Friday, 9 November 2007

Practical science and coursework

I'm not fond of practicals in the labs. I don't like the feeling of being out of control, and I'm fairly clumsy when it comes to pipetting or handling little bits of glassware. I don't think I've ever seen anything clearly through a microscope and have given up adjusting the lenses, trying with and without specs, using one eye, both eyes, focusing and the rest. The lab work was the part I was looking forward to least about this course.

Having experienced a few practicals now, it's been much better than I feared. I wouldn't say that I look forward to the lab sessions, but the lecturers and demonstrators have been so helpful and approachable that I can usually get explanations when the procedure or equipment are baffling, or when things don't work as expected.

The best thing has been to experience the experiments that I've only read about. As a keen science reader, I'm aware of genetics experiments with fruit flies - now I've seen the results! I've pipetted DNA into an electrophoresis gel and seen the 'barcode' results under UV light! I've used a spectroscope firing different wavelengths of light through a sample and measuring absorbance - actually, that wasn't too exciting. You put the sample in a box, press 'Go' and write down the number that comes up on the display.

The latest practical was one that I didn't anticipate. It was in the physiology lab under the heading of 'Autonomic Nervous System', that's the unconscious control of internal body systems: heartbeat, pupil dilation, digestion and stuff. We were given a short length of fresh rabbit gut, so fresh that if kept in a special solution with oxygen bubbled through it actually contracts as it would inside the now-deceased rabbit. It looked like a little piece of pink macaroni. We dripped adrenaline and acetylcholine into its bath, and measured how it reacted, by decreasing or increasing the strength of peristaltic contractions.

Now that we've done some significant work, the deadlines for handing in coursework have started to come thick and fast. This week I handed in four lots (two of them early), with another one due next week. It actually takes a bit of time to hand stuff in - there's a front sheet to fill in to identify the bit of work and the module and lecturer it belongs to, sign to say you understand the plagiarism rules, fold over the top to conceal your name and make it anonymous for marking, fill in and cut off a receipt to keep, then date stamp both bits. Then post it through a slit into one of the many boxes with labels on the front - this is actually the most daunting bit, making sure it goes in the right box. There are dire penalties for late submission (5% docked per day late) and putting coursework in the wrong box would be the most stupid thing to do.

Car park with holly bush
Holly bush and the car park at Sutton Bonington campus

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