essentially meant that I didn't have to engage in research, which still is the standard against which the academic workforce is measured. Before that I was a post doctoral researcher. If you think this sounds fancy, it isn't. It is essentially a research post with short term contracts, a pay that doesn't really reflect the training required for the job and career prospects that would make most people wince. It is a particularly bad career choice if you want a family. I loved it. Mostly. My career planning was always a bit sketchy and to be honest I am not ambitious enough to truly succeed in academia. I do want to work but I don't fancy trying to meet the ridiculous expectations that academics face nowadays. I also like to work flexible hours, which reduces the number of options I have. I have no idea of what the working conditions are outside academia so cannot not comment or compare.
Being back in the lab was great but it is even more cool that I can actually leave work at work rather than spending my evenings marking, or catching up on admin, or prepare teaching materials. I was a bit worried at first that I might have lost my mojo but luckily, lab skills seem to be a bit like riding a bike, once you know how to do it you are maybe a bit wobbly after a long break but the ride becomes smooth again soon enough.
I work with two kinds of "stuff" that is analysed on the above. I process samples that are sent to us by other researchers, students or customers. It is either mixtures of metabolites or mixtures of proteins. A mixture of metabolites can be almost anything, for example every molecule that you can find in gin is a such a metabolite. Or all the molecules in urine. Or those inside bacteria. Although these metabolites very a great deal, they all have in common their small size. There are a great many questions one can try to answer by looking at the metabolites, for example you could try to figure out what differences there are between Pinot Noirs from different parts of the world, and how these could affect the flavour. Yes, this is something my work has actually done for a science outreach project. Or you could try to answer more groundbreaking problems, for example how antibiotic resistant bacteria differ from those that are not resistant. Or you could what happens when you eat a particular kind of food. Watch out for a programme by Michael Mosley on the BBC, I think it might be called 'In the Blood' (but I am not sure). It is to be aired soon and was filmed at my work. No, I am not in the programme, I only started working there when the filming was nearly finished and I have not been involved at all.
The other kind of 'stuff' I am looking at are proteins. This is a bit more tricky to explain.You'll know protein as a nutrient I think. Meat is mainly protein or there are lots of proteins in dairy products, or pulses. The main purpose of proteins is not to nourish us. Proteins are biological molecules that that have many functions in all living organisms, for example they can make metabolites, or they make copies of your genetic information, or they move molecules around, or they make things happen (insulin is a small protein). To make a very long story short, we often try to characterise complex mixtures of proteins, for example different types of milk. You might have seen this item in the news a while ago. It is about finding out what the principal components of panda milk are in order to be able to create panda formula for breeding programmes. That was well before my time but I am currently running buffalo and seal milk samples. I wonder how you milk a seal? One of our students looks at changes in muscle tissue after death with the aim to develop a more accurate way to time the actual death (all crime drama detectives always want to know the exact time of death!). Other researchers might be interested in disease processes. I just process the samples we receive, the exiting stuff happens elsewhere.
So, there you go, if I haven't bored you to death by now I am very glad. Have a great rest of the week. Cx