I’m taking a day off.
Well, kinda. I’m staying home, but I’m still working so it’s about as close to a day off as I’ve had in the past year. It can get crazy in the lab and I can end up being so distracted that in the ten to twelve hours I’m there very little actually gets done. Also, I’m getting burnt out due to the stress of science.
Ever wonder what a scientist does? Then I’ll tell you (I’m assuming you said “yes”).
These days science is highly technique heavy which means two things. One, the research is incredibly interesting and typically quite solid. Two, there is loads of failure and data interpretation can be rather difficult. A relatively common technique we currently use to understand neurons is called patch clamping for reasons that will shortly become obvious. Exactly what I do is called slice physiology since I’m patch clamping in a thick slice of brain. Anyway, let’s get to the technique.
We take a mouse/rat and deeply anesthetize it, then pump a very cold, oxygenated saline solution into the heart to perfuse the brain. This step serves to rid the brain of blood and rapidly cool it to ensure minimal death of the tissue. We then remove the brain immersed in the cold saline solution, glue it to a pre-chilled metal plate, and then place that metal plate in another pre-chilled basin filled with the chilled saline solution. We then use a machine called a vibratome to cut “thick” sections of brain tissue between 250-350 microns thick (roughly the thickness of 3-4 slices of standard paper). We collect those sections and place them at an elevated temperature to help them recover from the trauma induced by the slicing. The whole process takes about an hour.
After 30-40 minutes at the elevated temperature the slices are ready to use. We place them under a microscope and visualize individual neurons that we will want to record from. The rig we use is actually quite impressive looking (an example) and we get images that look something like this.
And that’s something similar to what you SHOULD see. If that’s what you see then your job is easy and you can go ahead and get nice recordings easily (which is what that blueish thing coming from the left of the image is doing). However, the image above is from a very young animal and is of an area that is very easy to visualize, both of which lead to clear images and relatively easy experiments. I have to use six-month old animals (cells die extremely easily) and record from an area where there are so many neural fibers running through that it’s difficult to see anything, meaning that even my best days suck. Yesterday I just couldn’t take any more of it. Four straight hours of trying to get a decent cell and I may have gotten one.
I wanted to kill someone. That’s why I needed a day off. I deserve this.