I expected the first day of phage hunting to be a syllabus day, much like the first day of every other class had been. And it was–at first. The first hour or so of class was spent going over the syllabus, but after that, we were thrown into the lab to start actual work. In high school, all labs started with the teacher going over what were supposed to be doing, step by step, making sure that everyone understood what was going on and what the procedure was (partially for the sake of learning, but mostly so we didn’t burn the school to the ground). In phage lab, however, we read our manuals and follow the procedures independently. And because everyone is at different points in their experiments at different times, often we’re doing the work completely independently. Thus, on that first day, we were thrown into the lab with more independence than I’d ever had in a lab before.
On that first day, all we did was the direct isolation procedure. This involved flooding a tube containing my environmental sample (dirt that I had collected from near the polluted river) with enrichment broth. After we did that, we let it shake for an hour in the incubator, and then had to filter it. Filtering it was a real struggle–I felt like I needed two more hands to move everything around and open/close things at the right times! Thankfully, I had my lab partner to provide those two more hands.
The next day, we spent the whole class plating one experimental and one control plate. At the time, it was almost overwhelming, and I felt like I needed even more hands than I
needed when just doing direct isolation! How was I supposed to be able to open a pipette, open the top agar, suck up top agar, close the top agar, open the smeg tube, dispense the top agar into the smeg, mix the smeg and the top agar together, suck up all the top agar, close the smeg tube, open my petri dish, dispense the top agar and smeg, swirl it around, close the petri dish, and move it all away from the flame while only having two hands? And how was I expected to do all of this without the top agar solidifying in the time it takes to do all that? And how was I supposed to do all of this using aseptic technique under the flame from my bunsen burner?
At first, the answer to most of those questions was to have my lab partner open and close everything for me. Then, I did the same for her when she plated her direct isolation, but I was worried about how we were going to manage plating while also both having to do whatever procedure our experiments called for on a given day.
But, as with any scientific procedure, it’s much easier after the first time you do it. If the records I’ve been keeping in my lab notebook are correct, I’ve now plated 79 petri dishes with top agar and smeg. If I plated all of those at the same rate I did the first one, I would have been in the lab for hours and hours every time I did a serial dilution. And while I’ve never actually timed myself, I can probably plate a petri dish with top agar and smeg in 30 seconds–thank goodness for that. Practice truly does make perfect, and I can navigate through the lab and procedures with more confidence and much more efficiency now than I could on the first day of lab.