Kenton Chung worked as a student lab assistant in the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Product Development Unit at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He describes some of the challenges of a day in the lab and shares his advice for students who are considering biotech careers.
Where did you attend college?
City College of San Francisco
What degree/certificate(s) do you hold?
Certificate of Stem Cell Technology
What did you do for your job?
In the summer of 2018, I was a student assistant at the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Product Development Unit at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. While there, I worked in the analytical chemistry laboratory. Samples would come in from the fermentation unit next door, or from outside collaborators and clients, and it was my job to find out what was in the sample.
What are some techniques you commonly use?
Analytical balance measuring, solution preparation, pipetting, solid phase extractions, centrifuging, and high performance liquid chromatorgraphy.
Please describe what you do in an average day
Start the morning off mixing precise chemical standards on a balance sensitive enough to detect the weight change from a single grain of flour. You measure out exactly 50.0000 mg of powder and then you miss the narrow opening of the volumetric flask and have to start over again. You do not have all of the chemicals that the collaborator needs you to test for. You do some searching online and find four different varieties of the chemical they specified. You ask the client which one you should buy. They tell you that they are not sure and that they will get back to you in a few days!
While waiting for the first client to get back to you---
Client 2 has supplied you with samples of their blend of 11 herbs and spices. You begin a multi-step solid phase extraction to isolate viable compounds for analysis. After several hours of weighing, measuring and pouring, you add chloroform to your tubes and centrifuge them. The chloroform eats through the bottoms of the tubes at 14,000 RPM and spreads your entire project across the inside of the machine.
After cleaning up that mess--
You are given 100 15ml samples from the fermentation team for analysis, but they have to be added to an excel sheet and given a number for organization (The new identifier will accompany the samples and eventually data from here on out) Each tube has a label with about 20 unique characters separated at seemingly random intervals by underscores. On the very first tube you read an impossible jumble of Cold War era ciphers: [MEDIA3_2f_84c_8472_#FERM_24H_2R]. You want them to be in relative order, so you spend a few minutes reading tags and sorting them by their differences, before remembering that you’re fighting a deadline. (Hint: no matter what sorting method you use, the samples will be out of order and people will comment on it.)
And just when you think it is safe to go home--
You make a quick pass through the lab to make sure nothing is amiss. You notice that the HPLC machine is running low pressure, which doesn’t make sense because you backlogged 70 45-minute injections yesterday. Confusion, frustration and finally defeat dawn on you as you check the HPLC software to find that the very first injection failed 28 hours ago because you typo’d the starting sample position.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in a biotech career?
I am exploring a career in biotechnology because I love how the work challenges me. I am constantly learning new techniques, entering new environments and speaking with new individuals. These experiences have helped me gain a new perspective on how I learn, work, and see the world. There’s a lot of outreach programs that go into high schools and middle schools to spread awareness of biotechnology. The students have a day learning to use pipettes and use PCR to solve a ‘murder’ or test for genetic modification in food. It’s great exposure and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s also a fairly authentic experience. But it mixes poorly with high school culture’s (and often parents’) relentless pressuring of students to commit themselves to a lengthy and expensive four-year education; to decide what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives when they can’t even buy themselves a drink yet. My advice: if you think you’ve been fundamentally enlightened by your day, week or even year of bioscience, don’t commit yourself to UCSC for biomedical engineering just yet, because there are people and programs that will get you into the fray for free and without a four-year wait.
One more piece of advice:
The second stop on your pipet is only for expelling. Don’t double-press while drawing up or you’ll have an inaccurate injection. Then your instructor will use you as a troubleshooting example for the rest of the class when your concentration is too high. They always find out.