Daydreaming of Phage

By Hannah McNeley

A few weeks after classes started, I was lying in my hall staring up at the ceiling, taking a break from studying and talking with friends. Then suddenly, I realized that the ceiling tiles looked vaguely like plates of bacteria with plaques. There were different morphologies or different tiles. And some even had lines of plaques that looked like streaking. Some looked contaminated, while the top agar had been agitated on others. In the midst of this incredibly nerdy moment, I realized how comfortable I had become with the process of isolating phage in such a short time. The fact that I was now connecting something in my real life with what I was doing in class let me know that I have been learning a lot. I am also now getting a feeling for what to do when something goes awry, which has become the new norm in phage lab for me.

Vaguely reminiscent of streaking?

In the beginning of lab, my phage was very well behaved. I collected it from some beautiful soil in the community garden, enriched it, and ta-da! Plaques! I then streaked my plaques, with only a slight contamination issue. I did a titer assay, and then made a medium titer lysate. When I diluted and plated my medium titer lysate, it cleared all the plaques. I made a new medium titer off of a different plate, and diluted out further. This resulted in beautiful webbed plates, which seemed to indicate that all was well in the world of phages.

My phage has become more difficult, however. While one would normally make one medium titer lysate, then perform one 6-plate infection, I have made two medium titer lysates, and performed three 6-plate infections, flooding two plates from each. While this is an interesting way to make a high titer lysate, it has been an important lesson in being flexible and adjusting the plan as I go.

I am now accustomed to entering lab with the faint hope that my plates will turn out as expected, then reaching into a labeled box and pulling out my stack of plates, and walking back to my lab station in anticipation before revealing that my plates had again surprised me. I expect to have to adjust my plan, which I think is making me learn faster, and have to think on my toes.

Since that day that I stared up at the ceiling tiles and recognized how much I have been learning about phage, I have probably learned four times as much. The difficulty that my phage has given me has made for a good learning process, and made me understand both the difficulties and the excitement of research. At the end of the day, I love phage lab because it leaves me staring at my ceiling, daydreaming of phage.

See? They really (kinda) look look plaques!

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One Response to Daydreaming of Phage

  1. Ah, but the obsession can go to another level. I had been working on crystallizing proteins as a postdoc for a few weeks (and was having some success) when I had a dream about crystals. I’ve heard similar stories from other nascent crystallographers, and even stories of dreams involving NMR spectra. Maybe structural biologists are a little “off”. But there’s that benchmark that you know that you are fluent in a second language when you start to dream in that language. Maybe you know you are obsessed with your science when you start to dream — or daydream — about it.

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