Exciting science and the mundane tasks that go with it

Hello blog readers, I’m so sorry that it has been so long since my last post. I’ve been working really hard on my experiments over the past month and that has left very little time for other things. I must give a shout out to CarolinaSarah for writing such interesting posts about her science in Japan. It has been fascinating to see how science is done in other countries.

Speaking of science experiments, I’m happy to say that mine are going well. So far I have looked at how caterpillars from Olathe, CO develop at different temperatures while eating two different plants. The plants I am using for food are alfalfa and vetch. I’ve also looked at how fast the caterpillars eat at different temperatures. I am going to repeat these experiments in the coming weeks with caterpillars from another site at a higher elevation in Gunnison, CO. By comparing these two populations I will be able to see if they are locally adapted to their specific habitat. This would mean that evolution has acted on these populations in different ways making them best suited for their specific environment (temperature, plants, predators etc.). Pretty cool, huh? As I finish my experiments and analyze my data I’ll keep you in the loop! After all, the results are the exciting part of science, but to get to the exciting results sometimes you have to do a lot of repetitive and boring tasks.

When most people think of science they imagine pristine white lab coats with goggles, gloves and petri dishes everywhere. Only sometimes is that actually how it works. Here are some of the mundane, everyday tasks that I (or my incredibly awesome undergraduate assistant, Austin) do to in order to complete my research.

Ultimate Gardener

As I mentioned earlier I am feeding my caterpillars alfalfa and vetch. These plants require some planting and care before they ever become caterpillar food. Some plants are fun and exciting to grow. I have some beautiful violets in my office and it’s been lovely watching them bloom. Vetch and alfalfa are unfortunately weeds therefore they are not the most exciting plants, but the caterpillars love them! About every two weeks I am planting more alfalfa and vetch to keep up with my very hungry caterpillars.

Watching vetch grow, as exciting as watching grass grow!

So you can find me (more often my undergraduate assistant) hanging out in the greenhouse putting dirt into flats and sprinkling seeds on top. Overall, this is a pretty everyday task that any gardener has experience with.

Master Caterpillar Chef

A big part of my life this summer has been just keeping my caterpillars alive so they can be in later experiments! Everyday I need to give my caterpillars enough food to last them 24 hours until I can feed them again. If I put too much plant material in the petri dish the plants will die before the caterpillar has a chance to eat them. This limitation means that everyday I take about 150-300 petri dishes and cut leaves off plants to place inside the dishes with the caterpillars.

My petri dish caterpillar homes, complete with fresh plants and humidity sponge!

 This usually takes up a good portion of my day (as my husband can attest to when he helps me on weekends!) and it is repetitive. A few weeks ago I was wondering why my fingers and hands were aching. I quickly realized that the repetitive motion of clipping off plant material and reaching into a petri dish was causing pain because I was doing it over 100 times a day!

Our lab also works with another species of moth called Manduca sexta or more commonly known as the tobacco hornworm.

A tobacco hornworm larvae

Since I am the senior lab member in the lab this summer it’s been my duty to care for a colony of these little buggers. These caterpillars larger than the Colias larvae that I use for my experiments and therefore they eat a lot more as well. Luckily they do not have to eat fresh plants, but they do eat artificial diet that I make in 20 Liter quantities every two weeks. This diet includes such yummy things as agar, wheat germ, yeast, casein, linseed oil, and formaldehyde to name a few. Needless to say this is pretty gross stuff and to make it involves a series of heating up and cooling down steps while adding different ingredients.

Making Manduca diet is a cross between this…
…and this

That sums up feeding caterpillars, but then there are actual experiments! That must mean really cool techniques and fun lab equipment right?

Extreme Standard Gravimetric Technique

Standard gravimetric technique is a fancy way of saying that I weigh things on a balance. To see how much plant material the caterpillars have consumed I weigh them. When the caterpillars turn into pupae I weigh them. When the pupae hatch into adult butterflies I weigh them too. Needless to say I spend a lot of time with the Mettler Toledo balance.

My best friend forever…Mettler Toledo

The bugs aren’t the biggest fans of being weighed. It’s not a fun process for them because I disturb them from eating and plop them into a new plastic dish. The adult butterflies are more difficult because I have to weigh them in envelopes so they don’t fly away. I guess I wouldn’t be too happy either if someone was holding my wings down and putting me in a small envelope.

This butterfly was not amused at my picture taking.

Finally at the end of the day there is some cleanup involved.

Dish Washer Extraordinaire 

Caterpillars are not very clean, all they do is eat and what goes in must come out! By the time they pupate or die their petri dish homes become very dirty and to be cleaned. Some labs that use petri dishes throw them away and order new ones, but not us! We wash all of our petri dishes along with the plastic bins that we keep butterfly eggs in and the plastic cups (who knew there was another use for solo cups other than drinking in college!) that we use to keep pupa and new butterflies in. If things in the lab are going slowly I generally have time to wash dishes every other day (It takes two days to wash dishes because they have to sit in a bleach water solution for 24 hours). However in the busy summer months sometimes I let the dishes accumulate.

This is how many I’ve cleaned so far.
But, I predict lots of dishwashing in my future.

So if you were ever wondering what I do every day that’s about it! The day-to-day of being a scientist isn’t always the most thrilling, however it’s the culmination of all of these things and data analysis leading to results that is truly exciting. In the end I won’t think of how many dishes I’ve washed or flats of alfalfa I’ve planted, I’ll remember my lab time by the results that I got, the questions that I answered and the new questions that arose from these experiments.

After reading all of this you may be thinking who would want to do this everyday? Well, stay tuned my next blog post will answer the question I get the most from people, “Why did you want to be a scientist?”.

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MacGyver Moments in Science II: the Hyaku Yen store

The Hyaku Yen Shop: a Japanese retail wonderland

As we’ve previously discussed on the blog,  scientists sometimes need to improvise research tools using house hold objects .  I recently got a shipment of butterflies from Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. I’m hoping to test whether these northern butterflies are adapted to a different range of temperatures than their southern counterparts.  The scientist collecting them for me shipped them to me as pupa, and soon they’ll be emerging from their chrysalies and I will try to breed them and use the offspring in experiments.   I’ve been asking my Japanese labmates for advice on how to set up experiments here, and one big thing  they’ve taught me that the Hyaku yen shop is the number one place to purchase butterfly rearing supplies.

What is a Hyaku Yen Shop?

Hyaku yen shops are like the dollar store in the U.S. but even better..  Hyaku means 100, the yen is the currency of Japan, and Hyaku yen is about $1 depending on the exchange rate (lately it’s more like 75 cents).   Some Hyaku Yen shops are little mom and pop places, but mine is three floors of ridiculously cheap goods manufactured in China all for under Y100.  You can get anything from laundry detergent to pickles to purses at the Hyaku yen shop, including butterfly rearing supplies.

Raising Butterflies using the Hyaku Yen Shop: 

Butterflies are pretty uncomplicated animals to raise, at least in theory.  They basically need a container with air holes and some type of sugar water to feed on.  Therefore, an aspiring bioligist can buy a functional lab set up for under $100.  I’m lucky because my Japanese lab already has some equipment I can use.  My labmates in Kyoto rear their butterflies in these plastic containers.  In their former life they used for take out at  restaraunts, but they now have holes cut in the top to let air in (although they aren’t technically from the Hyaku yen shop, they are still clearly in the MacGyver spirit).

To close the butterfly cages we use little squares of plastic mesh.  Japanese families usually cover their drains with mesh to keep food out of the plumbing (houses here usually don’t have garbage disposals).  Mesh squares also make a great cover for a butterfly cage.    Butterflies also need a stick to cling to when they emerge from their chrysalis.  Back home we used sticks from the ground outside which are free and therefore cheaper than the Hyaku yen shop.  However, they often had crazy bacteria, mold and fungi which can reduce unsuspecting butterflies to a pulp.   Chopsticks, on the other hand, cost about one yen per chopstick, and are totally sterile.

Mesh for covering your drain to keep food out - or the top of a butterfly cage!

Chopsticks

Finally, butterflies need to eat.  Back in the U.S., we mix up a solution of honey and water to feed our butterflies.  However, my Japanese labmates use sports drinks, which are a lot more convenient and can be bought in bulk.  The butterfly drink of choice is apparently “Pocari Sweat”, an insanely popular sports drink in Japan.

Pocari Sweat: Japan's #1 sports drink for humans and butterflies

The Hyaku yen shop also has baskets for organizing petri dishes and , lab note books, labels and an assortment of fine pens for collecting data . In the past two months, I’ve come to depend on the Hyaku yen shop for my research supplies.  Having a one-stop shop for all my research needs is one of the many things I’m really going to miss when I get back to the U.S.

Sample bags in every imaginable size

Petri Dish Labels

Testing my petri dishes in the tupperware to see how many will fit