Lab Snob

Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)

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People warned me about the lab facilities in Kenya. Everyone expressed some variation of  “You know it’s not the same as in the US, right?” And every time I looked at them like they were crazy, but not because I was surprised. I am not some naive, sheltered PhD student who thinks everyone gets an LSR-II and precast gels. Nor am I a lab snob- at least I try not to be. I have worked in low budget labs, low access labs, unsanitary labs, you name it. I have also worked in a lab abroad before so I’m not exactly a noob. Whatever my situation was, I made it work.

So you don’t think I’m full of shit, here’s a brief example. A few summers ago I worked in a lab in China- a land of duality with old and new co-existing everywhere you look. The lab was no different. We had a NanoDrop but were still developing Western Blots on film in a dark room (which smelled like a rotting vivarium fyi). It was a weird place to do science. At one point, the air conditioning broke in the main lab room and, because of nonsense bureaucracy, it didn’t get fixed for a couple of weeks. Beijing in the summer is easily 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. If I wore my gloves for more than 20 minutes, sweat would start to pool in the fingertips causing my fingers to prune. Super cute, I know. We had to do all our experiments on ice just in case. But we did it and we got beautiful data for the grad student we were assisting! Long story short, science doesn’t care about your comfort.

So when people warned me about Kenya, I looked at them like they were crazy because duh. Literally duh. Of course it’s not the same. I would never expect to have the same luxuries that I have at Emory, but it’s not like that would ever deter me from the experience. Regardless, I heeded the warning and steeled myself up for terrible lab conditions. Now that I have spent three weeks here I can safely say that everyone is a Big. Fat. Baby. The TB lab at KEMRI is SO NICE. Now maybe my opinion is biased because I was expecting a shit hole, but really the facilities are pretty awesome.

Like this is the avenue you drive down to get to the lab (after driving through two guard posts mind you). Not a bad place to spend 3 weeks.

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My first day in the lab, I got three separate tours. Everyone wanted to make sure I could orient myself and show me what kinds of projects they had going on at the site. Each one of my tour guides kept saying things like “I know it’s not much” and “It’s not like at Yerkes/Emory/The US.” And I was just staring at them blankly because in a lot of ways it is EXACTLY like the US. They have all the standard immunology stuff- hoods, incubators, centrifuges, autoclave, ELISA readers. There were even a few crazy, high tech pieces of equipment that I did not recognize. I really didn’t understand everybody’s sheepishness.

IMG_5792 (1)I later discovered that the building the TB lab is in is in fact one of the nicer ones on campus. On day two I shadowed one of the scientists doing helminth diagnostics. We went to a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) room in another building and it was pretty dated. But then again, so are the methods used to diagnose NTDs so I wasn’t that surprised. The only things you need for helminth diagnostics are stains, slides and a simple light microscope. Plus NTD diagnostics usually involve poo so who wants to waste a fancy clean room on that. The point is that it doesn’t really matter how nice the facility is as long as you can do your work. Does the campus here have all the hoity-toity cores that we have at Emory? No, of course not. I’m not even sure there is a vivarium. But for standard immunology and microbiology assays, they are pretty set.

I feel like it is important to disseminate this information so that other scientists think to partner with KEMRI or even come here to do their own work. I certainly didn’t have a good grasp on the lab facilities prior to working here and I cannot be the only one. Plus back home people have this misconception that if a lab isn’t state of the art, that the science conducted is sub-par. But fancy equipment isn’t as important as good scientific questions and experimental design. Eight color flow cytometry can answer A LOT of questions if you design your panel well and have the right samples. And boy does KEMRI have all the right samples for scientists like me.

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As stated in my last post, it is beyond weird that we just take these samples and run back to the US to study them. Why do we do that? Or I guess the better question is why don’t we study them here? Why not conduct science in a place where the results actually matter? Why not bridge the gap between the patient population and the bench work? I fully admit that I’m being a huge hypocrite in saying this because in fact I could not do my 13-color flow assay here, but there are a lot of things I CAN do for my project. During this trip I ran 18 ELISA plates to quantify antibodies against the worm I study. There was a moment when I was prepping plasma for a plate and a new sample came in from a study participant pertinent to my assay. The lab techs aliquoted off some plasma for me right then and there and continued on with their day. Easy as that. No freezing. No waiting for enough samples to batch in a shipment. Furthermore, while the results of this assay will be a blip in a paper when I graduate, they matter tremendously to the scientists and community here. I briefly presented my results regarding discordant diagnostic results during seminar last week and it stirred up quite a discussion between the various teams here.

I get that there are challenges in conducting certain experiments here, especially since there are issues with the supply chain and government corruption (more on that later). I concede that not everything can be done on site, but there is always a happy medium. My boss has done a great job at finding that medium. While she has a majority of samples shipped back to the states, she leaves what she can here in Kisumu for the Kenyan scientists to conduct their own experiments. She makes a point to leave at least two vials of cells from every participant here, even if there are only two to begin with. She also works with the students here to help them develop and execute masters and PhD thesis projects. This way some of the work and expertise always stays local.

This is so important because it builds capacity at places like KEMRI. By physically basing science here, it empowers local scientists here to take agency over their work. It trains these scientists in new techniques which can then be passed on to the next generation further building the scientific community. Increasing capacity in turn entices more people to base their studies here, bringing in money, supplies and expertise from around the world. And so the cycle repeats.

We shouldn’t treat KEMRI like it’s a post office. It’s not. It’s a fully functional scientific campus. And more importantly it is full of people ready and willing to work towards the same goal we (presumably) all have- to improve human health and eradicate nonsense like TB.

Optimism in the Face of Failure

-You know how some books change you? You read them, and the words burn in your mouth and your throat, making you feel like you want to scream. Even after the words start to fade from memory, they still somehow stick to you. They seep into your bones and tangle themselves in your heart, permanently residing in you, changing you. Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is like that for me. I am therefore devastated by the loss of Robert Pirsig. Normally, I am not so undone by the loss of a literal stranger, but I truly believe that had it not been for his book I would not be in graduate school.


When I graduated high school, I went backpacking through Europe with some of my friends. Both of my parents gave me a book for the various planes, trains, and automobiles I would undoubtedly ride. My mom gave me Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a wonderful book, but a story for another day) and my dad gave me Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by the late Robert Pirsig.

Zen is roughly 500 pages of (semi) narrative philosophy and I was eighteen at the time. Needless to say, I was highly resistant to reading it. But when you run out of other stuff to do on your umpteenth train, you reconsider what qualifies as entertainment. That, and I idolize my parents, so I truly wanted to read the books they felt were valuable to me. Considering that now, at 26, I’m writing about it, you can guess that I am glad I eventually caved.

Zen challenged my ideas of value, beauty and quality and altered the way I look at technology, mental illness, and of course, middle America. But one line in particular has haunted and inspired me every day of the last 8 years. More recently, it has become a mantra for me in graduate school.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.”

 

I am a goal oriented person, particularly with regards to my education and career. I have known what I wanted to be when I grow up since I was in middle school. That goal has been refined over the years, but never altered. I have always had clear steps outlined for how to achieve that goal and so far, I have met almost every one of them. I’m insane, I know.

High school me was even more of a type A, schedule obsessing, control freak, than I am today. My entire self worth was based on achievements. I had a fucking meltdown when I failed my drivers tests because I had “never failed anything before.” (I fully said as much in between sobs at the DMV.)

This is why the quote haunted me. It made me question the way I lived my life. Which I kind of loved, to be honest.

There’s something about being 18 and without adult supervision in a foreign country that is exhilarating. I honestly think the setting in which I read the book broke down my barriers making me receptive to it in the first place. Layer on the fact that the messaging was coming from my parents who gave me the book (they were constantly telling me to simmer down). I just felt like it mattered, you know? So I listened. My group wanted to change our itinerary on a whim to stop in a tiny mountain town in Slovenia. And I accepted it. We went white water rafting and I just about got hypothermia but It. Was. Wonderful.

So I began college trying to open my mind, my attitude, and my outlook on life. And I was lucky enough to have a friend who challenged me to to do so. I was such a planner and a rule follower and he was constantly forcing me to be spontaneous and think outside the box. I don’t think he realized that every time I said “We can’t do that!” and he said “Why not?” that I was channeling Robert Pirsig in my eventual “I guess you’re right. Let’s do it!” Each and every experience reinforced the idea that embracing individual days is important. Embracing the process is important. Embracing the unplanned, the spontaneous, the unexpected is important.

Which brings me to science.

Literally none of my experiments in undergrad “worked.” I got nothing but negative data which is why I am still unpublished, despite years and years of toiling in lab. (I’m not bitter or anything.) And while it was obviously frustrating and I had my days where I wanted to cry and rip my hair out, I persevered. At my darkest hours, I reminded myself that the process was important and I moved on. This is how science happens.

So when I applied to grad school, I said as much and nearly every faculty member, I interviewed with agreed. I will never forget at my Emory interview one faculty member said “I think you will be successful in science because you are optimistic in the face of failure.” I fucking loved that. I thought I was going to kill grad school.

What no one tells you, is that graduate school is mostly failure. I think I fail a little bit every day in fact. And failure inevitably comes hand in hand with shame and crippling self-doubt. [So much so that the the Office of Health Promotion at Emory is hosting an event on Friday titled “Failure and Shame in the Course of a Graduate Career.” You can’t make that shit up.]  You are constantly questioning your self-worth. Am I good enough? Will I make it? Should I quit and play kickball? Is that embarrassing? What will my ______ think? For almost three years now, every time someones asks me “How’s school going?” my stomach drops out and I scramble in my head to try to find positive things to say. Usually I say something along the lines of “it’s a nightmare, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

What I realize now is that I have learned to love the process– it has kept me sane. Yes, I have goals. Yes, I have plans to achieve those goals. But I no longer live each day for those goals. And believe me, I do not say that lightly. It is an effort to do so and I am not always successful. But in the midst of perpetual failure and rejection, it is so necessary. I still can’t wait to get out, but I’m surviving.  Which is saying a lot because I know that had I remained as goal oriented as I had been at 18, I would have self destructed by now. Instead, whenever I fuck up an experiment, or get negative feedback on a piece of writing or get scolded by some authority figure or another, I try to find a reason to love the process. Some days I need to be reminded to do so. Some days I can’t do it at all. It’s a work in progress, but then again so am I.