The Ten Commandments of Phage Hunting

By Miguel Tusa

Mistakes are a part of life in the lab, but at what point must we draw the line and say, “Alright, you really screwed up this time.” The answer to this might surprise you, because indeed there are more back-up solutions and quick fixes than one could ever imagine. Trust me, I’ve tried them all. While maybe it’s time for me to just clean up my act and be a little more careful, there is something to be said for those life lessons you learn through your second, third, fourth, and maybe even fifth time going through the procedure. With this said, I’ve taken the liberty of shifting away from telling an epic narrative of how my phage came to be. Instead, I offer a little bit of wisdom for those of us who just can’t seem to get it right.

I. Thou shalt have no other gods before the negative control.

 No matter how pointless you think this is, just do it. There’s nothing worse than having something potentially ground-breaking, but you just can’t decide if it’s actually just a speck of pesky M. smegmatis.

II. Never be afraid to ask questions, none of us know what were doing.

 As cliché as this phrase is, I couldn’t emphasize its importance more: not knowing something doesn’t make you an idiot; it just means you’re about to learn something new. Don’t pretend you know exactly what you’re doing after 2 months in the lab. I mean, we did start working 30 minutes into our first day of lab, on our first day of school. Ask the stupid question, then ask why it matters. The sense of scientific curiosity is addicting.

III. Thou shalt not take the Bunsen burner in vain.

It’s nothing personal, just a friendly reminder to watch what you’re doing. It’s okay to mess up, but being meticulous is crucial to success in the lab. Every time I look at the fading scar on my wrist, I push myself to be a little more aware of my surroundings and the way I am handling the equipment. Maybe someday I’ll learn.

IV. Remember the time after plating and keep it holy… especially if they’re your lab partner’s plates.

Never grab an agar plate by the lid. There’s no worse feeling than seeing the pain on your lab partner’s face when their plate crashes to the ground. Working with a partner is a valuable experience. We share successes and failures, tears of joy and of pain, but never ever syringes or pipettes. No matter how disastrous your combination of skills may be, embrace them and you’ll be surprised at what they can teach you.

V. Honor thy professor and thy TAs.

Without a doubt a greater resource than access to an electron microscope or any infinite amount of 5 mL pipettes. Don’t be intimated by Dr. Schildbach’s wizard-like glasses of knowledge or Russ’s fearsome beard. Whether they’re giving you advice on how to fix your screw-up, or explaining the theory behind it all, absorbing this information is a privilege. Although it seems like Russ’s practical knowledge is infinite, Dr. Schildbach probably knows his facts a little better –take it in.

VI. Thou shalt not kill your old plates.

Stop hoarding plates and make it easy on the people who make it all possible. It physically hurts to see poor Laura carrying that giant box of old agar plates. Being a considerate human isn’t necessarily included in the course description, but it’s an important part of the experience.

VII. Love your phage.

 It’s a little weird but it works. There’s nothing wrong with being slightly attached to these tiny nonliving parasites. Treat your phage with care, and they’ll give you the results you want. Maybe it’s just about being careful, but when you put so much work into enriching, diluting, filtering, streaking these guys, it’s hard not to be proud.

VIII. Stay optimistic, no matter how many mistakes you possibly make.

Sometimes you just have to embrace the absurdity of the mistakes you make in lab. If I can walk into lab happy about only being 5 days behind, then anyone can be hopeful. It’s an inescapable part of the job. If you can’t deal with failure, you’re in the wrong place.

IX. Celebrate the small successes; be excited about what you’re doing.

Enjoy those moments where, as I like to say, “you feel like a scientist.” Words could never explain what I felt the moment I proved that my phage titer was no longer contaminated and merely behaved in a characteristic way at high concentrations. You might not care about this, but ask me about it and I’ll have a blast telling you the details.

X. No really, “It’s fiiiiiiine.”

This expression is a favorite among our hardworking and ever-helpful laboratory TAs. While the average person might find comfort in this vague verbal reassurance, I happen to find this state of limbo quite unsettling. By now I have finally come to realize that Russ is right. There’s almost always a solution. The important part is that we keep on learning, keep on trying, and keep on applying our knowledge to the next problem we encounter.

For a guy who’s made pretty much every mistake in the book, at least I’ve grown from it. As Dr. Schildbach once put it, I’ve had a very “enriching” experience throughout my time in phage lab. I couldn’t be more excited to come back second semester and “enrich” myself further.

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