Picking up dropped samples

Researcher Emma Strand preparing to carefully pipette her samples into a plate

Researcher Emma Strand preparing to carefully pipette her samples into a plate

I dropped all my samples on the ground; two full 96-well plates that held the final product from months of lab work hit the floor on the second level of a research building at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. (BIOS)

Rewind about three months to the end of August, when I started my internship with BIOS through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. It was the start of my senior year and I had unenrolled from Loyola Marymount University for the semester to pursue a research experience that had the potential to lead to a graduate program in the field I was interested in. So, I packed up my bags for another semester abroad, but this time with hopes of finding an answer to the question everyone seemed to be asking: What are you doing after graduation?

I stepped off the plane and immediately hit the wall of humidity that has always indicated field work for me. As my taxi driver turned the corner to enter St. George’s Island, the marine station came into perfect view. Resting right above the bright blue water of Ferry Reach, BIOS sits between a line of palm trees with a beautiful view of the ocean. In that moment, it became clear what this semester could mean for me in terms my career and scientific skills.

Emma Strand and BIOS team in the field, Bermuda

Emma Strand and BIOS team in the field, Bermuda

And as I stared at the two well plates upside down on the floor, my entire career flashed before my eyes. The aliquots of liquid containing thousands of copies of a targeted gene of interest from over a hundred baitfish samples were no now more than a small puddle on the floor. I could picture my mentor at BIOS telling her collaborator, the advisor whose lab I wanted to join for graduate school, that I dropped our entire project and that was just going to be it. I wasn’t going to go to University of Rhode Island because I would probably just drop all of our corals and samples there too. Ridiculous, I know. But as an undergraduate and slightly terrified (in a good way) of the powerful women in STEM that I had the potential to work with, it felt like I had just dropped my chance at impressing my current advisor and therefore my shot at my dream graduate program.

Although I had always known I wanted to pursue marine biology, I chose to attend an undergraduate university with a general Biology program, with a focus on pre-med. So being surrounded by many brilliant, marine scientists was like a breath of fresh air. I finally had other students that shared my same passion even if they didn’t want to go into the same specific field as I did. Throughout the semester, I grew close with my fellow REUs as well as the study abroad class (who were all from Rhode Island, which I took as a sign) and the graduate interns. The three months I spent in Bermuda clarified the direction and field I wanted to go in for my future career aspirations and gave me the resources I needed to pursue that. 

After about five minutes of panicking, I took three deep breaths and started to do damage control. Thankfully, in the end I was able to recover almost all of my samples from a previous step, and we could still move forward with the project. I feel like I grew as a scientist and student significantly in those several hours that I was problem solving. It’s really about what you do in those moments after a mistake (in or out of your control) that makes all the difference. I was fortunate to have many great mentors and advisors during my time as an undergraduate, and after the five minutes of panicking, it was their advice and teaching that I fell back on.

A year and a half later, I’ve now just finished the first year of my PhD program at the University of Rhode Island and our manuscript from the work I did (and dropped on the ground) in Bermuda was recently accepted for publication. The project was focused on assessing the genetic diversity, using genetic barcoding of a mitochondrial gene COI, of baitfish populations around the island of Bermuda in order to inform eco-system based management decisions. 

So plot twist, research isn’t perfect and there will be many times in your career that you will have to be creative in your troubleshooting. And the best way to learn is from others, but we can only do that if we talk about the failures as well as the successes. Not that I want to advertise on a billboard that I almost lost my project by dropping it on the ground, but there is quite a bit to be improved on and learned from that situation. Research is done by humans (for now), and I’m sure I will make another mistake just as big as this one. But each time that happens, I know I will be more prepared than the last.

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About the Author: Emma Strand is an Evolutionary and Marine Biology PhD student at the University of Rhode Island in Dr. Hollie Putnam’s lab. She studies the physiological and genomic response to climate change stressors, like ocean acidification and warming waters, in corals. Read more about Emma and her research on her personal website and on github