Planning ahead and learning to plan: J.J. Tsai '14

J.J. Tsai '14 chose to spend part of his summer in a research lab -- not for a school project, but for his own experience. 

This month I spent most of my time working in a research lab in a hospital. I have enjoyed biology for as long as I can remember, but I never actually stepped into a laboratory to work. The research I am involved with was to familiarize myself with practical biology concepts and lab techniques. The lab was part of a larger hospital complex; the lab I am working in focuses on cancer research.

My research focused on the tumor cell reactions regarding 3 different types of agents, two of which are currently still in testing phase. Every morning, when I report to the lab, I have to check every well and plate to make sure the cells that we will be using for experiments are still alive, and not dying or overflowing. The reason for this is to make sure that the cells don’t overlap each other and affect test results. After making sure, I have to wash the wells with PBS, add new cell medium back to let it survive, and then place the cells back into the warm incubator.

For the entire month, I was working with the cell line MCF-7, a breast cancer cell. At first, I didn’t give much thought to it. From the books I already learned that tumor cells can grow unlimited, and that’s why they cause failure in human bodies and make great research tools. After a few days in the lab, I found that MCF-7 is a cell line from the 1970s, and the line has been in use for the last 40 years. The woman that MCF-7 came from was a nun that lived in Michigan. It was fascinating to know, after 40 years, the cells still remain active.

Photo of cell line MCF-7

Other than the main research, the director of the lab showed us other clinical labs of the hospital. One lab, the anatomic pathology lab, focused on preserving and analyzing the specimen from surgeries. The process is a relatively simple concept: remove the moisture in the specimen with ethanol, seal it in wax, and slice a thin piece for observation. It was amazing; under the microscope, cancer cells are easily identified by their twisted cytoplasm and overlarge nuclei.

Another lab, the clinical pathology lab, concerned samples like urine and blood. This lab processes hundreds of samples at once. In a matter of minutes, everything from hemoglobin to cholesterol levels can be analyzed. The lab is connected to the hospital blood bank. The blood bank is much more complicated than just sending out blood when needed; there are hundreds of blood types, and the bank must make sure that all the markers match up on both samples. Other than different blood types, the bank also needs to keep different notions of blood, which may only contain red blood cells or blood plasma. There are even special storage chambers for platelet concentration packs, which has a platform that constantly moves to prevent it from clotting.

After a month, the research concluded, proving that one medicine, mitomycin, was much more effective than the other two. The research itself was interesting, but what I got out of this experience was much more than that. I learned new lab techniques, and most importantly, a better attitude regarding science. I always knew that science required a careful mind, but this experience let me know what mindset I should have regarding science. A scientist should not only be careful, but also have a plan. Planning now only prepares you for the future, but also can prevent unwanted consequences. The lab experience taught me more that practical science; it taught me how to treat science, and to become a better scientist.