We last left Superhero PhD and her labmates in a state of noncompliance with the system that is supposed to support them. Fortunately, their misdeeds did not attract the attention of accountants higher up in the matrix. Even the recently purchased equipment from e-bay works just fine. These small triumphs make the days in the lab pass easier, which was good since several more days passed beyond the funding agency’s deadline for divulging the fate of tenured PI’s latest grant renewal. Finally, the e-mail from the Program Manager arrives… victory! The grant is renewed for another three years. Tenured PI must send a flurry of additional e-mails as slight adjustments to budgets must be made, but these are a welcome burden given the possible alternatives.
Superhero PhD takes a break from benchwork to battle with the peers who reviewed her latest manuscript submission. She has spent the last months painstakingly repeating experiments to satisfy their demands for MOAR DATA! Now is the time to revise, remake figures and resubmit. Tenured PI submits a more appropriately censored version of the responses to reviewers’ comments to the editor than the first draft provided by Superhero PhD. It’s probably for the best. It will be another few weeks before the next battle with reviewers over this manuscript.
Back to the routine of research Superhero PhD focuses on projects that have been on the sidelines. A new mutant is giving unexpected results, but our heroine knows better than to get too excited. DNA samples are submitted for sequencing analysis to check for possible errors in the intended sequence. It seems like an easy task, but the new on-line system for submitting the samples and payment information requires more steps and approvals than acts of congress to approve federal budgets. Tenured PI even gets automated and unrecognizable e-mails from the system requesting approvals. Finally, the analysis is complete and Superhero PhD receives the results. “Nooooooo!” she cries, shaking her fist at the screen. The construct has a point mutation in addition to the complex construct she has pieced together. The mutant is unusable because it runs afoul of a central tenet of scientific experimentation- only change one variable at a time. These results sentence Superhero PhD to weeks of molecular biology work to remake a clean version of the mutant. In all truthfulness, Superhero PhD already had a stint of molecular biology ahead of her with other constructs and mutants to be made for her new project. For biochemists, molecular biology is a necessary evil.
Despite the occasional sequencing error, Superhero PhD also has molecular biology superpowers as well. She sets out to spend her days tediously pipetting PCR reactions, restriction enzyme digests and running agarose gels. To visualize these gels, she must rely on departmental common equipment whose other users can be less than meticulous. Today, she finds something even more unusual. An unexpected power outage overnight has forced the computer to restart, a computer still running WindowsXP that probably hasn’t restarted in three years. Sigh. Login required. The password is not written anywhere in the area of the computer. Superhero PhD summons her powers of clairvoyance to divine the password, and she is correct.* She captures the image of her gel on the screen. Print. But something again is wrong. “Damn, the printer is out of the special thermal paper. Chances of other users reporting it to the Departmental Coordinator in charge of ordering the replacement- zero.” But Superhero PhD is prepared for such instances; she keeps a secret stash in her lab for just these occasions. “Incomplete lab notebook, I think not.” she chuckles. “However, I will have to step up my notes describing the proper procedures for acquiring more paper from passive-aggressive to full-on aggressive.” Superhero PhD muses.
Another consequence of molecular biology work is defrosting the frost-free freezer. For those of you wondering why a sophisticated modern research lab would have a frost-free freezer, it is because the precious enzymes used for these projects must not endure the temperature cycles of a typical modern freezer. They must remain cold at all times and fluctuations too warm will diminish their activity. Superhero PhD’s lab has still-active molecular biology enzymes whose purchases pre-date the births of many undergrads working there. However, after about a year of opening and closing the door of a frost-free freezer, the ice build-up inside necessitates the removal of all contents and a manual defrost. Superhero PhD uses her skills of organization to temporarily store all of the contents of the full size frost-free freezer, taking special note to remember where each item must be returned. It would be nice to say that Superhero PhD then uses her laser vision to melt the excess ice on all of the shelves and coils, but alas, that is one superpower she lacks. Instead, she and Graduate Student use a hair dryer** and spatula to melt and hack away at the ice for about an hour.
Elsewhere in the departmental common equipment room, Research Technician is battling with the ultracentrifuge, an expensive and formidable foe. “The imbalance error light is on, but there is no imbalance. I cannot get it to start.” he says. Superhero PhD gives him a hard, disbelieving look. “No, really. It’s balanced.” he retorts. Instances of imbalanced ultracentrifuges are the stuff of scientific research legends. The instruments turn rotors at such high speeds that failures in components or user error like imbalanced samples can turn these metal rotors into dangerous projectiles that penetrate walls and kill unsuspecting graduate students down the hall. “Did you turn it off and turn it back on?” she asks. “Yes, the error is still there.” Research Technician says exasperated. Superhero PhD then uses her superpower of pressing seemingly random buttons on the control panel (SET, IMBALACE, CLEAR, ENTER) and the imbalance error is cleared. The instrument will now be able to start the run. “What buttons did you push? I’ve been pushing buttons too!” he says even more exasperated. Superhero PhD’s fingers fly too fast in that mode, “I’m not sure.” is all she can answer. She shrugs, “But wait until I leave the room to start the run.” She’s not completely convinced there may be an imbalance. For the record, there wasn’t.
There are other problems in the lab. She senses trouble immediately because Research Technician and Undergraduate Researcher bombard her with their pleas as soon as she opens the door. “Something is wrong with the cooler! The blotter won’t work! What do we do?” they cry.*** These things only happen when Tenured PI and Lab Manager are out of the lab for the day. Superhero PhD assesses the situation. Indeed, the deli cooler is a mess. It seems to have cycled much cooler than normal at some point overnight causing the coils to ice up. This caused the case to stop trying to keep the temperature low and the ice build-up was currently dripping all over the contents inside. “What a mess.” she thinks. However, experiments must be salvaged. “Remove the blotter from the cooler. We need to get it to work or borrow a replacement.” she decides. The blotter screen wasn’t giving a reading of the output voltage, but the electrodes appeared to be responsive to the controlling knob. Superhero PhD estimates the correct setting based on her perception of the rate of bubbling along the wires (and the transient flashing of a reading on the LED screen). “Take it to the cold room, and run it for two hours. Turn off the cooler. Take everything out of it. Turn it back on in the morning and monitor the temperature.” she orders. The blots are saved. The blotter screen miraculously starts working during the run. The cooler works normally after the reset. Another crisis averted.
Later that week, Tenured PI receives an e-mail from the editor regarding Superhero PhD’s latest manuscript. The verdict is favorable. Finally, acceptance! We can put that research behind us. He comes to share the news with Superhero PhD. He says only one word, “Victory!” She is having her lunch at the moment, so she only gives him a puzzled look. “What are you talking about?” she asks. He responds, “When the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians, he exclaims ‘Victory!’ Well, ‘Nike!’, in the Greek language. Your paper was accepted, so I said ‘Victory.’” Superhero PhD smiles to herself at the triumph, then says, “But in the legend, Pheidippides falls over dead after that exclamation.” Tenured PI answers, “Yes, that’s how I feel!” Superhero PhD agrees. So she announces, “Me too. I’ll be taking that Biochemistry Instructor teaching position in the Department.” At that moment, Tenured PI fell over dead.
NOT REALLY, but his heart probably stopped for a few beats to mourn the death of Superhero PhD’s research career.****
What will happen to the research projects that were on Superhero PhD’s to-do list? Will Tenured PI find a replacement SuperPostDoc to work on the recently renewed federal grant? Does Superhero PhD have instructional super powers? Stay tuned next time for the answers to these questions in the continued adventures of Superhero PhD: The Instructor Chronicles.
*It’s the same as the login ID BTW.
**Yes, our lab has a deluxe model hair-dryer with a very powerful temperature and speed output. If your lab doesn’t have one for this purpose, you should get one, but good luck justifying the purchase with accounting.
***If you read the footnotes of my last post carefully enough, you know how critical the blotter instrument is for our research.
****He really should have written his reference letter more carefully.