Perfect Chemistry

A high-pitched squeal pierced my eardrums. Of all places, I was in Fort Detrick – 20 minutes from the nation’s capital. Fragments of thought collided in my mind as I stared at the light dancing on the conical tube shaking in my hand. Is this a ­terrorist attack? Definitely.

And then my mentor, the docile scientist whom I had met two days before, began laughing maniacally. Was this some kind of joke? Could he really be behind it? He was looking past his brand-new intern, who was on the verge of hyperventilating, and staring at the -20?C freezer.

I was not at all relieved to discover that my ears were throbbing not from a terrorist attack but because of the freezer’s alarm. My mentor had, in fact, been scheming as I innocently gathered the necessary enzymes to complete the digestion reaction assigned to me. It was my third day at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cell and Developmental Signaling Laboratory, and I was completely focused on executing my
task perfectly. Little did I know that my 20 or so expeditions to the freezer would induce mechanized screaming. My mentor had been waiting mischievously as the freezer’s temperature rose to -7?C. Ever since then, I have been wary of that banshee freezer.

I found my first days as a Summer Cancer Research Training Award Fellow filled with many wild experiences. The first time I heard about CERT protein, my head spun, but by the end of the summer I had cloned it multiple times and studied the protein-protein inter­actions of its specific domains using S2 cell models. This summer I did so many things that I never could have imagined. I woke up many times fearing that it was all a dream. I loved this new world that I was experiencing – a world saturated with science.

Of course, I faced challenges during my eight weeks at NCI. My second week, my mentor announced that we would be dissecting pregnant mice in our attempts to generate a CERT knockout mouse. My pinky toe quivered enthusiastically, as it usually does when I am overexcited. In what looked like an ice cream carton with holes was a swollen female mouse with slick black fur. The pungent smell of food pellets filled the lab. As my fingers ­encroached into her space, her black-marble eyes locked with mine. I immediately snatched my fingers back – was it compassion, fear, regret?

My mentor motioned for me to pick her up, and my hand slowly descended into the box again. As I lifted her by the tail, she struggled fiercely, but I did not loosen my grip. The hardest part was dropping her into the CO2 box and watching her chest heave as she took her last breaths. It may have been silly, but I prayed for that mouse. But as I was doing the dissection and removed the linked chain of embryos, I understood that in order to advance science and save thousands of lives in the ­future, sometimes sacrifices must be made.

Leaving the lab left me hungry for more ­science. I still find my thumb in a pipetting position and retain the ability to unscrew ­bottles and tubes with my left hand. And I sometimes wake up thinking that I was just doing a dissection or an experiment until I ­realize that it was a dream. In search of a ­continued experience, I am already looking for internship opportunities at research laboratories, and I absolutely cannot wait to get back to that environment!

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