Phage Lab: The good, the bad, and the purified DNA

By Summer Rak

The summer before my first year of college and I was desperately trying to figure out my class schedule. Much to my surprise, no direction was given. It’s almost like Hopkins threw us out into the deep-end of the pool and said, “Swim, stupid.” At least that’s how I felt. I wasn’t sure of my major, nor the classes I could take since I was doubtful. A friend of mine told me that’s what freshman year, and covered grades, was all about: being unsure and taking classes that might be random or of interest.  So I accepted that challenge and decided to choose a class I thought “sounded” the coolest by its generic 5-6-line course description, which is no easy task.  When I landed on this 2-credit lab course called “Phage Hunting,” I dropped it into my cart and never looked back.

When my advisor realized I was trying for a Public Health major, she practically begged me not to take Phage Lab, but I said, “NEIN.” It looked too cool to pass up. And too cool it was.  On the first day we were handed lab coats and notebooks. We played around with bacteria and viruses, took trips to gardens to collect dirt, and took pictures. We could just streak plaques all day, our little minds naïve of what was to come. We streaked plaques, took pictures, wrote in our notebooks. It was a good time; it was a simpler time.

However, almost suddenly, things got serious.  It started gradually at first with HTL titer calculations, and then it advanced to web plate calculations, which one would be wise never to brag about avoiding. Once we got to the “isolate and purify DNA” portion, I was indeed lost.  I absent-mindedly followed the procedures in the lab manual not really knowing what or why I was doing them. I quantified my purified DNA, again not really knowing what the numbers meant.  By the time we got to the restriction digest, everything went way over my head, not that any of my digests turned out readable anyway.

So here I was with this tube of purified DNA, an unreadable restriction digest, and according to my QC gel, positively charged DNA, thinking to myself, “What now?” And at that time, nothing. I went on to participate in the Phage Olympics and write my final paper on DNA purification still with many questions unanswered. It wasn’t until I started studying for my Biology final that everything sort of clicked. It was like a light bulb went off and all the puzzle pieces fit. I’m not sure if anyone has ever had that feeling, but it’s one of the best. I understood why and how DNA was purified, why and how it runs through the gel, what the ladders on restriction digest mean, where the enzymes from the digest come from, how they function, their original purpose, why they have odd names.  The best part was that everything had been applied to real life. I understood the biological process more holistically because it was done firsthand in the lab.

Would I do it all over again? Without a doubt.

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