From the Field to the Lab

Over the last two months I have transformed from a perpetually damp, wetsuit-clad, village-hopping field scientist, into a (relatively) well-dressed, city-living, pipette-wielding lab scientist. Where I used to spend most of my time chasing fish around with my spear and catch bag, my life now largely consists of moving tiny amounts of liquid from one tube to another. And surprisingly enough….it’s pretty darn awesome.

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Step into my office.

Lab work is enjoyable to me for two main reasons – first, I am constantly in awe of the fact that we humans have even FIGURED OUT how to extract, amplify, and sequence DNA from living tissue. The decades of brainpower, creativity, and technological innovation required to make those little A’s, G’s, C’s, and T’s come up so nicely on our computer screens is boggling, and keeping that in mind brings a certain kind of appreciation to even the most tedious tasks at the bench. That’s not to say it’s always totally easy and straightforward – one of the more frustrating aspects of this work is not knowing if you’ve messed something up until about 6 steps down the line, or even until the very last step of sequencing itself. But my labmate Elora and I are become more and more efficient with every day spent in the lab, so setbacks caused by small mistakes are quickly regained.

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Why hello again, sea cucumber 553! You look a little different from the last time we met – have you lost weight?

Second, it is the COOLEST thing to see a sliver of tissue from a fish or sea cucumber that I collected with my own hands or spear taken through the entire process, resulting in a sequence of DNA that I can use to answer questions about these animals’ biology. It feels amazing to be personally implementing every single step of the science. Before I was a Master’s student, the projects I worked on often involved analyzing data collected by other people, or collecting data for others to work up. And the independent projects I conducted as an undergraduate were on much smaller scales, most of them taking place over a single semester. After everything that has gone into this project, these DNA sequences mean a lot more to me than just a jumble of letters.

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Epinephelus merra #583! Top photo was taken after collecting this little guy on Vanuabalavu in the remote Lau island group, and the bottom photo is the exact mitochondrial control region DNA sequence carried in every single on of his cells!

As we slowly but surely work our way through all 300 of the fish and sea cucumbers collected this summer, I’m enjoying learning everything I can about the process, and am really looking forward to seeing how everything wraps up. I also have two awesome side projects I’ve been working on as well, and may have some exciting news to share in the months to come 😉 Stay tuned!

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