Friday 1 February 2013

A Good Pair of Hands

Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, a new minted population geneticist got his first job in an English university.  After three rather intensive years developing the courses I was teaching and wrapping up a couple of projects hanging over from graduate school in Boston, I was starting to run out of steam. To be honest, I wasn’t working on much at all, when the woman who ran the molecular biology lab across the hall decided to recruit me.  I was tasked to measure genetic variation in clover (Trifolium repens) using RFLP.  So I started: plant clover seeds - grow grow grow – harvest a handful of leaves – shatter in liquid nitrogen and grind really small  . . . and you’re ready to start extracting the DNA.  That was restful, especially watching the plants grow, well within my capabilities and the crack and bubble from pouring liquid nitrogen into the mortar was mildly exciting.

The subsequent DNA extraction was, however, firmly in Eppendorfland and I was decisively out of my comfort zone.  But I would lose face if I gave up at the first hurdle and returned to my office to look thoughtfully at the ceiling, so I persevered.  The process from harvest to results took several days: several days to wait until it was clear that I’d booted another experiment.  First the DNA had to be extracted from the grey-green dust that remained after the liquid nitrogen had boiled off.  Then it had to be Fragmented by Restriction enzymes into Lengths to reveal diagnostic Polymorphisms. “RFLP” might be a little clearer after that last sentence. It just required that a written protocol be followed carefully – why a (literate) 5 year old could do that!  And so, with my tongue stuck out the corner of my mouth, I persisted in following the protocol all the way to another disappointment. 

The depth of my driftness was shown up when the brilliant Cypriot post-doc who was working back-to-back with me, turned round one day (was she a tad exasperated?) and asked, with elaborate patience, “Well Bob, and what are you doing now?” 

That was easy: and I replied, with deferential politeness, “Well, Elli, I’m on Step 7 of the protocol ‘Open Eppendorf and evert over a paper towel for ten minutes’ ”.

“Yes, yes,” she replied, “but what are you doing?”Followed by a quick-fire rhetorical supplemental “How was your last result? Was it a smear?”

“Yes, (how did she know?)” I replied, “I just can’t seem to get the DNA bands to run out nice and crisp.”

“That’s because your Eppendorfs are still filled with ethanol, which Step 7 is meant to get rid of  . . . I find”, she continued, “that the evert-over-paper-towel business never works, so I just pop the open tubes in a 60o water bath – it’s quicker and more effective”.  With that, she turned back to her own station and carried on pushing the frontiers.

That’s what they call A Good Pair of Hands.  Some people just know what is happening in their experimental material, and because they know, they are not afraid the alter The Protocol if that seems likely to get better, quicker or more reliable results.   

The clueless are slavish.

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