Blog 2: A Summer of Science in Paris
Coming to the end of my two-month internship, I’ve been reflecting upon what exactly I’ve learnt from it. Of course, there are the laboratory techniques themselves: I can now state on my CV that I have experience with fancy-sounding things like immunohistochemistry and pyrosequencing, which is nice. There is also the wider biological knowledge that I’ve gained, both from the work I did and from generally chatting with other scientists in the lab. The main thing that I wasn’t aware of before was the evolutionary context to epigenetics. Modifications to DNA and its associated histone proteins aren’t used in exactly the same way to regulate gene expression across all species, and this is interesting as it can tell us something about how the system has evolved.
It’s also been a chance to acquaint myself with the realities of research. Science doesn’t tend to happen in a linear fashion: it’s rarely a case of a single well-designed experiment leading to an exciting new finding. On a day-to-day basis, many experiments don’t work and it’s the work of researchers to troubleshoot and repeat. This is particularly the case when working with less well-studied organisms such as diatoms. People studying super-popular model organisms like the fruit fly or the plant Arabidopsis thaliana have plenty of resources and experimental protocols at their disposal, but this often isn’t the case for those working with more niche creatures. I hadn’t realised how much work has to go into playing around with experimental protocols to try and optimise their use on a particular species. For instance, I spent some time working a project aiming to develop a procedure for genetically modifying diatoms using the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which is used very widely to introduce foreign DNA into plants, but can’t yet be used with diatoms.
Another thing I now appreciate more about the complexities and difficulties of making scientific progress is that it rarely happens in a linear fashion. It’s not really so much a case of one scientist’s hypothesis leading to a well-designed experiment leading to an amazing new finding, but more of a network of interactions between different researchers and different experiments, which can converge to result in an advance in our understanding. I was able to be a part of this network in my own minor way when I happened across a strange-looking contamination in our diatom culture flasks – tiny creatures that seemed to be living within the diatoms themselves. Of course, at first this was nothing more than a bit of a stress. The research focus of our lab wasn’t parasites of diatoms; we wanted to understand how diatoms were adapting to the switch between light and dark, so the contamination seemed merely an inconvenience that might interfere with the results of our experiments. However, it turned out these parasites were of interest to someone! By chance, a lab member complained to a fellow scientist at a conference about the issues we’d been having with contamination, and as a parasitologist, she was interested to see them for herself. So, my contaminated culture bottles were shipped off to a parasitology lab back in the UK, where they were embraced as an interesting find rather than a flop of an experiment.
But my internship has been valuable not only for the laboratory work itself. The fact that the lab is located in Paris added another dimension to my experience – it was amazing to be able to put into practice my rusty high school French and to experience living abroad for the first time. That science is in many ways an international enterprise is one of the best things about it, and I’d urge undergraduates looking to gain some laboratory experience to take advantage of this as much as they can. There are a few very competitive organised internship programmes that allow you to experience work in research laboratories abroad, but this isn’t the only option – I arranged my internship simply by firing off emails to laboratories that interested me. I thought about the kind of research experience I wanted to gain (epigenetics) and where I might like to spend the summer (France, so I could improve my French a bit – although it’s worth noting that the working language of many laboratories all over the world is English so language skills don’t have to be a factor!) and through a bit of Googling I identified a number of labs that fitted the bill. Trying to get into contact with researchers typically has a very low success rate, so I made sure to email a dozen or so different labs in the hope that the laws of probability would be working in my favour and that at least one would be able to help me out. In the end, this lab was the one at the Ecole Normale Supérieure!
If you’re interested in an internship with the lab I worked with in particular (which I’d fully recommend!), find out more here http://www.ibens.ens.fr/spip.php?article153&lang=en or contact [email protected].
Blog 1 The Secret Lives of Diatoms: http://www.bangscience.org/2017/08/internship-at-ecole-normale-superieure-blog-1/