Life in the Lab
Monday was the last day in the lab for Mrs. C before she goes for a conference, so I took advantage of her presence and talked to her about my tasks for the week, so hopefully there is some work finished by the time she is back from San Diego. Once again, I was proven how diverse the work of a scientist can be – very early during my studies I started developing my gardening skills but had to go all the way to North Carolina to become an amateur paper-modeler and painter for a few hours (Mrs. C called my afford “back to kindergarten” though).
I cannot say that my time here would me too much of a routine, yet I got an opportunity to break any possible stereotype. While Mrs. C is gone, I can feed her fish. Watching them as they start up the surface for the food is one of the best moments of the day. Then, during the day, sitting in the semi-dark office and listening to the bubbling working is so calming. Of course, at the beginning of the week, I had no idea I would need such an atmosphere so badly – in other words, each time when I realized my PCR did not work again and again.
I ran into trouble as early as Tuesday morning and needed Mrs. C’s advice so badly! However, thanks to J’s suggestions what we should do and little improvisation of mine, I moved forward by Wednesday late afternoon (I stayed in the lab till 6.30 PM).
The more time I spend in the lab and the more tasks there are for me, the higher the chance of something getting wrong. In this context, Wednesday was extremely fruitful. I began my day with a missed lab meeting on Physics/Optics/CCD cameras in the morning. Mrs. C made arrangements so I could come yet more than 30 minutes were not enough for me to find the location. I checked online before (it looked so simple) and asked so many people while searching but no one seemed to ever heard of the place. Furthermore, my first PCR in the lab did not work out at all (It seems to be tradition that whenever I try this in a new place, it never works.) and I broke a glass bottle in a very unusual way.
I kept repeating the cursed PCR both on Thursday and Friday just to find out that I was not going to have any results this week. When walking to the lab and then on the way back to the apartment, I would recap what I did and what I was supposed to do but I did not get any hint where the mistake was. On Friday morning, J went through the protocol and my notes of the individual steps with me but unfortunately, this did not help either. My only hope therefore is that once I take a break during the weekend everything will work like a charm on Monday.
To top it off, a couple of lives were lost this week – here I am talking about Mrs. C’s baby fish I was in charge of. This experience (pretty much a trauma) did not help to improve my feelings about lab-related activities that happened at the time when my stay in Raleigh reached its half. I so hope that Mrs. C can forgive me the loss of her fish and that during the remaining time in her lab, my effort in the lab brings outcome other than seemingly unfathomable failure.
Among all the bed news and unsuccess, the peak of the working week was my Tuesday lunch. I made one for myself and arranged it so nicely in my box just to forget it on the drier. When the lunch time came, I therefore asked J about her favorite place. I received a thorough review of a bunch of places at Hillsborough St and in the end, we went to Jasmine (when she was telling me about it I thought it was called Jazzman…) which was a Mediterranean place. I had an Eggplant Zaki (eggplant – surprisingly, tomato, tahini sauce, olive oil; and some kind of salty cheese which I do not know whether it got in there by mistake as the menu does not mention any cheese at all), probably a Greek dish which I liked very much.
Happened out of the Lab
The more miserable my time in the lab was, the more fun I had in my free-time. Neither one was planned and I wish there was little more balance between the two.
By Tuesday I was recovered enough to undergo another skating expedition. This time I reached what I thought was the very end of the Walnut Creek Trail. Having checked the map, I now know I can still keep going toward the place a biker whom I met told me about. I enjoyed every single minute of my 22 km and almost two hours long journey – from campus, along the river, through the fairy tale forest and to the wetland. The forest and wetland had a truly eerie atmosphere and I wish they were not located so damn far, so I could possible try to capture it.
I have been planning to go to the Pullen Park since I first passed by on my skates and on Wednesday morning, I eventually decided it should happen right today. My slow progress in the lab, and as a result of that also a late leaving, tried hard to spoil my plans but I did not allow it to happen. I did well as the park was so beautiful – definitely one of the top sites in the North Carolina’s capitol. The heart of the park was the lake accompanied by a trio of bridges across it – one bridge smoothly converting into other. Along the shore, there was a nice path to walk on (unfortunately inline skaters were not welcomed here) and admire the water body sparkling in the late afternoon sun, diverse flowers and trees scattered all round the park, as well as ducks and geese always flying or running around. You only need to be careful not to step into their droppings. Moreover, there are the following options to enjoy your time there: from paddle boats to carousel and to a ride in a miniature train round the park. During the short time I was there, the train made two rounds and I could also witness a huge gathering of drum players, belly dancers, jugglers and women of all ages doing their exercise with hula hoops. It really was a lively place and I wonder if all the people happened to be there at the same time accidentally or it was some event. I gained a feeling there might be quite a lot going on, so I better check online and see if I should return.
Thursday was a museum day and detailed description of my great time there can be found below. Getting ready for a busy weekend, I had my groceries done on Friday morning before going to the lab, so I am entirely free of any duties, and in the afternoon I made a short trip to locate a bus stop I have been trying to find for a few days, so my ride tomorrow hopefully goes smoother than the bus ride from the grocery store today (sure enough, I took a bus in the wrong direction).
While I cannot present the story of me boarding a wrong bus in a way amusing enough, I would like to share my experience of trying to buy (and actually buying) a beer in the US. This little experiment of mine had two aspects: i) see how hard/easy it is, and ii) taste it. For some reason, I thought that buying any alcohol in the USA is hard and maybe even close to impossible. In reality, the Food Lion grocery store is stocked just as well as an average Czech supermarket. However, there were two major differences: most of the beer was sold in cans (rather than glass bottles) and it took me a while to find some that would be sold in a single-item amount (and not as a package of six and more – I had no trust in American beer and did not want to end up with half a dozen cans of wish-wash beverage). Having handled all that, there was one more obstacle left: proving that I indeed was 21. She was checking my ID way too long (long enough to start saying Goodbye to the can of Strawberry Ale produced in Milwaukee, WI) and also typed something. “Is she doing the simple math or is she sending a report to my supervisor or even FBI?”
After a week long brake, there was another English Conversation Club on Friday. Just like the last time, I was warmly greeted by R who then assigned me to J (it was another J than before though). We started as a conversation duo but in a not too long time L (except for J, the only male in the group) from Thailand and a group of young women who were teachers in their home countries (Spain, Colombia, Ecuador) joined us. It was fun to talk to so many people from Latin America and I also enjoyed listening to L’s slightly confusing story about “what happened since I graduated from high school two years ago.” The girls than complained that wherever they go, they bump into someone speaking Spanish. Lucky me, the chances of meeting someone Czech seem to be very low.
DAY OF THE WEEK: Thursday July 9 – An Afternoon in the Museum of Natural Sciences
I have been thinking of going to the Museum of Natural Sciences since I passed its building the first time with M and saw the huge dinosaur skeleton up in the museum’s glass cupola. My interest grew stronger the moment I checked the museum’s website and started to learn about its many exhibits, 3D theater and labs on four floors. However, I never imagined that it could be so impressive, diverse, interactive and enjoyable (all that technically for free). The suggested donation of a dollar for the printed museum guide, was a best spent dollar ever and there is a great chance this will hold true till the end of my life or at least for a decently long period of time.
I understood that the museum stays open longer (till 9 PM) on Thursdays which turned out to be true only partially. The Nature Exploration Center would still close at 5 PM but the other part of the building, Nature Research Center, indeed stayed open four hours longer than usually. While I was initially upset that I would not be able to see everything, I realized pretty soon that it would not be possible anyway. I therefore checked an exhibition of stuffed animals right at the entrance as I had it on my list since the Fourth of July and did not want to postpone its visit any more. The exhibit included animals of all sizes – primarily birds and also several dried insect species – as well as plants and a gem. The habitat of vast majority of the species included North Carolina and I thought they did a great job in arranging the display. The feline observing the museum’s foyer looked so real that I double-checked before getting too close to it.
Next, I toured the first two floors of the Nature Exploration Center super fast, with an aim of getting a general idea of their collection(s). Indeed, I ended up super motivated to be back as soon as possible. (Do I need to go to the lab tomorrow?) Still having the marine section right on the first floor and huge whale skeletons hanging there in my mind, I hope it will not take too long to inspect them more closely. For now, let me share a little appetizer:
As for the Nature Research Center (connected with the other building via a corridor above Salisbury Street – so, while going there you are guaranteed an unusual view of an ordinary American road), that one received much more attention today. Even though I did not read all the signs and ignored the space and geology sections from a great part, I still spent unbelievable three hours there and while I was bit tired in the end (do not forget I worked before going there), I never got bored.
I saw exhibits covering a range of topics, watched a bunch of videos – from pregnant dinosaur research to whale autopsy and tuna tracking, and even tried a new profession – meteorologist. While I did very well in the hurricane prediction, I leave it up to others to do this important task. I still feel that in the lab, I can cause much less damage. For a moment I also became a member of submarine crew and gained little better understanding of how stressful it must be to be closed in such a tiny space, with mass of water above and below and pretty much no hope for help in case of emergency.
I particularly enjoyed the last two hours of my visit (about 6 to 8 PM) when – without much exaggerating – I had the whole Research Center for myself. Sure, I missed some activities not available at that time such as Micro World Investigate Lab (I felt particularly sorry for not visiting this one) but I also did not have to deal with yelling kids and a crowd of people trying to use the same interactive screens as me. I can say that such a late visit enabled me to get the most of exhibits and activities still available at that time of the day. (I definitely will be back for those I missed. What about early morning this time?)
Other sections worth mentioning were the Planet Micro and Unraveling DNA. The first one was a nice Microbiology/Virology refresher and I enjoyed sculptures of various microorganisms very much. Seeing the normally invisible creatures enormously enlarged, I will probably be extremely anxious about washing my hands for a while. The later one was literally a heaven. I enjoyed the exhibit closely related to my field primarily for these two reasons: a) after years of listening about GMOs and genetic engineering, I finally saw the GloFish; and b) the key message of both complicated graduate-level lectures and simplified museum language is the same – DNA is the almighty organic molecule on the Earth, it is unbelievable how similar a human and E. coli can be down at the molecular level and finally, it is impressive that the molecular mechanisms work perfectly and have been doing so for millions of years.
On the very same floor, there were labs where true scientists actually work (if you come at a more reasonable time of the day). I checked the Molecular Biology lab as thoroughly as the glass wall enabled me and saw the same colorful tube racks and the same Qiagen kits I have had experience with myself. It was so cool! “How is it like to go to the impressive museum building to work there and how does it feel to do your experiments while people are staring at you – pretty much like at an animal in the ZOO?” While I would like to experience it for a day, I decided I better stay closed in a lab not accessible to the public. After all, I have had enough trouble this week even without any audience.
The Naturalist Center was another favorite exhibition of mine – I underwent a short travel in time back to my childhood and enjoyed my time there as a ten year old. I matched rubber animal poops to their authors and examined a variety of specimen (insect, fish scales, snake fangs, number of plant seeds as well as stones) in the microscope. With mixed feelings of pity and impression, I stared at stuffed animals and their skulls (including that of a killer whale) as well as “pickled” ones floating in containers. There was a device that recognized an animal specimen placed on it and presented information on topics such as its habitat, distribution or diet and also played a recording of its voice. I was gently putting dead bodies on the desk, waiting when it would make a mistake. It never did. I thoroughly studied species as diverse as insect and snakes, to an alligator bone and a poor squirrel. (Squirrels are the cutest inhabits of North Carolina and then, there was that one lying still with its paws and long shaggy tail weirdly stretched. It really was a poor squirrel.) There also was a section about snakes of North Carolina, including the venomous ones. I could have learned how to tell whether the snake is poisonous or not but it seemed to involve much closer examination than I would be willing to do. So I decided that next time I meet a snake, I will just keep going. After all, the chances of snake being a threat to me are relatively low – there are almost 50 snake species in North Carolina but only 7 of them venomous. To sum my feelings about the Naturalist Center, if I had been there some five years ago, I would have not decided for a science major accidentally but from a true passion. (Thankfully, passion for discoveries can be nurtured and thanks to it, I am having a great time in Raleigh this summer.)
Other sections I covered during my first visit included that on environment protection and species conversation. Though interesting, I liked watching “movies in the Earth” better. On the outside of the NRC, there is a huge globe. Being in the museum, I figured out it is hollow and the shell is suitable for projects of stunning clips about nature – from monarch butterflies, to gems and stones, to DNA.
As in the case of the original museum building, the NRC’s ground floor was also devoted to marine life. Its dominant feature was a skeleton of the right whale called Stumpy. Over the years (when the whale was still alive) they gathered an impressive amount of information about it and shared it with the museum visitors. Knowing all the facts about Stumpy and considering my deep interest in marine creatures (and particularly cetaceans) as well as previously gained (though superficial) knowledge in Marine Biology, I almost felt that I was looking at the skeleton of someone I knew. Thus, I ended my visit of the museum little upset but also impressed by the great job they did there.
FINAL REMARKS: At the Biggest Surprises So Far
Whenever I go to Walgreens, I pass (what I call) an ice shed and each time I think so hard to figure out why I should go buy a bag of ice instead of having my own ice done in my own freezer. This is one of many thanks I will probably never understand, no matter how long I would stay, but the ice shed was definitely appreciated as a photography object.
I saw “something” the other day and I originally wanted to call it funny. However, a more proper description would be something like “misinterpreted and slightly arrogant.” While waiting for the green signal, a huge truck passed. It was all covered in starts and stripes, the Statue of Liberty was not omitted either and a huge writing said: Budweiser – The Great American Lager. “Oh, wait here! Are you so sure you got the motto right???” It was so painful to conclude they did. Czech Budweiser Budvar was founded only in 1895, while the American Anheuser-Busch business of very similar name was apparently started in 1876 by a German guy who settled in St. Louis, Missouri. I guess I have to learn to live with that.
I have commented way too much on the bus service here, yet I have to bring up this topic once more. When taking bus from the Food Lion, a mom with a daughter and baby stroller got on as well. The mother did not care about the stroller at all (her phone had the priority) and let it fall and move down the isle. A Czech bus driver would start yelling at her (and I would probably justify the driver’s behavior) but the American one stopped, calmly walked to the stroller and placed it on the appropriate spot while having chat with the little one. I was shocked both by the mother’s unconcern and the driver’s attitude. There are moments when I feel that Americans are more nice than necessary and that it is not always sincere. Situations like that, however, make me to be very careful in my judgments as they give evidence that Americans, indeed, can well be one of the friendliest nations in the world.