National Lab Travelogue: A day in the life of a graduate student visiting the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Galya Orr, Dehong Hu, Arielle Mensch, yours truly, and Julianne Troiano basking in the glory of a room filled with fluorescent microscopes at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

As a life-long nerd and science-lover, it is hard to imagine a laboratory that could get me more excited than Galya Orr’s lab at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Galya is a collaborator within the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. I had the great opportunity to travel to her lab at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), which is a scientific national user facility located at PNNL, for two separate research trips in 2014. The trip to Richland, WA is worthwhile because Galya’s is no ordinary lab: it contains a veritable treasure chest of fluorescence microscopes capable of performing super-resolution techniques such as STORM, SIM (see a SIM tutorial here), and single molecule tracking, which are some of the same techniques that were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On my most recent trip to PNNL in December 2014, I conducted research with two other CSN graduate students, Julianne Troiano from Northwestern University and Arielle Mensch from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On this trip, we performed experiments focused on understanding how nanoparticles interact with a major component of cell membranes: lipids. More specifically, these experiments were designed to track individual lipid molecules diffusing within a model cell membrane (specifically, a supported lipid bilayer) with and without nanoparticles present. This is absolutely fascinating!

Face to face with my mechanical love, the single molecule tracking microscope.

I will go into details on why these experiments are so fascinating in an upcoming blog post, but the purpose of this post is to give you an idea of what a day in the life of a graduate student on a research trip looks like. Here is the account of my last day:

4:30 AM: I must have mistakenly set my alarm last night. It feels like it is chirping at me too early this morning. I take a look at my watch, and sadly it is correct. I’m waking up a bit earlier than usual today so I can play chauffeur and deliver one of my colleagues to the airport. It is at times like this that one regrets being the only driver on the rental car agreement. I would not mind another half hour of sleep, but I pull myself out of the single bed in the PNNL Guest House – cozy for a 6’1” individual – and get ready to start my last full day in Richland, WA (as a side note, this area has some very interesting history, which you can read more about here).

5:00 AM: Arielle and I head to the airport in our rental car, Shawn Kemp. This nickname seemed appropriate not only because the car was a Chevy Sonic, but also because I am arguably the biggest Shawn Kemp and Seattle Supersonics fan ever (while I do not have a picture of Shawn Kemp the rental car, I have included a picture below that demonstrates the degree of my fan-hood).

My typical Sunday ritual of dressing up to look through my Shawn Kemp and Gary Peyton cards and reminiscing on the glory days. Fortunately I have been able to fend off my wife’s attempts to rid these items from our home!

6:00 AM: After Arielle and I say a tearful good-bye at the airport, I make a pit-stop at the local grocery store for thank-you cards for Galya and Dehong Hu (another scientist in Galya’s lab). I have been trying to do a better job saying thank you to the important people in my life, and I encourage you to do the same. Galya and Dehong provided us with a wealth of training and assistance in running and analyzing our experiments over the past two weeks, and they have helped foster my newfound love of fluorescence microscopy.

Fortunately this store also has coffee. Science is pushed forward through ingenuity and lots of hard work, but coffee is also an unsung hero (thank goodness this coffee had the right amount of bitterness).

I think we are going to need more coffee.

7:00 AM – 6:00 PM: I head into the lab and rush to do as many experiments as humanly possible in one day. Most of the day is spent rushing back and forth between preparing new samples and collecting videos using the single molecule tracking microscope.  No matter how many days and hours within those days I have worked, it always seems like I am still rushing to accomplish so much near the end of a research trip. The beauty of science is that the experiments you conduct generally lead to many more new questions than answers, and sometimes that can lead to frustrations when you are in a time crunch. The great news is that these new questions keep scientists like myself in business and ensure that there will be no shortage of work for future generations of scientists.

As an aside, here are some cool facts so you can impress your friends: the camera on the microscope is so fast that I was collecting 267 images per second, and that is not even the fastest speed! Also, the camera needs to be cooled to −80°C in order to collect very clear (highly resolved) images.

The laser table is a critical component of the single molecule tracking microscope. Take a good look – there will be a quiz on each component and its location at the end.

6:00 PM: Before I know it, it is 6:00 and I have dinner plans with friends. This may come as a shock to some of you, but scientists do have friends beyond their favorite pipette or scientific instrument of choice. I meet up for a lovely dinner with a former colleague from my soil science days, her husband, and their inquisitive, hilarious 2-year-old.

8:00 PM: As much as I would like to stay and talk with these fellow bicycle lovers, I need to get back to the lab to spend a few hours finishing off experiments and transferring much of the data we have collected to my hard drive. There is no shortage of data generated when collecting super-resolution images and movies. During the couple weeks we spent at PNNL, we collected hundreds of gigabytes of data. I finish up the data transfer, pack up my belongings, and say good-bye to the lab once again. I take one last stroll down the main hallway of the Environmental and Molecular Science Laboratory building. This hallway is no joke, it takes several minutes to walk from one end to the other (see photo below). Leaving this lab is always bittersweet. I am so excited to return to my wife, other family, friends, dog, chickens, and bicycles, but I also love the research capabilities at my fingertips in this lab.  Hopefully we will meet again, soon.

This is no optical illusion – the main hallway goes on and on!

11:00 PM: I head out to meet up with another friend, a student at Washington State University Tri-Cities that I met at the PNNL Guest House during my first visit. We laugh over funny internet videos while enjoying a delicious barrel-aged porter.

12:30 AM: Time to head back to the Guest House and cozy up back in the single bed for a few winks of sleep. 4:00 AM and my early flight back to Wisconsin will be here soon.