As students, there are definitely times when it is hard to see how all of the knowledge that you are gathering during your study period can be applied in reality. When you are getting towards the end of your studies, you can definitely start to feel confused about what you actually want to work with after graduating. It is difficult to choose a certain career path when it is not clear what the roads are that lie in front of you. As we are currently still master’s students, we are still eager to learn and get new experience. Therefore, this was a perfect time and opportunity for a full-time summer internship at KTH. We are Elin and Srijani, and here we will share our experience of summer work at the Division of Glycoscience.
We undertook a seven-week internship in Lauren McKee’s group at the laboratory, where both of us were working on different projects under different supervisors; He Li and Mengshu Hao. Elin was helping He Li with her post doctoral project on biomass hydrolysis, and Srijani was working with Mengshu on a project on sustainable polysaccharide hydrogel formation. Both of us mainly focused our work on protein production and purification, and further testing these proteins in necessary assays. Srijani was performing an assay named Pull Down Assay, which basically checked the potential for ligand-binding and hydrogel formation at room temperature. Elin was working on optimizing the production and purification of a few proteins, and also tried some temperature optimization in assays of the purified enzymes.
What could a work week look like? The week usually started with preparation for protein purification, which meant that we had to cultivate the over-expressing bacteria and everything that comes along with that. For instance, these preparations could be making litres of growth media, autoclaving culture flasks and as many pipette tips as you can fit in the autoclave, booking instruments/machines that are needed, etc. The proteins are produced by overnight bacterial cultivation, before the more fun (and stressful) experimental work could begin. On the first day of protein production, the bacterial cultivation was started, followed by induction by IPTG. On the third day we could finally start the purification. This included many steps, like sonication, a bunch of centrifugation, and affinity chromatography as purification method. We used SDS-PAGE to check the success of the protein production and purification. The purification and analysis done afterwards usually took a whole day, with addition of a couple more hours if we started concentrating the protein.
Hopefully after this we would have a good amount of protein on which the assays could be performed during the rest of the week. How did it go then? Well, at first things did go according to this schedule, but as with many things in life, they do not always go exactly as planned. It is common when testing the production yield and stability of new enzymes that several of the production steps need to be repeated or optimized to get them perfect. In some cases, if it got really late to be in the lab, we could postpone one task until later the same day or the next day, but in other cases (like when you mix the proteins up or have contaminated growth media) we had to start again from the beginning.
When we started as research interns, we didn’t imagine that the greatest thing that the internship would teach us would not be laboratory skills but self-confidence and patience. There were many moments when we asked ourselves “What else could possibly go wrong!?” We definitely sometimes felt disappointed and disheartened maybe due to some failed experiment. What we learned from this was to own our mistakes, learn from them, and move forward without dwelling on the failures too much. In these times it was very helpful to have our supervisors there to guide us with their knowledge. These frustrating and unexpected experiences really shaped us and helped us learn from them and grow personally.
Our final message: it’s okay to shed some exasperated tears. In the lab, we know we can expect to face many moments where everything seems to be going wrong, and that we’ll feel every emotion that comes along with that. But then, we lean on our colleagues, we learn from our experiences, and we do everything possible to overcome the challenges before us. Everything may not go as planned, but we do everything in our power to make the outcome golden. Lastly, we would like to thank Lauren, Mengshu, Heli, and the CAZyme team for giving us this great opportunity and experience that will last a lifetime.