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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Brandeis research opportunities offer new perspectives

Published: December 5, 2014
Section: Opinions

So I got a new job as an assistant in the preparatory area of a biology lab the other day. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked to get some exposure to the research facilities located within a university that’s specifically known for conducting original research.

Now, I’m aware there’s a pretty high concentration of people at Brandeis who are planning on embarking on careers centered around the hard sciences, and they’re pretty interested in just how they might secure a lab job. Whether one plans to become a physicist, chemist, health care professional, molecular biologist, biophysicist or a plain old, boring biochemist like I am, it’s generally recommended they accrue at least some experience working in a real lab outside of the classroom setting at some point during their undergraduate studies. I have to preface the rest of the article saying that I don’t really have anything to mention aside from how any previous experience is a pretty huge boon for applicants while they’re getting screened, and that polite persistence is a pretty useful thing to practice as well. That being said, I’m essentially a biology department grunt at the moment, the extent of whose duties stretches to pushing around, cleaning up and mixing together an assorted collection of different stuffs—sometimes with gloves.

Granted, it is not the most glamorous job, can sometimes be pretty gross, exposes me to some pretty pungent (but non-hazardous) fumes and basically relegates me to the coveted duty of science janitor here and there, but I like it. The work is actually rather relaxed, the people in the lab are friendly, I get to operate some machinery I’d never seen before, and I’m learning things here and there that never really would get covered in a classroom setting—like why someone is an inconsiderate fool when he or she forgets to push the jacket-steam button after running a big oven-thing called the autoclave through a fluid cycle.

Speaking of which, the autoclave is arguably one of the coolest, if simultaneously uncomfortable, things to operate in this job. The autoclave is a large oven in which a number of different lab materials and waste products are heated and subsequently returned to their respective labs for general use and the garbage can, respectively. Objects placed within the autoclave are subjected to two rounds of autoclaving, unless said objects happen to be liquids: the sterilization phase and the drying phase. Now, liquids might be run through the autoclave so that they might be sterilized—see above for proper etiquette and jacket-steam—but the autoclave is also used for a slightly more sinister purpose, and that is what I like to call “smothering fruit flies to death while maybe also burning them a little.” At the same time “sterilizing” flies has a catchier ring to it, even if referring to it as such in a real conversation would either make one sound gratuitously diabolical or make it sound like the flies are getting castrated for some reason.

You see, it would be somewhat irresponsible for the fly labs of Brandeis to breed tens of thousands of mutant flies and then release them into the wild to mate and invade Sherman or Curritos; instead, the flies are basically doomed to a rather short, boring existence never having more than a few cubic inches of space to move around in until they’re either dissected, poured into rather gruesome “fly-morgues”—glass bottles filled with water and a soap that breaks the surface tension of the water so that flies can’t float on the surface as easily, or ethanol—or disposed of en masse in special, nonflammable autoclave bags, autoclaved to death and subsequently tossed in the trash. Admittedly, were I to spend my entire life buzzing around a stupid cubic inch of space, I’d probably prefer taking my chances with reincarnation and enter the stifling hellfire that is “death by autoclave” to my boring, non-sapient, three-day prison sentence of a life. I admit I feel a twinge of compassion every now and then for these completely oblivious, dumb, invertebrate animals, here and then.

Otherwise, I just roll things around and wash things up. It’s not actually that exciting, but I’m still glad I’m here with an excuse to ask a ton of questions anytime I’m exposed to something new.