The Molecular Biology Department is perched along the top of Olin and Barnes, scattered among pale white hallways with research posters and owl photos. In his office as chair of the department, Prof. Darrell Killian talked to me about working in a Biology laboratory, and turning points in his career.
A Plastic Bag and Feeling like an Imposter
In my senior year, I realized that I wanted research experience because my career goals were changing from that of Veterinary Science to more a research direction.
During high school, I’d sought out science-related experiences. I was a volunteer at an aquarium and I went to college with a loose plan of being a veterinarian. My first position working at an aquarium was being a docent, essentially a public educator. I’m standing in front of an exhibit with harbor seals, talking to people about where they’re from, what they eat, etc.
What had first interested me in molecular biology was this Intro to Molecular and Cell Biology class that I had in my first semester of college. I thought it was really interesting that we could understand that much about how a cell worked, one that you can’t really see. You can spot the golgi body in a cell with proper staining technique. But to really understand what’s going on inside isn’t something you can see. You have to infer that from elegant experiments.
Those courses were more new and novel to me, whereas I think my view of biology was more macro-level prior to college, more organismal. I enjoyed that. And probably because of that, I did well.
I do remember a demonstration that the professor did where a bunch of graduate students came out and they had a clear plastic bag as a cell. And they were putting things inside of it that represented the different organelles and talking about what each one of them did. And it somehow involved water being thrown all over the place and making a mess. That sort of demonstration was somewhere between an interpretive dance and a comedy routine. It was very chaotic and fun. Going in there and talking about each thing that went into the bag, it was sort of a mental check for myself. Like “Okay, I know that.”
Doing that, it was very validating for me. I went to college with what we refer to in the academic world as Imposter Syndrome. I felt like I didn’t belong there. That my SAT score was lower than the average for that school. The only reason I got in was because they needed someone at my weight class on the wrestling team. So I had this anxiety that I was going to get my butt kicked. And then the first exam happened. I did just fine and that eased my concern.
I went out to lunch with one of my professors back then, Jim Donaghy. And he talked to me about the idea that it’s not uncommon that people have a general interest in the material of molecular or cellular genetics. But they don’t really know what a career in that looks like. And so he explained what a lab technician position would be; essentially being an assistant for all things related to research in a lab that is primarily being conducted by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. I remember him saying something along the lines of “you’ll realize how much you’ve learned in your undergraduate when you get to apply it in the research setting,” and how it links together a lot of things that don’t seem like they were useful when you learned it at the time.
What else did he say? Keep an open mind about what direction of research I want to go into, what sub-disciplines. Find a job working in a lab that sounds like it’s interesting, but then talk to people from other labs. Go to seminars from visiting scientists to learn about what they’re doing. Through that, I’ll learn a little bit more about what it is that I want to study more deeply if I go into graduate school. That certainly a year of being a lab technician would let me know if this was the right path or not.
[He explained] that would set me up well to do graduate school, which is exactly what I did. So I worked for a year in a lab that studied embryonic development and development of the eye using fruit flies as a model system. I did that at Rockefeller University, and then wound up going to graduate school at NYU.
On the Lab Bench
My experience with being a lab technician, you are really the one at the bench doing the procedures and knowing where the hiccups are. Knowing whether an experiment is working well, or what sort of troubleshooting needs to be done. And I think that immediately took me from an undergraduate approach of understanding things on paper, to really seeing how that was done.
There are some things built into the name. “Technician.” There are some technical skills that you fine tune in the world of molecular biology. Very often, that is hand eye coordination under the microscope and micro-dissection, things that take some time to get very good at. And then that can become incredibly valuable to a research lab.
And I think there can be a little bit of a disconnect between what the conclusions of a study are and how you actually get to that point with the actual work that’s done. A lot of professors at big research institutes, once upon a time probably worked at the lab bench. But they’re pretty far removed from that now and aren’t always the ones who are the best to figure out the troubleshooting of those details. Seasoned lab technicians are very good at that.
Breaking Down One of His Scientific Papers
So, a neuron is the functional unit of the nervous system, a single cell. And that cell can receive information from other cells or the environment. And then integrate that information to have a response. The dendrites are the branch part of the neuron that receives information and the cell grows these fine branches that we call an arbor, because they really look like branches of a tree. How a cell grows these in an appropriate shape is not well understood. So my lab took a genetic screen, which is basically looking at a bunch of genes one at a time, to see what their impact is on making branches. What we did was to take the organism minus one gene and see if dendrites were changed in any way. We’ve identified about a dozen genes that are involved in that process.
Realistically speaking, that genetic screen set my lab up for the seven years since. To look at each of those 12 genes and study in much greater detail what their molecular role is. We’re probably halfway through that list. One that we studied quite intensively regulates RNA (the intermediate step between DNA and proteins, to vastly oversimplify) within neurons. When, where and how much those RNAs are translated to make proteins. And two that we’re studying right now seem to be involved in regulating alternative splicing of mRNA. Broadly, that alternative splicing of RNA is used in the nervous system more than just about any other type of tissue in animals.