Playing with Dirt

By Rachel Viqueira

“Rachel, I thought you were going to college. You’re not supposed to be playing with dirt,” said my younger sister as she watched me dig through the mulch outside our house to collect a soil sample.

“Mmm,” I responded, distracted as I measured the depth of the small hole I had dug and scooped the dark, moist soil into a plastic baggy. “You jealous?” I asked as I shook the bag in front of her face. The scrunched up face she in response made told me that no, she wasn’t jealous. Why can’t I play with dirt? Too bad for her.

I held on to that baggie for about a week before I got to campus and we began direct plating. I remember thinking at one point, what’s hiding in there? There were probably thousands of things hiding in there – fungus, bacteria, phages, whatever –  and I couldn’t even see them. I would work an entire semester just to figure out what ONE of those tiny things were. That, to me, seemed pretty cool.

I was worried after most of our class didn’t receive results from their initial direct plating, but, was ecstatic to find that I had not only one, but TWO different kinds of plaques on my plates. They were both pretty small… and cute? One was approximately 3 mm across and the other was 1 mm across. I eagerly continued to my first streaking, and got some really nice results. Like, textbook-photo status streaking plates. I was feeling pretty confident about my plaque-handling ability at that point.

And then I was put in my place after spending three weeks struggling with contaminated samples. I don’t even know what that orange gunk was that kept growing on my plates (I’m looking at you, Genetics Lab), but after talking with some of my classmates struggling with the same thing,  they suggested I take extra precautions to sterilize EVERYTHING. I got new Top Agar, new Phage buffer, everything. I worked within an inch of my bunsen burner. It was going to work this time.

When I finally got good results, they weren’t as nice as my first streaking plates. No matter, the time to be picky about the aesthetics of my plates had passed. I got my third streaking as well, and all the while admiring these two tiny plaque-making things I plucked out of the dirt near my house. When I looked around at the lab benches next to me, everyone else seemed equally excited about their accomplishments so far.

I’m not gonna lie, I was a little torn up when I had to choose between which of my phages I was going to use for the titer assay. I had put so much work into both of them, and after coming so far together, I had to chose between them? Sad life. I chose my 1 mm plaques, because they were so impossibly small. Sorry 3 mm, you were really great. It was nothing personal. I still like you.

When we all first began this class, many of us had little to no experience in handling bacteria or other lab equipment. This combination of individual work that is supplemented by input of my classmates and professors has really taught me a lot. And you can just look around the classroom and see how far everyone has come in two months.

I’m looking forward to pitting my tiny phage against everyone else’s in our Phage Olympics.

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