Jan 08

My Buckyball Creation

For Xmas I got a supercool geek toy, Buckyballs.  Along with everybody else on the internets, here’s what I have decided to build with mine!

Buckyball Art

Yep, that IS a pyramid holding up a perfect sphere.  And yes, that is a cute picture of my old dog in the background.

Dec 02

Glow On Little Microbes, Glow ON!

Motile bacteriaThe semester is drawing to a close, so I thought I’d share a bit of what’s going on with me…

First of all, after a full rotation in Dr. Stein’s laboratory, I’ve transitioned into Dr. Stewart’s lab. While Stein Lab was very interesting, I think it was a little too genetic for my interests and really didn’t work for me personally. It’s a shame too because all the people there are really doing some important stuff. At any rate, I admit I feel much more at home in Stewart Lab.

Dr. Stewart studies motility and signal transduction. While those two terms may not be familiar to the average reader, they are explained easily enough. Motility is simply the ability to “move.” Bacteria move through a system called “chemotaxis,” where they can sense good chemicals “attractors” or bad chemicals “repellers” in their environment. For example, food might be considered “good” and an antibiotic might be considered “bad.” When they see an attractor they continue to go straight. When they see a repeller, they tumble randomly until they move in a beneficial direction (which activates straight swimming). Their movement is controlled by whether their flagella are moving clockwise or counter-clockwise.

How do bacteria “know” a good chemical from a bad one? How does that information influence the flagella? This is what Dr. Stewart and I are working on. The system for relaying such information is called signal transduction. Receptors on one end of the bacteria recognize components of the environment. Somehow the proteins in the rest of the cell carry signals from the receptor all the way to the motor of the flagella.

While there is a pretty good model for how this works in most bacteria, we have chosen a less widely known Bacillus species, Bacillus megaterium, to use as a model we can visualize with fluorescent markers.  Essentially B. megaterium translates to “great beast” in English, which suits it because it is about 5 times larger than E. coli, one of the most commonly used bacteria.

So far I’ve spent my rotation measuring the length of each B. megaterium strain and testing it for motility on a special growth media.  Now, after several weeks of little changes here and there, I’ve successfully transformed one of the strains so that it glows green under fluorescent light.

Check back in a little while…I should have an image of said bacterium for your viewing pleasure soon…assuming it’s ok with my PI and all.

[Bacteria Illustration from TreeHugger]

Oct 24

A Little Look into MPRI

Ok, so this may be a tad confusing but it is worth it if you wanna know a little more about my program.  I am part of Cell Bio and Molecular Genetics (CBMG) in Maryland’s Graduate School.  In a kind of tangential association with the grad programs, MPRI (detailed below) pulls together many labs from many departments and helps them connect all of their collective resources.  

While the lab I’m currently rotating isn’t specifically in MPRI, a number of my professors star in the following video and in general it gives you a pretty good idea about what I am doing with myself.

For more info check out their website!

Sep 22

Reflections on the First Month

Alrighty, well it’s been a little over a month since I started this whole grad school experiment so I figured I’d offer up my experience thus far.

The other day I was considering how I should think about my work, my courses, and the social wackiness that makes up a graduate community. Often I would be sitting in one lecture and literally worrying about the NEXT ONE! While maybe other, more studious students have probably experienced this many times, I had not until recently. I’ve always had a very laid back approach to school in general, but now that I have so much coming at me all at once, I’m beginning to legitimately worry about my classes and maintaining my position at The University.


Amidst all these considerations of school and scholarly work ethic, I have determined that I am not the first to go down this road and I’m certainly not the worst to attempt it. Some of my peers’ skills, knowledge, and experience have surprised and intimidated me. Initially that got me thinking that I was in the wrong boat.

Time spent in my research laboratory has somewhat quieted these fears because I know, if I let myself think rationally, that while some of the best students around me might know more about one thing or another, I am much more comfortable in my lab than they would be. This is not because I am particularly awesome at microbiology, but simply that I do actually have a passion for the kind of pure research that my lab is conducting and most of the others have interests that lie elsewhere. I’d hate to see the world of science if all the people were like me (or if people like me were totally absent).

On the same vein, inventing a social life from scratch has been a bit challenging. While I’ve been able to become close with most of my peers in CBMG, branching out much further has been a challenge to say the least.  Other grad students seem to pigeonhole themselves away in their labs and offices, making them hard to meet and harder to get to know.

There are seemingly millions of undergrads all over campus but there is this strange barrier that most of us grads feel holding us back from joining in their activities.  To some extent it feels like we’ve moved on to another level, and to some extent I think I feel like I’ve lost the chance to do what they’re doing.

Overall, I think the message of the first month is to slow down, take a step back, and get some perspective. While the exams are more important than maybe undergrad ones were, I don’t believe they’re anything I can’t handle and if I do run into trouble, I feel that the department and some of my peers have the will to help me through tough spots.  Socially, I guess I’m going to just try experimenting and seeing if I can carve out a little friendly space here in the wilds of Maryland.

Aug 25

Now Into The Brotherhood of Science…

After some wacky days and wacky schedules, my life is starting to shake itself out. It reminds me of a metal ball bouncing down between two inclined planes in a “V” shape. A meeting with one of our professors here at Maryland (followed by my attending his laboratory’s weekly meeting) has led to a laboratory rotation studying Neisseria gonorrhea.

“…typical intracellular gram-negative diplococci, and pleomorphic extracellular gram-negative organisms, which is diagnostic for gonococcal urethritis”

While the layman probably thinks of the organism as a dirty disease that shouldn’t be discussed, the vast amount that we have yet to learn about N. gonorrhea is staggering and perfect for somebody like me. Sexually transmitted diseases have a cultural aspect to them not only because of their transmission, but because of how long they have lived in some sort of relationship with our species. By learning about these diseases, we are on some ways learning more about ourselves.

From the few brief meetings I’ve had, my laboratory rotation (about 6 weeks in length) will include locating a gene on one of the massive genomics databases, designing the reagents (primers) needed to clone that gene into a bacteria, and the process of cloning the gene into said bacteria. I asked my professor how long it would take HIM to do the project. He quoted me about a 5 day turnaround. It’s going to take ME about 6 weeks! Even if I fail to complete the process, I will have learned a lot about the process of cloning, a valuable skill in almost any laboratory.

While I’m always intimidated by how little I know and how much I have to learn, I am constantly surprised by how much I DO know and DO understand whenever I attend meetings or lectures. Realizing this has given me the confidence I will need to begin my journey toward a Ph.D.

[Image from CDC and is Public Domain]