Gibbs Nasir ’13: Kao Fellow in Medical Biotechnology
This has been an exciting first week in Baltimore. This post will probably be one of the longer ones, since it will cover slightly more than the first week of work.
So when I left Cornell on the morning of May 31st, it was raining quite heavily. Wary of the possibility that my flight would get delayed, I didn’t quite know what to expect. But when I got to the gates, I wasn’t too worried anymore. It’s really funny how small the place seems – I ran into several friends from Cornell, as well as Cornell’s ex-president, Les Garner – whom I recognized and initiated a conversation with. My layover was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I had lunch with Jordan Ng, another Cornellian.
I arrived in Baltimore on Thursday night (May 31st) using Delta Airlines (which seemed more comfortable to me than American Airlines), where my site mentor, Joe picked me up. We seemed to get along right off the bat. Among other thing, we talked about life at Cornell in general, and about the pros and cons of the block plan (specifically about the difficulty of grasping certain conceptual theorems and proofs in the brief durations of the block plan). Joe drove me to the place where I was to be staying for the next two months (See Picture 1).
Picture 1 – Charles Village Rowhouse
Although I hadn’t seen any pictures of the room I rented (having taken it on good faith due to dearth of time), it turned out to be small and comfortable. To a future Kao-fellow who might be reading this, it is crucial to start look for housing sooner, and to have at least three very strong references. Anyhow, I spoke with the landlady, Evalyn, at length on numerous topics. Evalyn was going to be leaving for a week to get away from the city, and I offered to take care of her bird feeders while she was away. She also reminds me a little of Novella Carpenter (the lady who started an urban farm and wrote a book about it) with her small patch of garden (See Picture 2). One interesting thing that I experienced was smelling this yellow rose (Rosa hemisphaerica) that Evalyn showed me. What was interesting was the calming effect smelling this flower had on me. The rapidity of the effect is what really intrigued me – of course, realize that science hasn’t quite unraveled the mystery of our olfactory machinery yet. When I later looked up scientific literature on this, I couldn’t find any paper that specifically addressed this, but I did find other non-scientific sources that talked about the blood pressure-reducing effect of the smell.
Picture 2 – Evalyn’s garden patch
On Sunday, Joe invited me to have dinner with him and several other people at his place, which was fantastic. One of Joe’s primary motivations was to test the grill that he had recently got. The food was delectable, and the conversation lively, covering a broad range of topics. I have always believed in being well-read in many areas, and this dinner emphasized the importance of that quite clearly. Earlier the same day, I had walked two blocks down to Wyman Dell park to check out the Charles Village festival that Evalyn had mentioned (an annual event, aimed at supporting several nonprofits in the area; See Picture 3).
Picture 3 – Charles Village Festival
Monday was my first day at the lab. I mapped the public transportation closest to the house using google maps, and read up on the details of the public transport system on their website. This turned out to be crucial, because apparently the bus-fare system here is somewhat strange. The bus-fare box accepts EXACT amounts, without any concept of a change card. So, for example, if it costs $1.60 to go one-way, and you have $2.00, you can forget your 40c, because the fare-box will eat it up. Also, the first bus I caught seemed to have a significant number of sketchy-looking individuals at the back, which I was quite disappointed by. However, after recounting my experiences in the lab, I will explain that there is a way around this. On both Monday and Tuesday, Joe explained to me the theory of the project I would be working on. On Monday we covered the theoretical principles behind electron paramagnetic resonance imaging (EPRI) and on Tuesday, the theory behind the role of intracellular calcium ion concentrations in heart muscle contraction. I also got Eric, a doctoral student at the lab, to show me the cells he is working with currently – which include HeLa, T-cells, and some African monkey kidney cells. Throughout the week, I observed Joe very very closely. You have to realize that every researcher has his or her own idiosyncrasies, but there are some techniques that they have refined over many years. THESE are the techniques you want to absorb as quickly as possible and begin using them – this is one reason working with such an experienced scientist is invaluable, you can pick up these techniques in a fraction of the time it took them. The first two-three days, I mainly observed Joe do almost everything. However, this was a great opportunity to see a pro-scientist in action. We (him mainly) did the first reaction for a 9-step synthesis of an organic compound, which will serve as a calcium indicator for EPRI.
However, when I came in on Wednesday, I had an H-NMR spectrum for the product waiting for me. I LOVED THIS CHALLENGE. All the knowledge I had accumulated in Organic Chemistry came back to me. In 5 minutes, I had marked up all the peaks, and confidently showed it to Joe. However, it turned out – alas – that I had marked one of the peaks wrong. During this analysis, I also realized that the small details which we ignored in OChem were important here; we identified the small peaks by educated guessing. After purifying the product more, we submitted a sample for a second NMR. One of the things I’ve found is that Joe is tough about giving up answers. I usually ask a lot of questions, so I tend to come off as a little annoying sometimes – I admit! – but not only is Joe patient, he takes a different approach to answering my questions: He tells me to look at the system and figure it out. In contrast, most of the professors at Cornell usually answer most questions right off the bat. But I am quite alright with this; I sit in Joe’s office, while he types away on his computer, and read relevant topics in his chemistry/biology books.
On Thursday, Joe, Nate (another intern), and I went to the annual neuroscience retreat of the University of Maryland. The idea is to get the post-docs and faculty members away from their labs; it’s essentially a social academic event. The main speaker was David Linden, a neuroscientist at Hopkins and the chief-editor of the Journal of Neuroscience. It was quite a privilege to be among the select group of individuals in that room. I have added both of his books to my reading list. On Friday I evaluated a second NMR, and we determined that the product was pure enough to move on. I weighed the product, determined the % yield (93%), and calculated corresponding volumes for the next reaction. That day, Joe allowed me to do much much more. I convinced the other intern (who had had more experience in lab) to demonstrate to me how to use this equipment called the Rotovapor using acetone. Joe came back from a meeting and saw this, and I would speculate that this was one of the reasons he allowed me to operate the equipment all by myself right afterward. Joe also allowed me to set up the reaction for refluxing overnight by myself. I’ll admit that I have done some really dumb things (nothing serious) this first week – which I will obviously not be talking about, but the important thing is that you quickly learn from your mistakes, refine your skills, and move on.
One of the things I wanted to mention is the public transportation here. It goes without saying that in a cosmopolitan city such as Baltimore, the public transportation network is extensive to say the least. There’s the light-rail, the Maryland MTA, the charm city circulator, the Hopkins shuttle, etc. However, note that google maps or mapquest only cover light rail and the Maryland MTA. So there are some things that you can only learn by actually being in the city and asking a lot of people. On the first day, I remember I was walking around downtown looking for the bus stop for #27, I must’ve asked 20 different people and all 20 of them told me something different. It’s not that people are clueless or ignorant about general things about the city they live in, but that life in a big city is so fast-paced that they just don’t have the time to find out/remember these things. So the first bus that I took to the lab (#27) was just not worth it. I had to walk several blocks to catch the bus, and several blocks to the lab. Considering that you have to stand in lab a lot, I was exhausted when I got back. However, now I have found that I can take Bus #3 toward downtown (one block away), and then take the Charm City Circulator, which stops less than a minute’s walk away from the lab. The quality of people on this bus also seems better than #27. All in all, good first week. Feeling more at ease, and looking forward to the second one.