By Katie Link
It’s Tuesday, September 16th, and the mid-morning sun shines through my cheap dorm curtains and gently awakes me from my long, restful slumber. Most days, my alarm clock unwillingly forces me out of bed and into hours upon hours of lectures, homework, and awkward encounters with fellow freshmen whose names I have forgotten.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, are different, and it’s all because of a class called Project Lab: Phage Hunting. Not only does the class start at the lovely hour of 1 pm, leaving the mornings to work (or more likely sleep in), but it also already has become one of my most enjoyable classes this semester.
I decided to enroll in Phage Hunting way back in July for two primary reasons: one, the 2-credit course fit perfectly into my schedule, and two, it appealed to the part of me that hopes to explore the world of scientific research. Though my prior research experience is limited, one of the reasons I decided to come to Hopkins was the vast number of research opportunities available to undergraduates. When I saw that there was a course that allowed me to start to work in a lab my first day of freshman year, suddenly my prospective schedule filled with huge intro-level science courses looked a little more exciting.
Flash forward to today, 1:15 pm. With my lab coat, glasses, and gloves on and lab bench sterilized, I’m ready to take on the world (or at least a few bacteriophages). These past few weeks have been all about taking a hunk of dirt and enticing a select few phages to become isolated on their own separate plates. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot harder (and also more exciting!) than it sounds.
Although the direct plating of my sample did not produce any plaques, the plating of my enrichment sample has been going very smoothly. I feel like a proud mother, as my phages seem very well-behaved. When the plates from my enrichment dilution first showed beautiful plaques of multiple kinds of phage, I was so overjoyed that I emailed my mom back home pictures of my plates. Today will be my fourth day selecting phage plaques from the previous class period and streaking them on agar plates, and I’m excited to see what last week’s plates look like.
1:25 pm: After evaluating my plates from last time, at least two of my plates might have isolated phage! Could this possibly be the end of streaking (and a seemingly endless number of agar plates)? This excitement is short-lived as a TA has informed me that I’ll most likely need to replicate that result another two to three times. It’s also clear to me that some of my earlier plates have plaques of different diameters, indicating different types of phage. It’s back to plating.
Another 20 minutes or so pass, and the rhythm of the lab has consumed me. It has only been three weeks and I already feel comfortable using the equipment independently. The excitement of working with such “grown-up” equipment, however, has certainly not worn off. It’s definitely a step up from the equipment used in my high school science courses. Just a few weeks ago, my hands were shaking as I began to use the pipetting equipment for the first time. Now, after nearly a month as an official Phage Hunter, I am confidently working on auto drive as I streak my plates and then “feed” my baby phages with a hearty serving of M. smegmatis (and top agar). Yum.
With my plates finished, I finish up writing my observations and procedure in my black, hard-cover, official-looking lab notebook. This is another area in the realm of research in which my self-confidence has increased substantially. Even though I was self-conscious about my laboratory writing skills in the beginning (and my drawing skills are not up-to-par when drawing diagrams), these last few weeks of practice have certainly honed these skills.
My work here is finished, and after sterilizing the bench one last time, it’s time to leave the lab for the day. While it’s tough leaving my little phages behind, I’m hoping my luck as a Phage Hunter continues and today’s plates will show isolated plaques again. No matter what happens though, I know I’ll always be looking forward to my next day as a Johns Hopkins Phage Hunter.