A few weeks ago, Dr. Jason Knouft, the PI of the lab where I work, was busily setting up a microscope and a variety of sterilized tools. Most of the readers of this post will not appreciate how unusual this is. While I'm spending much of my time these days at a microscope to identify the many aquatic invertebrates I've collected, Jason's research efforts are generally spent either collecting fish in rivers or analyzing data using GIS (for my non-tech/science readers, we'll say fancy mapping).
While many wise graduate students would run and hide when such unusual activities begin in the lab, I elected to observe quietly to see where the day would lead. Soon the lab bench held not only the microscope and tools, but also a container of live fish and a cooler with liquid nitrogen. At this point, I knew I would be witnessing an interesting event. Jason was going to be collecting fish tissue for some baseline genomic work.
Soon, Dr. Warren from Washington University arrived and the tissue collection began. I grabbed my phone and started taking pictures to document the process. The fish were anesthetized before being sacrificed to expand our knowledge of fish genetics. Next, brain tissue was removed, packaged, and frozen to preserve the DNA. Since these little fish have small brains, extra muscle tissue was collected and frozen, just in case. All in all, the dissection and tissue collection from 3 fish only took about 20 minutes. The work to read the DNA of these fish will take quite a bit longer.
Scientists do many things. At any given time, a scientist may be planning new studies, grant writing, and collecting data; reading, writing, and revising; compiling, analyzing, and presenting; learning, teaching, and mentoring. And there is waiting: waiting for projects to be funded, waiting for purchased resources to arrive, waiting for feedback, waiting for data to be collected, waiting for collaborators to contribute the next piece, waiting for journals to decide if your work is worthy of their publication, waiting for inspiration... Fortunately, there is so much to do as a scientist that when you are waiting to be able to continue with one task, there are at least four or five urgent tasks that you should be working on. Multitasking has always been a way of life for me, but working on my PhD is taking it to a whole new level.
Currently, I am working on two grant-funded projects. The first is an EPA funded project looking at the transport of road salt in urban stormwater. The funding of this grant has not been impacted by political events; I'm crossing my fingers that this will continue. At this point, I am mostly in the data collection phase of this project: downloading data each month from field equipment and checking to make sure everything is still in place after storms. But there is much more than just data collection going on. In order to fulfill our contract with EPA, I need to generate quarterly reports, plan and carry out public meetings, communicate my work to the general public (I'll be at St. Louis Earth Day in Forest Park if you'd like to say hi!), and make sure the results of my study are shared with the right people to make a difference (ie, publish my work). In order to generate a publication based on the data I am gathering right now, I need to become familiar with a large amount of previous work completed along the same lines as my work. This includes reports on methods of data analysis that I may use, documents that provide guidance to municipal stormwater managers, and many other scientific papers. There is a lot to do!
My second project was funded by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, a nonprofit group established in 1920 that works to stimulate interest in nature study and observation in the St. Louis area. They graciously provided funding for me to collect and identify the aquatic macroinvertebrates (small water critters) that are living in 20 streams in St. Louis County. I collected my first set of 60 samples (three from each stream) last September and October. Each of these samples included at least 3 types of critters, but many held 10 or more. Each sample also had a large amount of non-critter debris: leaves, small sticks, sand, silt, small gravel, seeds, glass and anything else you can imagine finding in an urban, suburban, or rural stream. Just yesterday, I finished sorting through those 60 samples that I collected almost 6 months ago to separate the critters from the debris and to group the critters in individual containers (mostly by order or family). I will eventually try to identify each to its species, but that will have to wait; for the next few weeks I will be heading back to those locations to collect 60 more samples to sort and identify! In the meantime I will at least make the time to count the number of types of critters I found in each location and see how that compares to the road salt measurements that have been made. Check back soon for that info!