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The Q? Blog

How Ants Helped Me Feel Comfortable in the Genomics Lab

by Sal -- Dec 21, 2016
A girl with long black hair sitting at a table with equipment, wearing blue gloves and holding a long white tool in her hand.

I am 17 years old, a senior in high school, and in 2016 I was a YES! Global Genome intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I learned...

YES! Global Genome intern Sal concentrates while using a pipette in the Smithsonian Laboratories of Analytical Biology. Smithsonian photo.
YES! Global Genome intern Sal concentrates while using a pipette in the Smithsonian Laboratories of Analytical Biology. Smithsonian photo.

Before I actually got the chance to work in the lab as a YES! Global Genome intern, I was given a formal lab tour. Being the only 17-year-old African-American girl in a room full of sequencing technology worth more than $1 million was, to say the very least, intimidating. As I watched, scientists in white lab coats walked from machine to machine, strategically carrying plates of DNA. I felt so small in comparison to everything and everyone in the lab. Before beginning my research project, I had to get over this initial fear of not fitting in.

As the program began I learned I was going to be DNA barcoding and sequencing ants collected in the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar. I learned about the biodiversity of ants in Myanmar and the lack of genomic information about them. The purpose behind my project vanquished the fear I had of the lab. I began to learn how to extract DNA from ants using a machine called the Auto-Gen, filter the extracted DNA using the Sephadex method, and sequence it using Sanger Sequencing.  

I quickly learned mistakes are very common and even the most experienced researcher can mess up a gel. I found comfort in knowing that my mistakes are part of a learning experience. Being comfortable in the lab helped me learn better, so when I accidentally forgot the red dye in the gel I could just redo it. Before entering the lab I didn’t even know what was in a gel, let alone how to make one. (Gels are made from agarose, a gelatinous sugar extracted from marine algae, especially seaweed.) Beyond experimenting with lab work, my time at the Laboratories of Analytical Biology has drastically improved my knowledge of the work of researchers and scientists. I learned the intrinsically complex and completely amazing study of genetics.

During the summer, I sequenced more than 270 ant specimens in about seven weeks. These sequences will be put into a genetic library where anyone can access them. Who would’ve thought that I, a student with no sequencing experience, would be able to sequence 270 ants and eventually have the data published in a scientific journal? The light bulb I was waiting for all summer was blinking in my head and I felt that my work was worth so much more than I previously thought. The girl who walked into the lab the first day was not the same one who left that summer.    

Categories: YES! Teen Interns