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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2 thoughts on “Exciting science and the mundane tasks that go with it

  1. Pingback: The Secret Life of Data Analysis « Butterflies and Science

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