Home » A Cellular Symphony

A Cellular Symphony

There’s something grand and orchestral about laboratory spaces—micropipettes click, centrifuges whiz, (and) aspirators whistle(,-) while the biosafety cabinet and cell incubator hum from the corner of the room. And there’s something inspiring about standing in front of this orchestra, smooth gloves and flowing lab coat on, ready to conduct a symphony of cells and chemicals.

In practice, admittedly, science isn’t always this harmonious—experiments fail, necks cramp after hours of pipetting liquids into tiny Eppendorf tubes, and antibodies are added to the wrong samples by novice undergraduate researchers, followed by panicked troubleshooting. Yet as I walk into MIT’s building 56, home to a cluster of biology labs, after trekking across campus through a slight April drizzle, I’m ready for the lyricism of the lab.

The lab was a familiar concept from even the earliest years of my childhood. My parents, both chemistry professors, threw around words like “research manuscript” and “NMR spectroscopy”[1] before I was old enough to do more than toddle around our house and listen to them with wide eyes. Over dinner, I’d hear my mother update my father about her progress that day—their experiments had yielded some interesting spectra, but she was behind on her grant proposal, and they needed to buy new probes for their lab’s spectrometer. Even before I learned what chemistry really was, I traveled to conferences with them, from Stowe, Vermont to Rio de Janeiro, and sat in the back of the echoey auditoriums and meeting rooms where they gave their research talks, once even taking notes and pretending to understand what they meant by “chemical shift”[2] and “the Hamiltonian operator,”[3] much to their amusement.

My favorite excursions were on school holidays and snow days, when I’d accompany my father to his office and rifle through the molecular modeling kits sitting on his shelf next to stacks of Nature and Science journals. One snowy day in third grade, with my father’s help, I stuck two small white spheres to a red ball with the plasticky links that represented chemical bonds and formed H2O, a proud grin crossing my face when I realized what I’d created.

Back at school, my friends told me about the cartoons they’d watched and hills they’d  sledded on their days off. I didn’t want to tell them about the comforting smell of the journals in my father’s office and the molecules I’d created, so I described the miniature snowman I’d built in our front yard after returning home, a statue of frozen water. But what if building water molecules was how I wanted to spend my days?

Water drips off my umbrella as I place it outside the door of 56-332, the space used by my bioengineering lab class for workshops where we practice hands-on lab techniques. Today we’re culturing cells, learning how to trypsinize[4], subculture, and seed them—the cellular equivalents of watering, feeding, and repotting houseplants. I pick up a flask of cells from the 37ºC incubator, the reddish nutrient media sloshing around at the bottom of the container, and set it gently on the metal surface of the tissue culture hood, next to serological pipettes and conical tubes filled with fresh media and enzyme cocktails. Our lab instructor ushers us over to the microscope on the lab bench next to the window, where she’s placed a slide of cells for us to view. I peer through the eyepiece and see a constellation of star-like cells, long processes and filaments stretching between cell bodies that overlap and prod at each other. Each flask, no bigger than my hand, contains about 500,000 cells, our instructor says—a whole cellular galaxy, just beyond our eyes and ears.

By the time I entered high school, there was little question that my home was in the galaxy of the natural world. At my school’s annual Club Day in freshman year, I pushed through the crowd of students in our linoleum-tiled cafeteria, heading straight for the tables in the back that advertised competitions like Science Olympiad, Envirothon, and Ocean Bowl and groups like the Girls Coding Club, penciling in my name on their sign-up sheets. Over dinner that day, I reported to my parents what I’d signed up for, and my father patted me on the shoulder with a smile. “That’s my scientific girl.”

I spent the next four years preoccupied by these competitions, learning the parlance of each: “ED” was shorthand for the Science Olympiad event Experimental Design and “A and P” for Anatomy and Physiology, while “A buzzer” and “B buzzer” referred to the members of the Ocean Bowl team who specialized in physical oceanography and marine biology. By senior year, I was fluent in not only competition-speak but also the biology-speak that came from my zealous studying, throwing around phrases like “pelagic marine gastropod morphology”[5] and “allosteric inhibitors.”[6] As my parents revised manuscripts and analyzed data at their desks in the evening, I prepared binders of notes on amphibians and reptiles, read textbooks on microbial taxonomy, and tested how quickly I could answer questions about marine zooplankton in my room upstairs. More than anything, I wanted to learn about the knowns and unknowns of the subjects I studied; in order to answer questions about the living world, I needed to know which answers we had and which we didn’t.

In my last year of high school, our team attended MIT’s Science Olympiad invitational, a competition in January when high schoolers from across the country swarmed the Institute’s campus, their excited chatter filling the Infinite Corridor. After a long day of tests and experiments, our team filed into a row of green and blue seats in the back of Kresge Auditorium. MIT’s invitational was visited by some 80 teams from across the country, so our team attended the ceremony without expectations of success, a hard fact to explain to my mother as she drove two other teammates and me to MIT that morning and asked if we thought we would win.

I jiggled my leg in my seat as the announcers reported the results for Disease Detectives, an epidemiology event I had competed in. A New York school had just won second—and suddenly the announcers were declaring Newton North High School the winner of the event. Newton North—us. A wave of disbelief and elation crashed over me. I sprang up from my seat and ran to the stage with my partner, almost tripping up the steps to accept my medal. I looked out at the sea of faces in the auditorium as the photographer snapped shots of us, then ushered us off the stage. First place. A first for Newton North, and for me. My medal seemed to gleam, warm and bright against my chest, as I jogged back to my seat and accepted high-fives from my teammates.

My team went out to dinner that night, discussing the competition and all the homework we had to catch up on. “If anyone would win an event at MIT Science Olympiad, it’d be Laura,” remarked Alice, one of my friends and partners on the team. “She lives and breathes Olympiad.” Back at home, I showed my medal to my parents. “Congratulations!” my father exclaimed. “Although I must say I’m not surprised.” My mother peered at my medal. “Did you win any others?” she asked expectantly. I balked. “Uh, no, just this one. But it’s a pretty big deal to win at the MIT invitational.”

As I headed upstairs to my room, my medal swung slightly from its place around my neck, heavy and cool. Perhaps Alice was right—I lived and breathed Olympiad. Of course I would win and should have won first place, in a competition that’d had my name on it since my first days in Newton North, in the auditorium of a STEM-obsessed institute I’d been accepted into that year, as the daughter of two scientists who expected no less. But what if that wasn’t enough—and yet, what if I wanted to live and breathe more?

Our instructor tells us our cells need to be dislodged from the bottom of their flasks and fed new nutrient media—they’ve spent too much time breathing out CO2 in their current flasks. I scan the protocol in front of me: extract old media, add enzymes to separate cells from the flask, and replenish with new nutrients. I soon fall into a rhythm working under the tissue culture hood: unscrew cell culture flask, open reagent tube, attach tip to serological pipette, extract liquid with a whirr, dispense in new dish, and dispose of pipette tip. The pipette feels smooth and pliable in my hand, and the tips make a satisfying clink every time I drop them into the biosafety trash bin. With my cells finally dressed up in their new orangey nutrient media, I write my name and date neatly on my dish, then set it gingerly inside the incubator to let the cells breathe and digest their fresh chemicals. Even cells need their rest.

This spring, after a year of virtual lab life cultivating lines of code and attempting to breathe life into in silico analyses for my remote undergraduate research project on phytoplankton biochemistry, I began looking for a new lab to join, ready to get my hands dirty again in the post-pandemic world. I met with a graduate student from a bioengineering group specializing in cancer immunology, listening as she told me about her work—optimizing lentiviral display platforms for studying T cell antigen recognition[7], verbiage I couldn’t fully understand but immediately loved.

“So, what are your scientific interests?” she asked once she’d finished describing her research.

“I’m really interested in translational biological research, and I especially like immunology and neuroscience work that tackles problems through an engineering lens,” I responded with a grin and my usual explanatory hand motions. Labs I’d previously worked in had studied the neurobiology of motor disorders, or used computational methods to analyze large biological datasets. “I like using analytical methods to study biological systems, and I like knowing that my work may have meaningful applications.”

“That’s great,” she smiled. “Right up the alley of what I do in the lab.”

“And what do you like to do for fun?” she asked. I paused. Fun. Science was fun, lab was fun—what else was there? “I—I like writing for MIT’s newspaper, and hanging out with friends, I guess,” I stammered. I wracked my brain—what else did I do for fun? Fun had always been building water molecules, winning Science Olympiad events, feeling the satisfaction of data well-analyzed. In the daily text conversations we’d started when I entered college, my father would update me on the fun he’d had “starting to draft a paper about the bioenergetics of bioluminescence,”[8] or the satisfaction of “NMR data coming together nicely” and “getting promising spectra with a new method.”

The graduate student accepted my clumsy response gracefully, telling me about going hiking in her spare time, but even after our meeting had wrapped up, my lack of a satisfying answer itched. Science was what I did for fun—and my parents would’ve nodded proudly had they heard that answer—but what if I wanted more to that answer, an answer of science, and?

After giving my cells their ten minutes in the 37ºC incubator, I extract my dish and pull a microscope slide and fresh conical tube from the stack next to the incubator. I tilt the dish back and forth to prepare my cells for seeding, then extract 7.5 mL with a serological pipette and dispense the liquid into the fresh tube. I draw a tiny bead from the original dish and drop it on the slide, placing it under the lens and peering through the eyepiece to view my cells. There they are—this time a bit rounder, free-floating in the media and swaying gently in the nutrient media, confirmation that they enjoyed their incubation and are ready for their new home in the conical tube. I slide the tube into the rack in the incubator, proud of myself and my cells.

It’s still drizzling as I leave building 56 for my dorm on the other side of campus. I glance back at the building, where the window on the third floor is still illuminated against the gray sky. Inside, I’m sure, my instruments are ready to be conducted into a symphony once again, grand, all-consuming, moving, but outside, staring up at the glass gateway to the lab, I hear only the quiet, calm, necessary reprieve of the rain. For now, the symphony can wait.

NOTES

[1] Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is a technique used in chemistry to determine the structure of molecules by examining local magnetic fields around the nuclei in atoms.

[2] A feature of atomic nuclei that is measured in NMR spectroscopy, used to provide information about the structure of molecules.

[3] A function in quantum mechanics that reflects the total energy of a system of nuclei and electrons.

[4] To separate cells from the bottom of their flask by adding an enzyme that breaks down the proteins used by the cells to adhere to their surface.

[5] Pelagic marine gastropods are snails and slugs that live in the open ocean, while morphology refers to the form and structure of biological organisms.

[6] Molecules that bind enzymes at sites other than their primary active site and inhibit their activity.

[7] Lentiviruses are a family of viruses widely used in biological research for gene delivery and other purposes. T cells are immune cells that recognize foreign substances, or antigens, to stimulate an immune response. This project focuses on engineering a lentivirus-based platform for studying the function and specificity of T cells.

[8] A phenomenon in which living organisms produce and emit their own light.

 

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Laura Schmidt-Hong

About the Author

Laura is a member of the class of 2023 majoring in Course 20 (Biological Engineering) and minoring in Course 9 (Brain and Cognitive Sciences). She grew up in central Iowa and currently lives in the Greater Boston Area with her parents and younger sister. On campus, she copy edits for MIT’s student-run newspaper The Tech, has UROPed in course 9, 12, and 20 labs, and is a member of the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority. She enjoys hanging out with her friends, exploring new places in and out of Boston, making well-organized spreadsheets, and curating her Spotify playlists. Laura believes in the power of reflecting on one’s experiences and how they shape us into the people we are, whether through writing, conversation, or a good playlist.

Subject: 21W.022

Assignment:  Essay II. Experimenting with Visual Forms of Autobiographical Narrative