And what is it that you’re working on?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Williams lab.

Up until now, I’ve paired together over 550 fish for breeding. I’ve also scored over 1000 zebrafish embryos exposed to treatments, and I’ve listened to 40 podcasts throughout that process just in the past few weeks. However, I’m not looking back at these numbers with negativity. I’ve enjoyed finding ways to become more efficient with breeding, I grow more confident in my scoring skills with each new fish, and Radiolab produces some high quality, thought-provoking content. I simply bring up these numbers because I’m trying to find the best way to describe my experience with this project thus far.

There are some students here at Bates who have developed these perfect twenty-second elevator pitches for what it is that they’re working on. While concision has never been a strength of mine (see my previous blog post), I’ve only found it harder to wrap up my experience into a couple of sentences when I’m presented with that ubiquitous question of “What’s your thesis on?”

My emotional investment in this subject matter that I’m studying grows with each temporal investment I make into it, and somehow delivering broad statements in everyday conversation about these subjects doesn’t feel like enough. I don’t just want to say that I’m studying transcription factors. I want to talk and collaborate and learn more about Nfe2 and Nrf3 and describe to people the smaller details that I’ve learned about their impacts on cell differentiation and detoxification. I want to be able to describe my investigation of these subjects more as the journey that it is, so that others can, for example, laugh with me about the rather comically unsuccessful microinjection practice that I had last week before I discuss how I plan to improve.

I’ve already developed an attachment to this project that I didn’t quite expect to gain so early in my work. And it feels like a bit of a disservice to this attachment of mine to leave lab after a five-hour session of observing and measuring and judging and comparing and researching and growing only to tell a friend that I was “looking at morphological changes in zebrafish embryos exposed to Mono(ethylhexyl) phthalate.” When I couple this feeling with the thought that this was a project that was passed down to me from a previous Bates student and it is something that I will eventually hand off to an underclassman, the importance of this project is increased in my mind.

I am lucky to have my lab mates, however, to speak a bit more candidly about where I am in my project and where they are with theirs. Just today I scored morphologies in the lab while Alex prepared a slew of samples for ChIP and Maddie mounted some fish for use in her new light microscopy method. We pretty easily were able to express on a more subjective and nuanced level what the trials of our respective methods were as we encountered them, and in that way there was a level of sharing and understanding that I don’t usually have when talking to people on campus about my project. The fact that we don’t all know each other’s projects to the same extent is what makes this subjectivity even more important. Alex, Maddie, or Quang will ask me questions that make me think about and describe my subject in new ways, and when I do that I’m only learning more.

Maybe these observations are simple and in some cases even unnecessary to describe, but I feel as though working in the Williams lab is providing me with an opportunity that requires my reflection. I’m not just in this lab to gain a technical skill set or to learn about some important biochemical mechanisms. I’m learning what it means to own a project and be the person who most closely knows the personal impact that I have on that project and the impact that that project has on me as a person. Since this project has become a part of me and will definitely have an impact on the way I think in professional and academic settings, I need to be critical as I reflect on what I’ve experienced. I just also need to learn to be more effective in relaying what I’ve learned so that I may in turn receive new perspectives on my investigations. It’s the considerations of other people from other academic backgrounds that I seek when I describe my ever-changing view of what I’m studying, and I often am not sure of the best way to elicit these perspectives from people. This is why I have difficulty responding to that big question (see title).