Preparing for a Research Experiment at VIMS

Next week, I begin my research experiment, and it has been nothing sort of a rollercoaster journey getting there. It began last year when I started volunteering at VIMS, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. My mentor, Juliette, has spent the last few years looking at the transmission and evolution of a particular virus found in many fish species. We started talking about the possibility of me conducting a research experiment, but my spring and summer schedule made it impossible at the time, which was quite disappointing. But over the summer, she had another undergraduate student look at the transmission of the virus from dead fish to live fish and found there was a loss of transmission after several days.

When this semester rolled around and my schedule was more cooperative, we decided it would be a great idea for me to do a research experiment looking at some possible reasons for that loss of transmission. So I began designing an experiment to look at how fish decomposition might be affecting the virus transmission and infectivity, focusing on pH changes and the rate of decay of virus infectivity. Finally, I had a complete proposal and applied for a research grant to fund the experiment, which I am most grateful to have received.

After that, I figured most of the really hard work was done. I had the topic, the design, and the money to run the experiment. All that was left was to wait until the start date, right? Wrong! Of course, it wasn’t going to go that smoothly.

First, I did a kind of pilot study for a third part to the experiment that didn’t go as planned. Essentially, I was going to use the EPC cell line and plaque assay techniques to look at viable virus particle quantity in the dead infected fish; but after I stained the cells, I found that they were all dead. Unfortunately, my mentor and I couldn’t tell if it was due to bacterial contamination in the media, or if it was from the bacteria in the dead infected fish we sampled simply overcoming the antibiotics in the media. So we decided that it would be best just to leave that part of the experiment out for now, and potentially return to it at a later date.

Then, about a week ago, my mentor and I learned that the main wet lab we were going to use to house the fish for my experiment was already occupied with another experiment at a different temperature. And because my experiment is looking at fish decomposition, oxygen and temperature are the two most important conditions we wanted to match to the experiment from over the summer. So now we had to think and find another place to store the fish where oxygen and temperature could be controlled. My mentor had the idea to use an incubator in one of the lab rooms that could be set to my specific temperature, and we could use a series of airstones, valves, tubing, and a pump to maintain oxygen flow in the fish tanks.

By the time we worked out all the specifics and had a new plan for the experiment, we realized it was actually a more convenient setup than before. I would no longer have to walk back and forth between buildings when I was getting water samples, which would save time and energy. And I wouldn’t need a special set of tools that could be taken in the wet lab.

Overall, things had actually taken a turn for the best. It was quite stressful at first when we realized we would have to MacGyver a whole new setup for the experiment, but by the time we were done, my mentor and I had figured out a novel way to run an experiment in the lab and were really proud of it. It was a very memorable lesson in always expecting the unexpected and being prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. So because of all the ups and downs, my experiment isn’t going to happen exactly the way I first imagined it but I think it might be even better. I want to thank the Charles Center for funding my research grant since all of this would have been impossible without it. I will post another entry after my experiment is complete. I am excited to see how the new setup works and what results I get!

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