These past weeks have been the most exciting ones I have spent in the lab. They also have been the weeks where I have worked the hardest and most meaningfully.
I started this HHMI experience discussing the issue of an “imposter” complex. I almost could not believe I made a decision to take a year off in a new place, and wondered why anyone would give me this opportunity. When I came into this new environment, it was a struggle to acquire the basic skills to carry out some experiments. I really was starting from ground zero in stem cell research even though I had research experience. iPS culture is so finicky. The cells take forever to grow, and red blood cell differentiation protocols take about 3 weeks. But, as time wore on, I learned a bit (LIKE BASICS OF USING LSR FORTESSA). However, my skills beyond basic iPS culture did not feel like they were growing. Cells kept on dying during my RBC differentiation protocols as I was trying to get the hang of them, and it really seemed like it would be nearly impossible to model SCA at all this year.
Then my iPS lines stopped growing. I went to pick up some new ones, that seemed to be growing well, but were actually mycoplasma positive, and had to start over once again.
By early November, I had much more time than cells, floundering, and unsure of how I would practically get to where I needed to go. Oh, and I also had to give a 1 hour talk to my entire lab + PI in a month. **COLLAPSES**
With the help of amazing mentors, old and new, within my lab, I started to shift focus and start working with a different iPS cell system that is more amenable to doing experiments in a shorter time frame. Deadlines can be the worst, but also the best way to pull yourself together and rally people to work alongside you. At first, I was just dreading the prospect of a formal lab meeting, but by the time it happened, I was so grateful for the opportunity to share what I had accomplished with my laboratory in the past 5 months or so.
I spent a few nights in lab until very ungodly hours, and I was not alone. And, together we pulled off some really incredible experiments with amazing results (which of course must be repeated) but SO EXCITING.
Most of the time, things in lab do not work, but when something does, it’s such an exhilarating feeling. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s those small victories that drive people to do what they do. I had my first during these crazy weeks of hell.
Now, I am so incredibly thankful that my cell cultures were dying. If not, I probably would have continued doing the same thing, and perhaps may not have been as open to trying something new. And, I had more time to devote to a new iPS system. Progress is often born out of some frustration. I thought I was at a dead end, but it was really just a new beginning.
After 2.5 hours of sleep the night before, I gave the lab meeting, and I think it went well! Somehow, I was able to take all the seemingly disparate experiments and weave them together to tell a story.
After lab meeting, I thawed some cells for a new experiment and dashed off to San Diego for the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting!
I stayed at the Horton Grand Hotel, which felt very old and wasn’t the ritziest place I’ve lodged, but after a surprise UPGRADE (complimentary of course), I got in the largest room I’ve ever slept in on my own. With a king-sized bed, two flat screens, a kitchen, desk, seating area, two large closets, and a fire place with a real fire in it, I had more than I certainly needed. I was bummed that my mom and sister didn’t come with me this year because of all this space! I watched a lot of The Crown on Netflix (HIGHLY RECOMMEND by the way) and felt Queen Elizabeth and I were practically the same person!
ASH was amazing, just like last year. I did not present this time, which made this meeting a different experience. I was able to take the meeting in and just enjoy it instead of being stressed. I was able to meet up with old friends and mentors as well.
I attended lectures that all were of great interest to me. I focused on the hemoglobinopathies, red cell disorders, and selected topics in stem cell biology. It was at this meeting where I started to think more deeply about how I have differentiated as a young scientist. A few years ago, I do not think I would have felt as comfortable sitting in the talks that I did here at ASH. I knew I was interested in sickle cell anemia, but was still unsure of how to approach it or how I’d like to make an impact. I’m still figuring that out, but it’s clear that my basic science muscles are bulking up. One of my friends, also interested in sickle cell outcomes research, kept telling me during the conference, “You’re such a basic science person” as I would chose those talks over epidemiology of SCA and etc. It was strange for me to hear, because I didn’t quite believe it, but as I attended these lectures I kept on thinking: How can this inform my research in the lab? And, perhaps this is something I’m actually becoming. We all fall on some kind of spectrum. In my lab, I am clearly the “medical person” while with my peers in medicine, I am the “science” person. It’s really interesting how your environment impacts how you are received/understood.
What I loved the most about this meeting, and ASH in general was it’s focus on Sickle Cell Anemia. ASH has started a SCD coalition with the goal of curing this disease in a few years. It’s the first disease-focused initiative they have done! There are certainly some drugs (particularly p-selectin) inhibitors in the pipeline as well. People are making this disease a priority, and I am very much looking forward to entering into medicine at a time when more can be done for these patients. This is why I want to be a hematologist, and it’s a very exciting time to be one.
There you have it. An orthodox blog post. I’ve gone off topic for a few weeks. I’ve processed the election, interpersonal struggles, as well as challenged you to think about the value you put on particular metrics for success. Thanks for your patience, and thank you so much for reading!