I’ve worked in biological research labs at two universities for over 20 years — primarily studying viruses. Meanwhile, I’ve kept my eyes and ears open and learned about science and how science works — as an investigation as well as a business.
I started out as a lab technician in an environmental research lab at Purdue University. The research group was trying to find bacteria (or a group of bacteria) that could degrade agricultural pesticides. What I found was a bug that could degrade aniline (which is simply a ring of six carbons (called a benzene ring) with an extra little NH2 stuck on it — a wee bit of a challenge for a microbe to break open but the form that many pesticides degrade down to and stop). What was unique about this microbe I dubbed DAK 3 is that it could use this ring structure as a source of “food” even when there was plenty of glucose (table sugar) around. Typically, microbes are rather lazy — they’ll use the easiest “food” source around, which in this case would be glucose. Other than a manuscript published with my name included in the list of authors, nothing much came of this discovery.
A couple of years later, I moved to another state and began my career as a research associate at a university in a virology lab. (Note: I can no longer be specific to the “where” because some of my posts could have an adverse impact on the university and that is not my intention. I merely wish to tell you about what life is like in a university research lab — that university could be any where.)
The first skill I had to learn (and at first I had a difficult time wrapping my head around this idea): instead of wanting the bacteria to grow in culture, the goal was to avoid bacterial contamination in the mammalian cell cultures.
Over the past 20 years, I have studied:
- how a virus called cytomegalovirus (which is related to the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores) hides from the immune system,
- been on the ground floor in the discovery of an anti-viral drug (against cytomegalovirus) that has shown some promise in organ transplant patients,
- discovered this same drug is effective against several other unrelated viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV — which causes a lot of problems in newborn babies) and the polyomavirus BK-virus (which causes trouble in kidney transplant patients),
- studied how HIV might pass from an HIV-infected mother, through the placenta, to infect a baby while it is still in the womb
- how a rare neurological syndrome may be caused by antibodies that recognize the cells that line the blood vessels (called endothelial cells) causing damage in the brain, eyes, and ears.
I’ve seen firsthand how the National Institute of Health (NIH) budget can affect research as well as careers.
I’ve worked with many research and medical scientists as well as graduate students, medical students, and undergraduate students.
In this blog, I hope to share these experiences. And who knows, maybe somewhere along the way, you’ll learn something you didn’t know about the ins and outs of science. No agenda — just what it’s like to be a “lab rat.”