These past few weeks I have been working in Professor Jonathan Snow’s lab at Barnard College. He is investigating the cellular stress response of honey bees to various stressors in the environment. By characterizing different cellular pathways in the honey bee, we can learn the fine details of these pathways in order to best protect them from an impending decline in their population. Fortunately, I worked with Professor Snow this past spring semester, so I was able to start this summer already with a rough idea of the basic logistics of the lab. During the spring semester, I would come into the lab for three hours once a week. While all time in the lab is valuable, those three hours were not enough to gain momentum or conduct an experiment to completion. Now I spend eight hours a day, five days a week in theSnow lab, so I am able to complete my projections in one day all the way from bee collection to the actual analysis of the data.
In terms of basic logistical things, I have learned the importance of keeping an orderly and safe lab. There is procedure and protocol for everything. I enjoy organization, so I relish this structure. I have learned how to refill, restock, and keep clean the lab; the more time that is put into preparation and organization, the easier it is to conduct successful experiments later on. Everything we do here has a purpose and a place. These kinds of “housekeeping” skills contribute to my skills in STEM because now I feel very confident that I could walk into any lab in the future and competently conduct myself.
A defining characteristic of the Snow lab is its work with honey bees. Overtime I have become more acquainted with the bees, but it was a gradual process. We regularly go up to the hives above Barnard Hall to check on the queens, collect foragers for experiments, and to split the hives in order to avoid swarming. I have a newfound respect for our insect friends. Bees deserve the same kind of personal space and consideration as any other person would. By respecting their space, they respect mine; it is that simple. In addition, I have learned so much about the basic logistics of the hive as well as the eusocial behavior of the bees. Throughout a bee’s life they take on various specific jobs in the hive. Each bee knows exactly what to do to improve the overall fitness of the hive. In a succinct manner, the bees organize themselves atop the honeycombs. They are substantially more intelligent and perceptive than we assume. Bees are the third most important agricultural animal right after cows and pigs, and before chickens. Honey bees provide critical pollination service for humans in both agricultural and ecological settings (Snow).
Recently, honey bee colonies in the United States and Europe have been dying off at increasing rates. This phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder, and stems from a complex combination of issues--- nutritional stress, chemical poisoning, changes to normal living conditions, and infections by parasites and various pathogens (Snow). The work that Snow is doing to characterize the cellular pathways in honey bees that make up proteostasis and heat shock responses can help use learn how to continue to protect them. Recently, I was given a specific project to work on. Nosema ceranae are a species of microsporidia that infect honey bees and subsequently their colonies. While N. ceranae have a heat shock response (HSR), they do not display heat shock factors (HSFs), which is the typical HSR in eukaryotes. Thus, my experiment investigates whether the source of the HSR in N. ceranae stems from an increase in the half-life of their mRNA. In order to conduct this experiment, we will infect a sample of bees. Once the bees are infected, we will treat them with a RNA Polymerase II inhibitor. By blocking the RNA Poly II, when exposed to increased heat, we can see whether the rate of mRNA degradation increases or decreases. If the HSR of N. ceranae is indeed an increase in mRNA half-life, then when treated with a RNA Poly II inhibitor, the rate of mRNA degradation should decrease because the half-life of the mRNA still present would have increased.
Another experiment that we considered was whether or not temperature would have an effect on the efficiency of fumagillin—the most common drug used to treat against N. ceranae infection. By exposing a control sample and an experimental sample to the drug at different temperature intervals, we can look at the levels of Met AP2 (the target of fumagillin) to see whether or not the drug’s rate of reaction changes with temperature. The less Met AP2 there is, the more efficient the drug.
While it is great to feel very knowledgeable about the science and specific procedures in the lab, the most important lessons that Professor Snow has taught me so far have been about the theory of the scientific method and the field of research in general. While it would be amazing if every experiment turned out exactly as we predicted, science truly gets interesting when the results aren’t what you expect. Professor Snow told us that he loves cellular and molecular biology research because he loves problem-solving. You start out with an initial idea based off of prior research and knowledge, but then the innovations and the really great “outside of the box” thinking happens when you need to explain some kind of phenomenon that has never been explained before. You have all of the tools that you need to answer the question, or at least all of the knowledge to find the tools that you need, but a lot of science feels like small leaps of faith. I am still very intimidated by these leaps of faith, but I have to admit that Professor Snow leaps with the utmost tranquility and confidence.
Even after just around five months in Professor Snow’s lab, I feel that I have discovered a whole new field of science. In Professor Snow’s lab, we have an established rhythm and pace to the day. The more time that I spend here, the more comfortable I become with the terminology, science, and logistics. I am also so thankful for the amazing relationship I have with Professor Snow and the other students working in the lab. I have learned just as much from my peers as I have from Snow himself. While Snow teaches me about the science and the lab, my peers give me a safe environment to implement the things I have learned and work through the things I am not sure about. While it easy to assume that work in a lab is very individual, being in the Snow lab has demonstrated to me the paramount importance of communicating with your peers and advisors. By learning from them, talking to them, and making mistakes alongside them, I now see how science can be a community as well as profession.
I am looking forward to the rest of my summer in the Snow lab. Since we just started my experiment, I am looking forward to trying to finish it to completion. One of my goals is to continue becoming comfortable doing independent work in the lab. As time goes on, I hope to continue perfecting my technique and efficiency with RNA extraction, DNase Treatment, cDNA synthesis, and qPCR procedures to the point where I can teach them to others. Another goal of mine is to get to the point where I am familiar enough with the science that I can try designing my own components of the experiment as well. Also, no matter how comfortable I become with the biology or the lab, I never want to be afraid to ask questions. At the beginning it was natural to ask questions, but I want to never stop learning.
Many thanks once more to the Noyce Teacher Scholars Program for giving me this chance to spend my summer in Professor Snow’s lab.