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Students labor on the Worm Farm

By Emily Waltz / Intern
March 11, 2002

Dressed in hooded sweatshirts and jeans, Vanderbilt seniors Kim Dalton and Carolyn Maune began smearing bacteria all over the sterilized glass plates. They were growing worm food and getting paid to do it. As staff members in David Miller’s worm laboratory in the biology department at Vanderbilt, it is their responsibility to keep the lab worms - the indispensable C. elegans - alive and well-fed for Miller’s experiments.

Dalton is a molecular biology and computer science major while Maune is majoring in molecular biology and chemistry. The two women have held paid positions in the lab for about three years.

Along with growing worm food, the two seniors are currently working on their own research project. They are trying to determine the whether a particular protein plays a dual role. The protein forms a receptor in the worm’s neurons and is known to bind with a neurotransmitter. The object of the students’ project is to determine whether the receptor also plays a role in the worm’s ability to sense chemicals in its environment.

In their experiments, Dalton and Maune test worms produced by an Israeli collaborator that have mutations in the gene that produces the target receptor. In a round dish, they position a drop of water on one side and a drop of choline, a substance that helps transmit nerve impulses, at the other. Normal worms are attracted to the choline and crawl across the dish towards it. But the mutants remain in the center of the dish. One possible explanation is that the worms can’t smell the choline, suggesting that the receptor is involved in the worm’s chemosensory system.

The students’ project hasn’t been straight forward. Several obstacles have slowed them down, and they are quickly discovering the complexity of lab experiments. “It takes so long to get one thing to work — we do trial after trial after trial,” Maune said. They built their experiment based on the work of Millet Treinen, Miller’s colleague in Israel, but their experiments haven’t gone as smoothly. Still, the two hope to complete the project so that they can collaborate with her in the future.

Dalton and Maune say they enjoy working in the worm lab because everyone is treated equally and there is not an obvious hierarchy among undergraduates, graduates, and professors. “They make us feel like we’re important even though sometimes we’re just doing the grunt work,” Dalton said, “and Dr. Miller is always willing to answer any questions we have.”

The two women have noticed that people tend to stereotype scientists and lab technicians as impersonal or boring. Maune admitted that even she used to feel that way before she began working in Miller’s lab. “I thought it would be a very sterile environment. But it’s not; they’re real people,” she explained.

Outside the door to the lab hangs a sign that reads “Miller’s Worm Farm.” Inside, the lab is bustling with activity. No one wears a lab coat. A motorized, talking Gizmo from the movie Gremlins sits on the shelf and talks when anyone disturbs him. A disco ball on a chain hangs from the ceiling, just above the stereo and a stack of CDs. The lab has even been divided into two rooms according to music preference. In one room, light jazz plays softly. But disco music and rock albums were moved to the “fun lab” in light of Miller’s distaste for the Bee Gees.

Along with their research project, the two students must keep up with their daily work around the lab. In Petri dishes, Dalton and Maune carefully grow and incubate bacteria for C. elegans to eat. An occasional slip-up occurs about once a year, Dalton says, when she accidentally contaminates the bacteria. “When the white colonies start growing on the plates, you know you’ve messed up,” laughed Dalton. “People in the lab tease me about it.”

Working with C. elegans has allowed Dalton and Maune a chance to experience what they’ve been reading about in their classes for years. “In our textbooks, we learned genetic techniques like mapping and fluorescent labeling and here we get to see them,” Maune said.

On a computer screen hooked up to a microscope in small, windowless room, the undergraduates can observe the latest developments in Miller’s research. The worms under the microscope are marked so that the neuron they are testing glows a fluorescent green. As the worm crawls around, the microscope projects the image onto a computer screen, and the students can observe the glowing neuron in the worm’s body.

The next few months will be tense for Dalton and Maune as they await the arrival of their medical school admission letters. But both feel that if they are accepted, they are ready for the challenges they will face. “I’m used to the lab setting now that I’ve worked here. I think I will feel comfortable in the labs at medical school,” Maune explained.

Although they’ve enjoyed the experience, both students have decided that graduate research work is not for them. They both intend to become physicians.

Next Worm Story: Worm facts

 


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