Wednesday, 25 February 2015

what do biologists do all day?

I promised to write about my work one day. Today is that day. At the moment, I am working as a laboratory technician. It is a temporary post and is not particularly representative of what I have done until now and probably not of what I will be doing after this maternity cover is coming to an end, but it is fun and interesting. To me anyway. If you prefer to read about my family, or my crafts, then your eyes will probably glaze over in a minute or two.

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 in a facility that both engages in research and offers services to others. I am mostly involved in the service branch, working with other people's exiting research. It is a complicated process and I am only one of many cogs in the machinery. I spend my days preparing samples and operating complicated instruments that first separate complex mixtures of stuff according to any number of variables and then analyse the individual components. If you ever watch CSI, or any similar programme, I do something similar like one of the ridiculously attractive protagonists, pop a little glass vial into a vaguely threatening looking instrument, press a button and wait for the ping that announces the unambiguous result. Only I am just normal looking, I have a great many vials to process, there is a maize of software to navigate through before the button can be pressed and the result is almost always ambiguous and needs to be analysed by a team of bioinformaticians. What's more, the machine that pings (as I like to call the instruments), does not actually ping, and frequently fails to operate because inside it is so utterly complicated that there are a million things that can and do go wrong.

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

19 comments:

  1. Isn't it great to have a job that you enjoy going to do every day? I'll be interested to know if you ever find out how to milk a seal, although I can't say that I'd fancy seal milk on my cornflakes! xx

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  2. That's fascinating Christina, so different from most jobs I think! It's interesting to know a little about how these things are explored. CJ xx

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  3. I really enjoyed reading about your work Christina - nice to have a glimpse into a different daily environment!

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  4. Fascinating post, it was interesting to read about what you do x

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  5. Hey Christina,
    I found this post fascinating. It's so far removed from anything I have ever done. I was never a good science student, but as an adult I really enjoy getting involved in citizen science. One of my favourite books is Bill Bryson's 'A Short History Of Nearly Everything' It is science for adults that never got it the first time around. I read it at least twice a year. You must be a very diligent, focused kind of person to be able to do the work that you do. I'd be dreadful. I used to put sweets in the big acid jars at my school. Thinking about it, I can't believe that there were jars of hydrochloric acid within reach of teenage girls....
    Leanne xx

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  6. What an interesting post Christina, I really enjoyed reading about your job. X

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  7. As someone who has always worked in an office, this was really interesting. My husband started his career in academia (social sciences) but quickly got disillusioned when he found his ideal didn't match reality! He now works in an office too...!

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  8. This was fascinating, more please! It is so interesting to find out what people do at work, there are so many jobs out there that most of us have no clue as to what is involved. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  9. I really enjoyed reading about your work, Christina. My husband's parents are both biologists. He and his brother practically grew up in laboratories as their mother brought them to work with her from when they were born. They slept in drawers! Thanks for sharing.

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  10. I so enjoyed reading this Christina and what a fascinating job to do! How exciting to be uncovering hidden molecular secrets every day! You make me want to go straight back to school and retrain as a scientist! I've always found scientific detective work enthralling. How wonderful to spend your working days on something like this. Enjoy! And please do another post soon in the same vein! E x

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  11. This was so interesting! It is really good to read about your work. You obviously do some fascinating things. It is good too that you are enjoying the differences between this work and the more academic things that you did before. I cannot though even being to imagine how you milk a seal! I am glad for you that you just have to analyse the milk and not actually obtain it!! xx

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  12. I think your job sounds fascinating, but I've always found the sciences fascinating.

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  13. So nice to read about your work. My husband works in academia, and through years of postdoctoral research posts (with the low pay and career prospects you describe) we have moved (internationally) more times than I can count. This has meant that I haven't pursued my academic career, but I hope to go back to the lab now my boys are bigger. It remains as fascinating as ever!

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  14. I loved hearing about your work. I'm glad to hear that that it all comes back to you (like riding a bike!). The years of applying for grants to cover your salary (and those working for you) still keep me awake some nights. And you're right it's not the most encouraging career for having a family but I love it too. Somewhere in the depths of the internet is a photo of me holding up a vial of blue liquid (yes only loading dye!!) in front of some large conical flasks! :-) Thanksfully I'm just armed with an audio recorder and my ethics consent forms these days!x

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  15. What a great post. I loved it. My dad has been on a high protein diet since he was diagnosed with cancer and lost lots of weight after having his oesophagus removed (can't spell it!) He eats slices of cheese with hummus on top! I get fat just thinking about that! Jo x

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  16. Hi Christina, I've nominated you for a Liebster Award if you want play along, but don't feel that you have to! :-) xx http://winwickmum.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/liebster-award.html

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  17. oh this takes me back to my former life as a lab technician, I do miss it sometimes........

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  18. This was really interesting to read, Christina. What you do at work is so different to my daily routine (or lack of it!) or even what I did in a previous life before I had children. I like hearing about other people's everyday. xx

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  19. What a fascinating read :) I loved learning about what you do. I've been considering a postdoc, but the amount of teaching puts me off - I much prefer the research. Being a lab technician sounds wonderful, it must be so varied and it sounds like people in your lab are working on lots of different projects, I do sometimes regret not going down the science route :) In my office there are just lots of computers and phd students in various states of grumpiness at word counts and supervisors and things like that, not very exciting!

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Thank you for visiting and leaving a comment, I love to hear from you, I really do. I sometimes reply by email but I am not all that reliable... Christina xx