Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.


I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.

Pipetting for dummies

By Keafon Jumbam

PracticingI’m back in the lab once again to hone my skills on faecal hormonal assays. The unsuccessful ending to my first lab visit didn’t deter me from trying again. If anything, the lessons I gathered from that experience made me more determined to succeed in my analyses this time around. Besides, I’m surrounded by several lab experts who are always happy to offer support and guidance; starting with this – relax and develop a pipetting rhythm that works for you.

And on that note, I plunged into the fundamentals of hormonal assays.

Back to basics

The prerequisite for me to obtaining a good assay was to master the steps and types of reagents needed as well as brushing up on my pipetting techniques. So I set aside a couple of days for these tasks but the monotony of the mundane exercise – and in particular, pipetting – started to get to me by day two. I needed to persist through it for two main reasons: To get a ‘feel’ of the different assay liquids and subsequently handle them better and secondly, to develop that all too important pipetting rhythm!

Finally tackling the real deal – hormonal assay

By day three, I had a firm grasp of the basics and was confident in my abilities to pull off a good assay. The assay involves preparing a standard curve from a serial dilution of different volumes of liquids and reagents, which are then pipetted into a “plate” of 96 tiny wells. The wells are closely packed and certainly require your utmost concentration during pipetting. In fact, it is not uncommon to completely ignore visitors when busy with a plate; unless of course it’s an emergency.


Three’s a charm

You would think that with all those days of practise I’ve had, surely I would nail the first assay but it turned out to be a disaster – and the second one too – both plates had HUGE outliers spanning the length of the standard curves. Was I already re-establishing my previous pattern of disappointment? Self-doubt was slowly setting in…But I thought to approach this non-academically and perhaps a bit more like a sportswoman. This is a physical feat, and after all, expert runners benefit from having somebody critiquing their technique.

The moment of truth... my hard work about to be interpreted...
The moment of truth… my hard work about to be interpreted…

So I solicited the help of an expert to invigilate my every step and it paid off – she quickly identified the mistake – yes, it was my pipetting technique! Another bout of training later and I was geared up for a third assay plate. I could hardly contain my excitement when it came out a success! The standard curve was on point as were the rest of my results. Practise does make perfect. I know it’s too soon to claim total victory but as I head back to the field to collect more faecal samples, I’m more confident in my abilities to analyse them in the nearest future. Watch this space…

A thing of beauty -- not a single outlier on my standard curve!
A thing of beauty — not a single outlier on my standard curve!