Commentary / PhD Environment

A day in the life of a protein biochemist…

This post is by Sophie Powell. Sophie is currently a PhD Student in the Faculty of Life Sciences.

When I tell people that I’m a scientist they often ask what I’m researching, to which I reply with the general aims of my PhD project (which I’m not going to bore you with here!). But then they go on to ask ‘So what do you actually do every day?’. This is more difficult to answer; actual tasks can vary so much from day to day and more often than not we use techniques that people may not have heard of to answer questions that may even seem to not be relevant to the aim of the project. It can get complicated!

When people imagine what a biochemist does every day they no doubt picture a sparkling white laboratory filled with balding men in white coats mixing coloured, bubbling liquids together, generating lots of smoke and then shouting ‘Eureka!’. Firstly, a laboratory is NOT sparkly clean with so many chemicals lying around, we don’t all have crazy grey hair and it takes years and years of hard work and most importantly failure to get to that eureka moment. This is the thing that I think people find the hardest to understand; everything in science takes so much longer than you anticipate and the result of one experiment often throws up a hundred more questions than it answers!

I thought I’d write this post to try to shed some light on what a typical day in the life of a scientist might look like. In fact I’m going to tell you what I did today, exactly as it happened, unedited. It was a frustrating day and far from glamorous, but then, that’s science! So if you would like to step into my comfy Nike lab trainers, allow me to talk you through a log of my day…



6:15 AM: Alarm goes off. Grunt and hope it goes away. It doesn’t.

6:30 AM: Finally embrace that Wednesday is not just going to disappear. Get up and make tea, mmm tea.

8 AM: Get into uni. Check emails  with another cup of tea and plan day.

9 AM: Remembered there is a lab meeting, make third cup of tea. Meeting is interesting as other lab members explain what they’ve been up to for the past few weeks, however the areas of research are muscle cell cultures and genomic technology; do not really understand any of what is being discussed, hope no-one asks for opinion. They don’t, thankfully.

10 AM: Meeting over, time to go into the lab. Lab coat on and into the side lab where this week’s equipment is based; a fermentor for culturing E. coli bacteria in a very small, windowless room. This is day 3 of a 5-day protocol to grow bacteria which will make lots of the protein that I am working with in my project. Continue setting up fermentor which involves a lot of plugs, tubes and wires which must be assembled in the correct way. Have only done this twice before with help so hope that assembly is correct when done alone this time. Not sure on some parts, but the only person who can help is on holiday so hope for the best, the motto of academia. Dance a bit to the 80’s music on the radio because nobody is watching.

Which bit goes where?

Which bit goes where?

11 AM: Set up bottles of acid and alkali which keep the pH of the bacteria at 7 so they stay happy and grow. Notice not 1, but 3 holes in the alkali tubes, this isn’t good. These are the most important tubes and this has never happened before. Completely alone so have no choice but to improvise a solution. When fixing tubes in a genius and professional manner, strong alkali squirts everywhere, including in eyes as not wearing safety specs. Panic. Go into main lab to seek help. Get directed to a scary-looking eye wash machine. Hose eyes for 15 minutes whilst worrying about permanent blindness/everyone watching/state of mascara.

12 PM: Both eyes and mascara fine. Lunchtime! Lunch in cafeteria with boyfriend. Scientifically deduce that ‘pulled pork’ flavour crisps much better than ‘cheesy beans’. Another 2 cups of tea consumed.

1 PM: Get round to fixing alkali bottles, with safety glasses this time. Looking pretty damn sexy. Accidentally raise pH of liquid in vessel to 9 in the process. Bummer. Get increasingly frustrated syringing 10 ml acid at a time into vessel. Takes forever but finally bring the pH down to 7 again. In need of yet more tea, but no time! Why does nothing ever run smoothly in science?

2 PM: Set up control machine attached to vessel and calibrate oxygen probes. 20 minute wait required whilst probes stabilise. So much of science is waiting!

Getting there!

Getting there!

3PM: Time to get messy with the bacteria. Prepare E. coli cells and syringe into vessel. Encounter some pressure problems in pipe which makes this very difficult. Refuse to be beaten by bacteria. Finally succeed in getting cells into the vessel but gloves covered in yucky liquid that spat everywhere. Wash hands thoroughly before going home and hope bacteria grow nicely overnight and make lots of protein.

5:30 PM: Home! Hair down, relax! Prepare to continue the protocol tomorrow and pray to the gods of science for an easier day!

As you can see the world of science is not always a glamorous one, but although it’s frustrating at times I know it will be worth it when I see my thesis there all bound and I have done completed my PhD! Some days, such as today, work can be quite manual with no immediate data produced, but on other days the data comes flooding in and can give some interesting results which make you just that little bit further to completing that thesis. Hopefully in a couple of (rather tedious) weeks I will have produced lots of protein from the E. coli to generate lots of interesting data!


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