Friday 5: In the Lab

I do field work and I enjoy being outside working whenever I can, but I do a lot of indoor science too.  While I don’t normally have the stereotypical bottles of colorful liquids that most people associate with science and I don’t even own a lab coat, there are certain aspects of what I do that have that mysterious look of laboratory science to them.  For Friday 5 this week,  I’m going to share some photos of some of the lab work I’ve done to give you a feel for the sorts of things I do when I’m not running around outside playing with bugs.

My research is highly interdisciplinary and has a lot of little parts that come together to form a bigger picture.  As such, I have learned several different research techniques.  The one thing I have in common with taxonomists (such as Alex Wild or Morgan Jackson) is this:

Scanning electron microscope

Scanning electron microscope

Scanning electron microscope!  I use the electron microscope to get an up-close look at the respiratory structures of giant water bug eggs.  That’s a giant water bug egg you see on the screen there.  I’ve spent hours in this tiny little dark room.  Normally the light’s out too, so it’s just me, a machine that has 50,000 volts of electricity running through it, and a bunch of incredibly loud vacuum pumps that allow the whole thing to work.  But I love scope days!  Insect eggs are so incredibly beautiful (see my posts about the insect eggs featured in National Geographic and my insect egg post for examples!) and you never really understand just how beautiful until you look at them this closely.

Then there’s this lovely machine:

injecting samples

Injecting samples into a respirometer

Ah, the respirometer!  This is a fantastic piece of lab equipment and I hope to be able to get funding to buy my own in the future.  Respirometers like this one allow you to measure several things, particularly how much oxygen an organism consumes, how much carbon dioxide it gives off, and how much water it loses.  Once you have these measurements, you can calculate metabolic rates and figure out what sorts of nutrients the organism is using.  In my experience, these are rather high maintenance machines, but you can also get some amazing information from them that makes them completely worth the effort.  In the image above, I am injecting an air sample into the machine to see how much oxygen the bug inside the syringe has consumed over several hours, but with bigger animals you can stick the whole thing in the machine and see how often it takes breaths and several other really cool things.

When I was still a master’s student, I used these:



That little glass thing impaling the egg is a very tiny, very sensitive electrode that measures oxygen levels.  It is attached to a computer on the other end.  The lab where I did this work used this equipment to measure the oxygen levels at different depths within insect eggs.  Insect eggs, especially large ones like the giant water bug egg you see here, have a very low surface to volume ratio, which means that it’s hard for oxygen to move from the outside of the egg through all the liquid inside to reach the insect.  For this project, I measured the oxygen content of the eggs to determine how oxygen starved cells growing at the center of the egg might be.  I spent a week three states away from home doing nothing but stabbing eggs with that little glass tube for 12-14 hours a day.  It was exhausting, but I learned a lot of interesting things from it and thought it was great fun!

Other equipment I had to leave town to use was this:

oxygen chambers

oxygen chambers

The chambers in the photo allow researchers to rear insects at different oxygen levels.  There are several different reasons why you might want to do this, but I was interested in learning whether low oxygen levels would slow down egg development in giant water bugs and whether high oxygen levels would speed things up.  It was really fun to do and I felt lucky to have an opportunity to do the work!

This is probably the thing I do that is the most stereotypical science:

grinding up eggs

Grinding up eggs

This is the first step in a series of steps involving colored liquids in tubes!  (Look for a photo of a later step in this process on Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday in a few weeks!)  This step involves grinding giant water bug eggs up and adding some chemicals to prepare them for protein analysis.  Determining how much protein is available in eggs tells you something about how much protein the developing water bugs inside the eggs are consuming over time.  This is actually a very important thing to know about!  Take my word for it.  :)

So there you have it!  Lots of fancy machines and computers and very expensive parts.  Of course, the rest of what I do involves nothing more than finding a comfortable place to sit near a pond so I can document behaviors or dumping some bugs into a tank of water and seeing what happens.  This work is considerably low tech compared to the things above, but in the end, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing: science is fun.  Hooray for science!


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11 thoughts on “Friday 5: In the Lab

  1. I am still a bachelor’s student, but I had this class where I was allowed to work with electron microscopes, both the transmission and the scanning one. And I had so much fun there! It’s incredible when you think about it, that this machine you’re operating makes those tiny structures visible!

    • I used to be able to take my insect behavior students to the EM lab to use the scanning electron microscope and they always loved it! Isn’t it a fun machine? It’s amazing how intricate things like insects really are when you look at them up close like that. I’m happy you had an opportunity to use the microscopes! That’s not an entirely normal experience for undergrads, so count yourself lucky you had the opportunity.

  2. I agree! Even Drosophila melanogaster is beautiful (and hairy). I liked that whole department there so much, that I applied for an assistant job there and I got it! Whee! I guess I’ll spend most of the time there cleaning cages and feeding bugs than actually work with the microscopes, but it is a start.

      • Hm, I’m not sure if you’re interested in this, but I’ll just let you know, that now that I know more I can tell you that I actually get to do real science work there! We’re currently cutting frozen locust legs with a cryostat (same as a microtome, but with the object being frozen in some glue and not in resin). No one here really has any experience working with that thing and we’re all just trying to figure out what works best. Also, I got to do everything by myself today, which was awesome! :) Hope you have a great day!

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