I recently attended three weeks of intensive laboratory training on fecal hormone assays – okay, let’s be honest: poop analysis. If you’re thinking- eeuw, you are not alone. Before embarking on this PhD degree, collecting poop didn’t cross my mind. I mean, who thinks about poop, right? Except, hard-core dieters and maybe crazy scientists? And now I’m one of them, patiently waiting on batties to – em – crap so I can scoop it up, much to the surprise of the batties themselves. But guess what, there’s plenty of power in poo. Let me explain.
When stressed, an animal releases stress hormones into its system, which is commonly measured through blood extraction. But therein lies the catch: the very act of capturing and drawing blood from an animal is not only cumbersome but could contribute to further stress. And that’s not all; licensed personnel and strict ethical requirements are needed to carry out such operations. Thanks to recent advances in science, you can avoid all the above logistics by simply collecting poop. All you need do is wait for the animal to do its business – which in my case is pretty easy, since we spend time with them daily collecting behavioural data. The best part is that it’s a non-invasive and simple method of collecting scientific data without interrupting the animal’s normal activities. Once collected, it is crucial to freeze the samples immediately to prevent hormonal degradation.
The fun begins in the lab when we play around with chemical solutions and extract hormones from the samples. Firstly, you freeze-dry the samples and then crush them before extracting the hormones. So now you have your hormone extract – yippee, but how much of it is in your sample? Caution: plenty of calculations and pipetting involved!
A colleague and I had some pretty embarrassing moments as we quickly reached out for our cell phones when asked to do simple calculations and unit conversions. “You may be PhD students out there but in here, you are elementary level” a staff member joked. It didn’t help that our pipetting skills got worse as the weeks progressed – the harder we focused, the worse we got. “When you focus too hard, you tense up and make more errors. You need to relax and get into a rhythm that works for you” was the advice we got from the experts. We’re tough field biologists – who knew transferring liquids in a controlled environment could be so tricky?!
Despite our failures, the exposure and experience we gained were invaluable. It was also comforting to know that it took the professionals several months of trial and error to master their art; we couldn’t possibly get it right in just three weeks. I must admit I have new respect for the challenges of a lab environment – it’s not all as straightforward as I’d thought. I went home in high spirits, looking forward to my next lab visit to perfect my skills. After all, practice makes perfect, or in this case, poo-fect!