Although my blog might make me sound like a failed hobby psychologist on an extended vacation in Argentina, what I really am is a biologist. Or at least that’s what I should be titling myself after my adventure down here is over.
I have been very sparse with explanations of what I actually do here; “working in the lab” is a very vague and unspecific description, and although some may know that I’m working with yeast, science is probably not the first thing that comes to their minds when they hear yeast.
But obviously my seven years of studies have not turned me into a baker, nor a beer brewer1. I wish I could say that I’ve learned something more useful than that, but that would be bending the meaning of usefulness a lot.
A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so to save me some typing, let me get visual for a second. This is yeast:
Each of these spheres — more specifically yeast cells — is around 3-4 microns (3-4×10-6 m) in diameter. That is around one fiftieth (1/50) of the diameter of a normal human hair. They don’t swim, they don’t walk, they don’t wiggle, and certainly don’t talk. But they have a huge appetite for sugar, and they are exceptionally good at converting these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is why they are so popular in bread and beer making. But they are also invaluable for biological research, and have (together with for example fruit flies, roundworms, mice, enteric bacteria, zebrafish, and thale cresses) over the years taught us a great deal about biology. Also the biology of our own, human cells.
Less significant for research as a whole (I will get back to this soon), but more significant for this blog post: yeast is also key players of my master’s thesis, and are supposed to help me finally graduate from seven long — but admittedly also fun — years of university studies.
So why am I working with yeast, if I’m not using them for baking bread, nor brewing beer?
Without digging too deep into the details2, I simply use them as biological factories for testing biological ideas. I could just as well be using other cell types (for example from the organisms I listed earlier), but since my boss has a special liking for yeast, it is his model organism of choice.
More specifically: using genetic engineering techniques I modify the cells (i.e., I create GMOs), and then analyze them to see if they behave as expected or not. But since these cells seem to be doing nothing more than consume sugar, produce alcohol, and divide, a logical question would be what type of behavior I could possibly be looking for.
In my project, I modify the cells so that they can produce glowing molecules. By introducing genes derived from deep-sea organisms such as glowing jellyfish, I give my yeast cells the ability to glow as well. With a bit more sophisticated engineering, I can also control exactly when the cells are supposed to glow, and — to some extent — in which color(s). However, we are not talking a laser show here, and in yeast this light cannot even be seen (and especially not measured) with the naked eye. I therefore take help from a fluorescence microscope, and can expect to see something like this:
During a single experiment, I may take hundreds of images like these, capturing tens of thousands of cells. I then use sophisticated computer software (which I have not developed myself), to try to measure the intensity of light these cells produce.
Thus, a big part of my days in the lab are dedicated to working with a fluorescence microscope, taking hour-long series of images to see how the intensity of the light (fluorescence) in the cells change over time, and whether that makes sense with my predictions.
And that’s it! That’s what I do! For now…
Because it is easy to see why a career in cell biology might at some point lead to an existential crisis. Not so much for the size of the cells, or their lack of movement — one can always switch to a different cell type or organism if size or movement is what matters to you. But even during my relatively short time in biological research, I have been asking myself if what I am doing is really making the most out of my potential — as a researcher, as an educated individual, and as a human contributing to the world.
Have I spent a good part of my life studying at university level in five different countries, living off tax payer’s money, only to sit and study the intensity of light in yeast cells using a fluorescence microscopy? Or could I perhaps do something more efficient with my time, that would return a bit more value to the world? Not that science is easy; it can be incredibly challenging. But capturing images of (yeast) cells with a semi-automatic fluorescence microscope may not require seven years of education — but that is actually what I am spending most of my time doing.
Also, although I do find the learning and investigation aspects of research and science incredibly interesting, I am not very convinced that I could spend a good part of my life alone in a dark room with a fluorescence microscope and radio FM4 as my only companions. I am interested in studying science, but not necessarily performing it.
But then, of course… what would I like to do instead? And would I really enjoy that other job more? The grass is always greener on the other side, and I have met few people in my life who are still happy with their jobs, once they have become routine.
I guess I am just another Generation Y yuppie.
1. … although it is not uncommon that yeast scientists switch to a career in beer brewing once they get fed up with science.
2. That would take a lot more text than a 1000-word blog post, and you would most likely still not get the idea — biologist or not.