Aren’t You Just a Biologist?

by Morgan Bernier

Biophysics is one of the fastest growing occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though most physicists often hesitate to call it “real” physics.  “Aren’t you just a biologist?” my friends ask, “How is mixing one clear liquid into another clear liquid physics?”

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Mixing samples for my experiment.

It’s true that I’ve spent 90% of my graduate school career using biochemical techniques to prepare my biological samples (more on these later) but, like other physicists, I am ultimately trying to measure physical quantities: energies, forces, and motion of matter.

I am a physics graduate student at The Ohio State University with an undergraduate degree in physics (from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio).  I have not taken any biology or chemistry classes since high school.  I spent the first few years of graduate school teaching myself all of the biology and chemistry I need for my experiments, and I’m still learning new things today.  Mastering completely new lab techniques that most physicists will never do is actually a lot of fun.

At Ohio State, I work in Dr. Michael Poirier’s biophysics lab.  We study how DNA is organized and compacted by proteins inside the cell nucleus.  DNA contains all of the information for how our bodies look and function, and we have nearly 2 meters (about 6 feet) of DNA in each of our cells.  Organization and compaction of the DNA is necessary for all of it to fit inside our tiny cells, so our cells wrap the DNA around protein molecules called histones into what look like little spools of thread.  These DNA/protein spools are called nucleosomes.

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An image of a small section of DNA wrapped into nucleosomes taken using an atomic force microscope by a former graduate student in our lab, Marek Simon. This type of microscope allows us to see things that are too small to see under a regular light microscope.

By wrapping the DNA into nucleosomes, the DNA becomes more compact and is protected from damage.  My samples usually consist of a single nucleosome, so that I can observe the physical interaction between the DNA and the proteins.

Our lab is broken up into two physical areas: the biochemistry lab and the physics lab.  I spend most of my days in the biochemistry lab making my DNA/protein samples.  Thankfully, I have helpers, millions of them actually.  We program E. Coli bacteria to make our DNA and proteins, so part of my job involves carefully growing E. Coli bacteria.  Sometimes this means that I have to come into the lab in the middle of the night to check on them.  I can’t be sure, but I think singing to them helps.

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The biochemistry lab (left) and the physics lab (right).

E. Coli bacteria are typically associated with food poisoning from contaminated meat, but they are also found in your intestines and help you digest your food.  We use E. Coli because they reproduce very quickly (about once every 20 minutes), and we can easily program them to produce DNA and proteins that are usually found in other organisms like frogs and mice.  By using E. Coli, we don’t have to sacrifice frogs and mice for our science.

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Agar plates growing E. Coli bacteria. These particular ones were used to produce DNA. These plates are about the size of the palm of your hand. The streaks you see are colonies of E. Coli bacteria growing. Each streak contains thousands of individual E. Coli bacteria.

So where does the physics come in?  Once I have my nucleosome sample, we use a microscope equipped with lasers to look at them.  The lasers are used to excite dyes on our samples, so that we can see them and observe dynamics of our DNA-protein structures.  I think the coolest part of this experiment is that because the dye molecules are so bright, we can see individual DNA molecules with proteins fluctuating on our slides.  The down side is that I end up spending hours in a dark room watching little blinking dots on a screen.  That is how research is though. Some days can be pretty boring, but other days, when your experiment is working, you are observing something no one has ever seen before.

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Microscope slide containing our sample on the stage of our microscope where we do our experiments. The green light is from a laser that we shine onto our samples to illuminate the dye molecules attached to our bio-molecules.

One of the best parts of biophysics is that it is highly interdisciplinary.  In my research I work with biochemists, mechanical engineers, chemists, materials scientists and occasionally other physicists.  I get to meet graduate students from other departments at Ohio State, but also from other universities and sometimes other countries.  Sometimes I work in their labs and sometimes they work in ours.  There are some days that our lab is busier than the cafeteria at lunch time.  I am a very social person, so I love having someone to talk to while I work.  With so many people in the lab, it’s hard not to have a little fun.

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We have a freezer in our lab that is at -80 degrees Celsius (-112 degrees Fahrenheit) to store protein, DNA and E. Coli cells for long periods of time. The freezer accumulates a lot of snow and ice, so one day while we were cleaning it, we decided to make a snowman.

Scientific research isn’t all fun and games, but it isn’t boring all of the time either.  We work pretty hard most days, but being able to observe single molecules is really cool.  I am very happy that I decided to become a biophysicist whether it’s ‘real’ physics or not.

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Poirier Lab at our yearly summer picnic. I am in the front row, third person from the right.

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About Morgan Bernier

MorganpicI am a 5th year graduate student doing experimental biophysics at The Ohio State University.  In my spare time, I enjoy running, hiking and camping with my husband, Dan, and our dog, Indiana.  Our cat doesn’t really behave that well on a leash.  When I graduate, I hope to conduct research in the biotech industry and someday start my own company.

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5 Highlights of My Summer REU at the University of Wisconsin – Madison

by Brittney Curtis

REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) programs are a way for students to get involved in scientific research while in college. They typically take place over the summer at universities and national labs across the United States. Participants get to travel to another location to work on their REU project, and they are provided housing and a small stipend for the duration of the program. Students interested in science that do not have research opportunities at their home college (some small liberal arts colleges, for example) are especially encouraged to apply for REUs.

Last summer I stayed at Ohio State to do research in the Department of Astronomy through a program called the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). You can read about my research experience at SURP here. This summer I traveled to the University of Wisconsin – Madison to participate in the REU program in their astronomy department, and it was a whole different experience. Here are five ways that I made the most of my summer research experience in Madison.

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The 2013 UW – Madison Astrophysics REU participants on a field trip to Yerkes Observatory. in Williams Bay, WI

1. Getting to know my fellow REU students

The people I spent the most time with over the summer were the 8 other REU students at UW – Madison. I got to know them on a professional level and a personal level. Most of us shared a working space in the undergraduate computer lab in the astronomy department, so we helped each other with programming problems and unfamiliar concepts at work every day. We were all housed on the same floor of an apartment complex near campus, so we hung out after work as well, watching movies and preparing group meals. The other students were all incredibly friendly, hard-working, and excellent researchers. Astronomy is a small field, so I’m sure our paths will cross again in the future, and I look forward to it.

2. Discovering new ideas in astronomy

My REU project was about the properties of galaxies that are thought to host extensive gas outflows and accretion, a topic that I knew almost nothing about at the start of the program. I had to do a great deal of reading and ask a lot of questions to get up to speed, but in the process I learned a lot of new ideas and methods in astronomy. In retrospect, I’m happy that I got to work on something completely unfamiliar to me, because the REU wouldn’t have been such a huge learning experience for me otherwise.

Starting on a new project also gave me the chance to consistently practice better research habits. I kept a journal of notes about my research methods, and kept track of the hours that I worked. I learned how to program in Python, which is a widely-used programming language in astronomy. All of these new ideas and skills that I learned will help me be a better student and researcher in graduate school and beyond.

3. Exploring the beautiful city of Madison, Wisconsin

Madison is a gorgeous city situated in between two big lakes, called Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. The university is on the lakefront of Mendota, where local residents swim and sail during the warm summer months.

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A view of Lake Mendota at dusk from the Washburn Observatory on campus.

On Friday afternoons there were public concerts at the Memorial Terrace overlooking the lake, and every Saturday morning was the Farmer’s Market at the Capital Square featuring local produce and cheeses. I tried Wisconsin cheese curds, both the fresh and the deep-fried variety, and they were delicious. I also spent a lot of time window shopping on State Street, a cute pedestrian street lined with tons of little shops and restaurants, which leads from the university to the Capital Square.

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The Memorial Terrace on a Friday afternoon.

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Walking down State Street towards the Capital Square.

One of my favorite places to hang out was a coffee shop down the street from our apartment complex called Indie Coffee. I went there on Sunday afternoons to catch up on my summer reading list and eat brunch. They had amazing waffles!

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The Red & White Waffle at Indie Coffee.

4.  Participating in public outreach

Outreach is particularly important to me as an aspiring scientist because I think it’s valuable to promote public interest in science and public understanding of science. During my summer in Madison, I had the opportunity to volunteer for a public outreach program called Universe in the Park (UitP).

UitP was created by the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison to teach the public about astronomy. Every summer they go to state parks throughout Wisconsin (where the sky is dark) and give a short presentation about a topic in astronomy, and then they set up telescopes for the public to view astronomical objects. As a UitP volunteer I got to travel to Wildcat Mountain State Park and show campers at the park what Saturn looks like through a telescope. We could see the rings and some of the larger moons very distinctly. I also answered questions about different stars and constellations, and a few questions about my summer research project. Doing public outreach has helped me learn how to better explain scientific ideas to people that don’t have a background in science.

5. Getting to know the scientists at UW – Madison

Everyone in the Department of Astronomy at UW – Madison went out of their way to get to know us and make us feel welcome over the summer. My research mentor, Dr. Britt Lundgren, was exceptionally nice and approachable, and I loved working with her. She gave me tons of advice about my research and about my career path, and was always helpful when I ran into problems with my project. The graduate students invited us to their social events and gave us advice about preparing for graduate school, and the other professors and scientists gave us advice about research and the job outlook in astronomy. It gave me a positive outlook on the culture of the field to experience how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I’m very grateful to the Department of Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for hosting me this summer, and for making my experience both fun and a valuable learning experience.

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About Brittney Curtis

I am in my fourth year as an undergraduate studying physics and astronomy at The Ohio State University. I grew up in the beautiful coastal mountains of Oregon but moved to the midwest for college. Outside of class, I serve as President of the Society of Physics Students and Vice President of the Astronomical Society at OSU. I also love to read science fiction in my spare time. After I graduate from Ohio State, I plan to work towards a PhD in astronomy. Feel free to contact me by leaving a comment!