Phage Hunting: Big Wins, Big Losses

Being a phage hunter for two months now, I’ve come to realize that success does not come without failures, trials, and mistakes. That’s exactly what I felt as I searched hours on end for plaques in hopes of someday yielding a phage.

Luckily, I was blessed with a good sample right from the get-go. A few days before class started, I learned that I had to go out and find a soil sample somewhere and bring it to class. I was thinking about all of the places I had been since I had moved into Baltimore a couple of weeks prior; I was thinking anywhere from the famed park behind campus to Camden Yards, where I had gone to my first Orioles game just a few days prior. Of course, it seemed like a long shot going all the way to a baseball game just to collect a soil sample, so I had to resort to a closer location – a MUCH closer one. In hopes of being different, I went out as far as I felt safe walking. At the time, I didn’t know how to get to the park behind campus, so I instead decided to just pace around until I wound up in front of the Wyman Park Building, just across the street from Mason Hall on the other side of campus.

My first few days in phage hunting were guided by wishful thinking and being hopeful for the best results. Doing my first streak, I was looking for every spot possible on my plate that looked like it could have been a plaque; over the course of time, I learned that some of the spots I was streaking from came from cracked agar, and wasn’t anything special to my results. After only a second try with the same sample I started with, I yielded what appeared to be plaques… lots and lots of them. I was excited, thrilled at the possibility of (eventually) finding a phage.

That one soil sample I found in front of the Wyman Park Building took me through a journey of exploration and discovery, all mostly occurring on my lab bench in UTL G72. I spent weeks streaking, trying to find good results, failing, making silly mistakes, and questioning my progress in the class. If it weren’t for the people around me, from those dreading at their lack of evidence to those making phage puns all class, I feel like this journey would not be possible. While hunting for phages may seem to be dreadful at first, it actually felt like a beautiful struggle. Although I was making mistakes, I was learning more about myself as a scientist than I ever have in any high school lab. The feeling of independence and the desire to obtain solid results is what motivated me to keep trying throughout the class. Now that I have some EM images of my phages does not mean that I have succeeded completely just yet. I still have some room to make mistakes, challenge myself, and discover more about the scientist within me. It’s a long journey, but it’s totally worth it. That Halloween afternoon when I saw actual images of the phages I had been attempting to isolate for so long, I knew that my hard work paid off.

What advice can I give to any future scientist? To put it bluntly, you will have times when you will fail. However, failing does not automatically mean complete and total failure. It is what you make of your failure that determines how well you will be able to execute the rest of your trials. I learned this from countless days of streaking incorrectly, doing serial dilutions, and having several missed attempts at a successful DNA prep. Don’t think that it’s the end of the world just because your lysate didn’t yield a high titer (in fact, I actually had a high titer at first – 3.47 x 10^-9 pfu – but I somehow left my lysate out over the weekend, and it may have decreased my titer significantly). Don’t let contamination hold you down either; my plates were contaminated and I was still able to streak from areas without contamination with successful results. As long as you go back, acknowledge what you did wrong, and work to fix your mistakes, you’re on your way to becoming an ideal scientist.

I’ve taken so many things and learned so many lessons from this class. It’s not just about phage discovery, but scientific discovery as well. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and can even be tiring at times… but it’s totally worth it.

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