My time in the lab at Warwick uni is over. It's been an interesting and challenging experience, where I've learned a lot. I can now use one or two laboratory techniques with an intermediate level of skill. I have had a glimpse at one type of research, where a hypothesis is tested against practical results, with interesting outcomes that lead to new hypotheses and also shed light on what might actually be happening at the microscopic level of a single cell.
My participation in the research was brought to an end when a consignment of one of the radioactive substrates that we were feeding to the cells was delayed and couldn't be delivered in time. I thought it would be a good way to complete my work with them if I came to the department meeting and had a cup of tea and some cake with H and my supervisor afterwards, by way of saying goodbye.
The regular department meeting takes place on a Wednesday afternoon. One member of the team describes their research each time, and the others have the opportunity to ask questions and offer suggestions. At the meetings I went to, I understood almost nothing. The researchers were presenting to colleagues rather than lecturing to an audience, so went at enormous speed and used abbreviations and jargon throughout. Some others in the team asked questions, but I barely understood what they were asking, let alone the answers.
At our 'goodbye' tea and cake event, I was given a card and a box of chocolates, which was very nice indeed. I realised that I would have to return briefly at some point because I'd forgotten to bring back the key to my locker, so when I found out that H was due to present her work at the next department meeting, I suggested that I could come along to that. That was when it was proposed that I should present what I'd been doing.
Normally I don't have a problem with presentations, but normally I know what I'm talking about. In the lab I've been working from a written protocol, with instructions to take this amount of substance A and add it to that amount of substance B. I've learned a lot about how to calculate concentrations and make up solutions, how to keep cells alive in culture, how to work safely with radioactivity, how to pipette accurately without contaminating anything, how to count cells and how to run a thin layer chromatography plate. These are all potentially useful and valuable skills, and I'd be happy to talk about them. But that isn't what's needed at a departmental meeting. I hadn't been paying any attention to exactly why I was doing whatever it was, or what the results actually meant.
So I have had to do a bit of hard work for a few days, reading academic papers and trying to understand the cellular and metabolic paths that we've been interfering with. We've been tinkering with various steps in the pathways that liver cells use to make fat.
Fat comprises a collection of triglyceride molecules: a 'backbone' made of glycerol and three 'legs' made of fatty acids: long chains of carbon and hydrogen linked together. When we digest fat from food we eat, we usually separate the glycerol backbone from at least two of the fatty acids, and absorb the glycerol, monoglyceride and fatty acids as separate molecules. In the cells of the gut and in the liver the triglyceride is assembled again, packed up together with cholesterol and protein and exported into the blood as lipoprotein particles of various densities. The triglyceride payload of lipoproteins is delivered to muscle for energy, or to adipose tissue to be stored as fat.
If you eat no fat at all, triglycerides are released from your stored reserves. If you have no stored fat either, the body can still manufacture triglycerides from molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. So the formulation of a drug that regulates the amount of adipose tissue (hence how fat we are) needs to address all the different pathways that result in triglyceride synthesis, without having any nasty side effects. The results of my experiments highlight a couple of the different paths that exist, and shed light on which enzymes act at each stage.
The research I've been part of is funded by a large pharmaceutical company, and is extremely commercially sensitive. The PhD student I was working with is not even allowed to discuss her progress or results with other colleagues, which I think is a huge handicap. An even greater disadvantage for her in the long term is that it is very difficult for her to publish any results, given that the number of publications under your name is a universally accepted measure of your academic quality and importance.
The presentation went fine. H did most of the work, and I contributed about 5 minutes when I told them what I thought I'd been doing. By the end of the presentation I understood a lot more about the metabolic pathways in liver cells and the experiments that I'd done than I did at the start. I doubt that this knowledge will be useful in my future career, and I also doubt that I'll remember it beyond a week or so, but I'm very glad I did the work experience. I'm also glad it has stopped now.
I shall enjoy the last few weeks of the last long holiday I may have: next summer I should be on a clinical placement, and the following summer I'm hoping I'll have a job.