Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lessons from the centrifuge

A couple days ago, some of my students were describing some of the difficulties they were experiencing during their laboratory work for their Ph.D.thesis. They are doing advanced research involving molecular biology techniques, cell culture and a variety of immunological tests. Although our laboratories are relatively well equipped, we still need more sophisticated equipment every once in a while. On reagents and antibodies, we need to purchase them from relevant corporations like any other lab. Yet we have shortages and hurdles like blackouts, insufficient funds and competition among groups for grants and equipment. It some times gets rough for the students with the time constraints they have.
I decided to tell them some of my memories about when I was a PhD student in 1994, a mother of two, and the vice -chair of the national preparatory committee for the Fourth World Conference on Women. I was working on my thesis on the cytokine patterns of murine spleen cells and had only one season left to finish my complicated work. I described an incident for them in which I desperately needed a spare part for a Beckman centrifuge in the lab . Upon the advice of other students I approached a faculty member who was known to have the cylinder holder spare part but who was also known for his impolite demeanor. When he rudely turned me down and slammed the office door in my face, instead of losing my temper and falling into despair, I decided to find another way out and to confront the obstacles I was facing. I returned back to my lab, found a broken cylinder holder of the same size needed, using some of my engineering skills ( when I was a chemical engineering student I had studied technical drawing ) I drew a precise sketch of the part with all the details and measurements. I checked the material of the spare part and found it to be a light but strong plastic, I thought I could use wood instead. I took the drawing to a local carpenter and asked him to make 5 samples. He did an excellent job. I used the cylinder holder in the centrifuge and it worked. I used it during the rest of my work. I defended my thesis in 1995 , and published my work in the Scandinavian Journal of Immunology. My academic career began as Assistant Professor of Immunology.
I think these are challenges that every student faces, and they are full of lessons for us , lessons of patience,resilience, but also relentless efforts to advance. I told my students who listened attentively that these lessons were just as important as scientific and research gains or maybe even more important. Don't you think so?

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