labor on the Worm Farm
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
enjoyed the experience, both students have decided that graduate
research work is not for them. They both intend to become physicians.