1 postdoc (noun/adj.)
I conduct postdoctoral research in a research laboratory. My position in the lab is a postdoc, meaning that I have a Ph.D. and the work I do is what comes after that. From bottom to top, the lab hierarchy runs from technicians/support staff who perform routine work and prepare things for the people doing the research; graduate students, working towards a doctorate; postdocs/postdoctoral researchers, generating high-quality data; and the principal investigator—P.I.—who is the boss. P.I.s guide the research and have final say on what experiments will be done. The labs are theirs; they raise the money and do the budgets and all the financials. My lab has 12 people, including two grad students and one technician, with the others being postdocs, although one is a clinical fellow doing more medically relevant research, while the rest of us do biochemistry.
2 hood/biosafety cabinet (n.)
Most of my work involves sitting in something called a hood (a hood in the Bronx!), a.k.a. a biosafety cabinet. We might say someone is “working in the hood.” It’s a big metal box with a glass window that lifts up to a space about 12 inches high through which your arms can slide. We wear latex gloves (all the time, not just in the hood). Inside the cabinet are air vents keeping everything in the box sterile and protecting the worker. Completely sealed cabinets are used only for really dangerous viruses such as ebola or TB. We swab the inside of the box with alcohol every time we use it, including in between taking things in and out and after working on anything. We have to be methodical in everything we do.
3 protocol (n.)
In some ways science is like cooking. Each day we follow a recipe, with various steps at which various things are added and various actions performed—stirring, heating, adding this or that, leaving something at a certain temperature for a specific time. Those recipes are protocols. A protocol usually has to followed exactly or things don’t work. Within any protocol are specifics—say, boiling something at a certain temperature for so many minutes and then immediately placing it on ice. It’s difficult to predict who will be good and who bad at following a protocol. Some people are very exact about what they do but then have trouble getting the experiment to work; others may bend the rules, change some parts of a protocol and come up with a novel idea almost by accident. I’m more the messy type of scientist with lots of things going on at the same time. A lab may have its own adaptations of a protocol that differs from that in other labs, depending on the experience it has. (I like cooking and find it relaxing—unlike protocols—because it doesn’t matter so much if you depart from the recipe a little.)
4 buffer (n.)
A buffer is a salt-based solution that resists changes in pH and provides a stable environment for reactions to occur in. For some reason, there’s one buffer in particular that I always feel I make wrong, so I occasionally ask someone else to do it. Although I can do it, I worry about it, irrationally. Scientists are often strangely superstitious. Our lab has three identical pieces of one type of equipment, for example, but I use only one of them even if I have to wait because it’s being used by someone else, because it seems as if the experiments work better in it. (Which they most likely don’t!) If a protocol doesn’t work—meaning it doesn’t produce the expected result—one starts to question the problem. There’s always a sense of one’s own fallibility (and that of the equipment). Since scientists are taught to question everything, you question yourself if something doesn’t work.
5 tissue culture (n.)
I study parasites and how they live and work. I look at how they grow—perhaps under a microscope—and try to understand what is happening inside their cells. For that reason, we have to be able to grow them in the lab. Inside the hood (see no. 2) we do tissue culture, which involves growing—”culturing”—cells in petri dishes, which are an artificial environment, since normally, the parasites we study live in the human body, infecting cells inside it. We take human cells out of the body, culture them and infect them with the parasites we want to study.
6 media (n.)
Cells growing in petri dishes are fed with a “nutrient soup” containing sugars, fats and amino acids. The nutrient soup is the media. Once the cells have grown, we add parasites. A parasite can’t be overfed, but it can be starved; in fact, I study nutrient starvation. We can also add drugs to stop them growing. The parasites I work on are less than 10 microns (a micron is a thousandth of a millimeter) in length and can be seen only under a microscope—the names of two of those I work on are Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis, and Plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria. The Latinate wording for such parasites continues—they have no common names.
7 transfect (v.)
Every living cell contains DNA, the code from which proteins—the main substance, if you like, of all living things—are made. DNA contains genetic information that can be inherited and instructs every function of a cell. To study how parasites work, we sometimes alter them by deleting or inserting different pieces of DNA; for example, we might delete a protein in order to stop the parasite from making a protein, so as to see how that affects its survival. That is done in a process called transfection; when we transfect we change the code, mixing parasites with a specific piece of DNA, one that, say, instructs something not to make a particular protein. The parasites then get an electric shock (a process called electroporation that reversibly punches holes in the cell through which DNA can travel). The parasite takes in the new piece of DNA and starts doing what we want it to do. Products of transfection are sometimes called mutants.
8 knock out [genes] (v.)
The process of deleting a piece of DNA that encodes a particular protein, through transfection, is knocking out a gene. We delete that piece of DNA so the parasite can’t make a protein or perform a certain process anymore.
9 Western blot (n.)
A Western blot process is used to enable us to take a close look at a single protein in a mixture to see if it is present and if so, how much. We start by separating proteins according to size, through a porous gel. Next, the proteins in the gel are “blotted” onto a special type of paper called nitrocellulose, which likes to bind proteins. The proteins can be detected with a special tool, called an antibody, that is specific to the protein we’re interested in. The antibody binds to that protein and enables us to “see” it in that mixture of proteins. The Western blot process enables us to look at a sample and ask: Is the protein I am interested there? How much of it is there? When is it there? Performing a Western blot is used for many different things; it’s one of the most basic protocols we use in the biological sciences. For example, some proteins can be detected in human blood only if they are infected with parasites, so if we do a Western blot with human samples, we can figure out whether the person is infected or not.
There is no Eastern blot, but there are Northern and Southern blots. The direction refers only to the detection of different types of molecule (Southern is for DNA, Northern for RNA, Western for protein).
10 paper (n.)
When you have a lot of interesting results you make a story out of them, a paper, and publish the findings in a scientific journal. A paper describes findings—given, say, that a certain biological process happens, we tried this experiment, and found that something else happens after that, and that it happens in this way. It is written up essentially in the way a school paper is don, with an introduction and a description of methods and results, followed by a discussion and conclusion. In the discussion, we compare our results to previous findings and how they fit in with what is already known. Publishing papers is a very important part of our research and is how we are assessed as researchers. The wording is very important—the language must be very straightforward and direct; it is important not to put too much emphasis where it’s not necessary. Scientists’ success is defined by how many papers they write. In the biological sciences, authorship is also very important. The first author listed is the one who did the majority of the research and most likely wrote the paper; the next person did a bit less work on it, and so on down the line, ending with the name of the P.I. of the lab where the research was done.
Papers are submitted to journals as manuscripts and, hopefully, published. In my field the most prestigious journals are Nature, Science and Cell. During the submission process a paper is reviewed by the writer’s scientific peers, who try to assess the findings, taking it apart and criticizing every aspect of it—what they liked and what they didn’t, and whether the data really supports what the writer is saying. The comments can be cutting—sometimes really mean. The first paper I submitted (“Global Identification of Multiple Substrates for Plasmodium falciparum SUB1, an Essential Malarial Processing Protease link”) (protease is a type of protein that cuts other proteins into pieces) came back with the comment “Why is this even important?” The paper represented three years of work, so that was a bit crushing. But it was published in the end.
—NATALIE SILMON DE MONERRI
Natalie Silmon de Monerri is a postdoctoral research fellow in molecular biology, specializing in parasitology, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.