An Unexpected Inspiration

By Allyson Roberts

October 17th, 2012

Approximately the second week of junior year in high school, I began to feel the effects of senioritis. Over the two years that followed, I experienced the joy of twelve AP courses, and the stress of juggling school, clubs, friends, family, etc., etc.  For two years, I lived from meeting to meeting and assignment to assignment. I lived for the four hours of sleep I could get, given that it was a good night. I was a robot; learning was merely a process to be done to the best of my abilities without thinking.

When the time came to register for college courses, I found myself lost. Here, there were no AP courses I needed to take to impress colleges. There was no set curriculum. I was free to take essentially whatever I wanted to take. And it was not a freedom I was prepared to enjoy.

An email I had received a few weeks prior to registration had informed me about Phage Hunting.  I wasn’t sure it was what I was looking for — it sure didn’t sound like a very typical course — but I figured that I would give it a shot.  By the time I arrived on campus and was scrambling to collect the required soil sample, I wasn’t sure this class was something I would enjoy. When I was informed that all of the lab write-ups had to be completed in the lab itself, I wasn’t sure I could even handle the course, with my reputation as being . . . fairly thorough in my write-ups. As I went to the lab every morning — painfully early in the morning — I found myself not knowing what I was doing, and I was frustrated.

It has been over seven weeks now since I first stepped foot into the lab. I have collected two soil samples. I’ve directly plated samples, and I’ve created an enrichment culture. From that enrichment culture, I’ve discovered a most curious and aggressive phage. I’ve streaked plaques. I’ve streaked some more plaques. I’ve streaked even MORE plaques. I’ve done some dilutions, made a medium titer assay. I got lucky and got a web plate, allowing me to skip a few steps. I replicated my plates. I’ve taken my web plates and successfully created my high titer lysate.

That brings us to today. I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I step foot into the lab tomorrow morning, so painfully early. At some point, I’ll start to take pictures and isolate the DNA of my phage. I’m not sure how to do that, or when that will happen. Seven weeks in, and I still have no idea what I’m doing. But there’s a key difference now. Seven weeks ago, I was beyond frustrated at my lack of knowledge. Now, I have come to realize that this  is what science truly is: guess and check, taking a leap of faith and hoping you get lucky, making mistakes and learning how to correct them.

When I take a moment to pause and think, about Phage Hunting and life in general, I find myself amazed. I’ve only been on this earth for eighteen short years, and yet I’m doing actual research. I’m no longer following a procedure and calculating percent error. I’m taking something from nature–a few spoonfuls of dirt–and discovering what composes it. I’m looking at basic elements of life. I’m not doing anything earth-shattering, but I’m working my way up to that. And for the first time in over two years, that’s a school “assignment” I can say that I’m proud of. For the first time in over two years, I’m asking questions, being intrigued by my work, and living for the trial and error.

When I step into the lab tomorrow, grudgingly and with fewer hours of sleep than the number of hours I spend in the lab (some things never change), maybe I’ll play around with some previously discarded plaques. Maybe I’ll do some more streaking, just for old time’s sake. Maybe I’ll discover that my high titer lysate is gone, and I’ll be stuck repeating old procedures. Whatever happens, I’ll go into it with an open mind and an excitement to learn what comes next. Whatever happens, I’ll be learning more about life. And that has finally inspired me to be intrigued by what I’m doing, and what lies ahead of me, in this course and in the future that awaits me.

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