genetics research day-in-the-life work/life-balance

Juggling teaching, research, and outreach

Life in the balance

I’m a up-and-coming molecular biologist, and I study genetics, evolution, and development. But what do I actually do all day?

If I ask to you imagine a scientist, you’ll probably summon up images of white lab coats and coke-bottle-thick glasses, middle-aged white men working at sterile lab benches with various instruments and chemicals. But if I asked you to imagine what a scientist does all day…you may have more trouble with that.

I’m a biologist. More specifically, I’m a third year PhD candidate in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. What does all that mean? It means I study organisms that evolve (more on that later, I’m sure), and I’m coming to the end of the middle of my graduate career. I’ve passed my qualification exams, which in my program means that I took a 3-hour-long oral test on various subjects related to my field. Now I need to develop, present, and defend an extensive body of research in order to achieve my doctoral degree. But what exactly do I do all day? The answer to that question really depends on the day – so here’s a snapshot of one of mine, to give you a better idea of what it means to be a grad student.

Monday, 2/8/2016


I’ve overslept! That’s what I get for staying out to make sure that the Broncos were going to make up for their crushing defeat two years ago. I really could care less about football and was proudly sporting my personalized Bruins jersey the whole game. But it was a nice excuse to get together with some of my friends from OEB as well as their significant others for a potluck style shindig.

9:30 am

I walk in, late, to our first lab meeting of the semester. My advisor jokes about how he was late as well, and we talk briefly about “lab business”, which involves answering questions like who is going to come in over the next few weekends to feed and check on our fish, when are we expecting to see some new fish arriving from Africa, and who will be presenting what at the next few lab meetings. Next, we launch into a discussion of a recent paper from our field.

11:00 am

I have to run upstairs to a colleague’s lab to start a piece of equipment – a centrifuge – that will help me to complete my lab work for the morning. I need it to be cold before I spin down the results of a reaction I ran the day before. The tubes have to spin for about 30 minutes to separate the RNA probe I synthesized yesterday from the solution it’s currently suspended in. I’ll be using that probe to try and figure out where the gene I’m interested in is expressed in developing fish embryos.

11:45 am

My probes have spun down, and I run back upstairs to collect my precious tubes. I have to take out all of the liquid and hope that the invisible RNA probe is clinging to the side of the tubes, so I can start the five day protocol I need to run tomorrow. I have to check whether there’s any probe using a technique called gel electrophoresis. Basically, this is a way of separating DNA and RNA fragments based on their size. I already have a gel ready to go, so I can check whether or not there’s actually anything in my tubes after I take off the excess liquid.

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Fig. 1 The results of a gel electrophoresis – bands of white indicate presence of RNA or DNA

12:15 pm

My gel is running, and I nervously await the results while eating my lunch and answering a few emails. I also take some of the data I collected late last week from a different (though related) experiment and type it into the Excel spreadsheet I’ve created for that experiment.

12:45 pm

Success! I have probe, which means that tomorrow I can finally begin the week-long process of figuring out where the gene I’m interested in is expressed during development. You only find out if the experiment worked on the last day, which makes it exciting and nerve-wracking. But it’s a really useful technique to have in my arsenal, since I can potentially tailor it to work with any gene and any organism.

1:00 pm

An undergraduate student I work with comes in to use the computer. He’s doing some data collection for me right now, but he’s eager to dip his toes into the world of molecular biology. Today, he asks me some questions about a few papers I’ve sent him that use the very same technique I’ll be using tomorrow. It’s a good chance for me to explain the procedure to him, testing my own understanding of it.

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Fig. 2 The results from a gene expression study in developing fly embryos. Deep purple indicates gene expression.

1:15 pm

I’m running across a very snowy campus to get to my Public Engagement & Communication class on time. Today we’re supposed to talk about some readings and also present a two minute “story” about our science based on a guest lecture given last week.

3:30 pm

Due to the worsening snow, our professor decided to let us go early. When I get back to lab, I email back and forth with my teaching assistantship supervisor to talk about our goals for the week. I also write up two advertisements for events run by the Graduate Women in STEM group – as the chair of the communications committee, this is one of my weekly responsibilities.

4:30 pm

I have to edit a post for another blog, which focuses on marine science. Even though the fish I study live in fresh water, it’s still a cool opportunity for me to practice outreach writing. Today’s post examines the strange reproductive behavior of anglerfishes, in honor of Valentine’s Day.

5:30 pm

I have a little brainpower left, so I go ahead and start on this post. When I finish, I’ll head home for the day. I have a pretty calico cat waiting anxiously for me to feed her. Once I start a load of laundry and cook dinner for myself, we’ll probably cuddle up on the couch so I can work a little on my manuscript and then catch up on Downton Abbey.

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Fig. 3 My cat, Nika, “helping” me grade papers last year

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