There and Back Again: A Phage’s Tale

by Eleni Padden

On my very first day of college, I shuffled timidly into a lab room with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. As I glanced around and tried to size up my fellow classmates, I made the immediate and somewhat panicky decision that they were most likely all young Einsteins. They undoubtedly knew every minute lab procedure and were already seasoned experts with pipettes, Petri dishes, and every type of obscurely named flask imaginable. I, the meek writing seminars major who sometimes fancied herself interested in science, was going to have a hard time keeping up with this pack of vicious lab wolves. I braced myself.

Over the course of the first semester, I began to realize that, while everyone in class was incredibly intelligent, we were all human. We made mistakes (alright, maybe me a little more than the rest), but more importantly, we all learned when things went frustratingly wrong. We learned how to plate out a perfect, bubble-free dish of TA, M. smeg, and phage. We learned the hard way how to combat infection, and blazed forward when it seemed like time was running out and we’d never be able to isolate even a single atom of phage. Life got tough, but under the ever-watchful eyes of our TAs and with the much-sought-after advice of the professors, many of us finally met success. For me, it was a lot like climbing Everest, or winning a battle against a Kraken having only a spork and a garbage can lid for means of defense.

Once I finally purified my phage and the second semester rolled around, computers were the new beasts in the ring. I was equally as intimidated by the small glowing screen and a few gene-characterizing programs as I had been of the entire lab, with all of its many Bunsen burners and potential for serious burn wounds. Again, however, the TAs, the professors, and my fellow classmates helped me to learn not just about the programs, but about Manatee, the phage whose genome we annotated. As a class we began to genuinely get a grasp of what a genome looked like, what a gene actually was, how good coding potential seemed in certain areas of the genome, how upstream Shine-Dalgarno sequences could help to predict where genes began, and so much more. We annotated all of Manatee’s 91 genes (there were 92 to start off, but we kicked off a weakling towards the end). We’d done it—we’d really found stuff out, replacing some of the fluff in our brains with actual hard knowledge—knowledge we could share with hundreds of other budding scientists. It’s an exciting thing to think about, really.

That general thought—the idea of gathering hard, replicable knowledge to share with others—was what ended up inspiring my final project, which is currently in its infancy. For the next month or so, I’ll be conducting a series of fairly simple tests that, when completed, should tell me a great deal about Lord Byron’s properties. I’ll be testing to see what temperatures he can replicate best at, if calcium is required for his growth, if desiccation impairs his growth and if he can withstand the terrifying powers of UV radiation. It’s certain to be an interesting rest of the semester. I’m still in awe that this class has changed me from an intimidated baby lab rat to an inquisitive scientist in the making.

May the Phage be with you!

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