Tag Archives: arthritis

The Annual Progress Report

It’s that time of year again, when all the postgraduates get to reflect on how little or how much they’ve achieved over the past 12 months, all thanks to the university administration. I understand the reasons the university gives for the report, we need to be sure you’re not stalled in your research, we need to know you’re being supported by your supervisor, you need to pause and see what training you need to complete in the coming year, will you actually be finishing this degree? The rationale doesn’t make the report any less depressing or time consuming to complete.
For me, it seems like I have achieved little between this year’s report and last year’s. I got one or two interesting results that need further work. I got some very interesting results to go into a paper, but the reviewer wants the work repeated a lot more before acceptance for publication. I don’t have a chapter’s worth of data, but I have a number of leads. I have zero papers, and zero presentations (oral or poster) at conferences, (two minor inhouse poster presentations probably don’t count).
I learned how to use some key instruments in my lab and my collaborator’s. I taught a lot of people how to use various pieces of equipment, and just generally taught a lot of people (demonstrating for undergrad practicals and supervising final year projects). Teaching and learning aren’t counted in the metrics as outputs for my research however.
The honest feedback I received was that, while I don’t seem to have a lot done on paper, accumulating new techniques is the most important thing I can be doing in my 1st/2nd year of the PhD. The teaching is important, but I need to learn to be more selfish in the future, and limit how much helping I do for others. The internet tells me that my regular forays into the world of science communication are very useful for my CV, but the progress report doesn’t care for that, and from the looks of it, the thesis won’t care either.
I have dealt with a number of small flare-up’s of my arthritis during the past year, but it’s hard to tell if they are what are slowing my progress, or (more likely) my distraction by more interesting science going on elsewhere. Certainly when I have a lot of experiments to do, my feet get especially sore, and I get pretty tired, and I need to take a day off to sit down and try to relax. It’s hard to relax though, as I’m anxious at my apparent lack of progress compared with my colleagues and at the approaching deadlines. The annual report doesn’t help with this.
The annual report should help me plan the coming year better, but so far, I’ve found that it’s difficult to plan very far ahead. Experimental results can change what you expected to achieve, and somethings take a hell of a lot longer to optimise than you anticipated. When I see others produce Gantt charts of their project and plans for the future, I’m torn between scepticism and inadequecy, “will they really achieve that in four years?” and “should I have more done by now”.
Anyway, for now it’s time to fill in the form and get my supervisors, independant advisors, head of school, and probably half the administrative staff to sign it.

One experiment a week…

At the moment, I seem to be averaging one full experiment a week. The sort of thing you set up the night before, spend ALL the next day working on it, and head home an hour late with a file full of results.

Naturally, as a fresh-in-the-door first year PhD student, surrounded by people much further on in their research, this doesn’t appear like a lot to me. Some of my colleagues think this is a grand amount of work, others seem to imply I should be doing more. My supervisors seem to be thrilled with progress to date (I really do mean thrilled, whether I’m doing well or they’re not used to feedback, I haven’t quite figured out).

While the experiment only takes a day to carryout, planning the work and then figuring out the collected data takes a whole chunk of time too (about a day or so of analysis including writing the mini-report). The supporters of my one experiment a week method applaud my planning, and how I control for as many factors as is reasonable.

A large part of why I spend so much time planning my experiments, is that physically preparing the work can be very tiring. A poorly designed experiment, doesn’t just waste my time and reagents, but adds to how much tiredness I have to deal with in the long run. This is clearly not cool.

At this rate I should have about 150 experiments complete by the time I come to write up in three years time. Presumably all these won’t go into the final thesis, but none of them should be work that had to be repeated for being ill-thought out…

Starting labwork proper

So for the last few weeks I’ve not been doing proper work, I really only arrived in the lab in June so I spent a lot of time settling in. I still don’t know who we order paper towel off or where the acrylamide lives. I still don’t own a set of pipettes (I’m sure you’ve been following that ongoing saga…) and there aren’t spare ones in the lab (which is very strange, seems to be a mix of them getting broken or nicked).

Today, I set up my first proper experiment of the project, and, as always, was far less prepared that I’d like to be. It seems the buffers I made a few weeks ago are growing (hate that) and so in the middle of it all, I had to make up a few buffers (thank god for PBS tablets). Even though I find setting up and doing experiments can be pretty stressful, it still feels good to get a start on things. It’s just a preliminary investigation and I still don’t have a way to book the flow cytometer, but I still reckon it’ll work out just fine! (well, who knows how the data will be, but I’ll survive the adventure anyway)

Window Shopping for e-pipettes

One of the most important parts of any good experiment is to have high quality equipment, stands to reason. It’s important to have the best quality equipment you can get (afford).  The big instruments that do the heavy duty analysis go out to tender and have maintenance contracts on them, so you can generally rest easy that they’ll be doing the right thing.  The smaller bits and pieces can have a bigger impact on results than you might expect.

One of the key pieces of preparatory equipment in the biology laboratory is the micro-pipette.  It’s a straightforward enough concept, you jam a disposable tip onto one end and the pipette can suck some of the volume out of the tip and thus suck up liquid.  The pipettes are callibrated so you can suck up and dispense very specific and tiny amounts of liquid.

Manual pipettes such as this on the right:

gilson pipette

A gilson manual pipette. Great pipette but terrible on arthritic thumbs.

rely on a spring to move the piston in the pipette to a “sucked up” position. So to empty the tip of air or liquid, you have to press against this spring. Then to suck up the air, you slowly release the pressure to prevent liquid getting sucked up too fast (this is a particular problem with viscous fluids like glycerol).

Working against this spring can be hell on your hands if you have arthritis (or RSI for that matter, which you’ll get from doing too much pipetting).  Electronic pipettes remove this spring problem and use something like a stepper motor instead to move the piston.


I’m currently on the hunt for a set of Good electronic pipettes, that cover the same range of volume dispensing as the manual ones but with a similar or better accuracy/precision.  Despite there being no electronic single channel (multichannel can take many tips and are dead handy) in any of the nearby laboratories, there are a plethora available online, so now the fun part is deciding which ones balance accuracy and precision with cost and ease of use.

A bit of background

There are many types of arthritis, juvenille, rheumatoid, osteoarthritis, psoriatic…..  Arthritis is characterised by an inflamation affecting the joints.  This can lead to pain and stiffness and can lead to long term damage and disability.

Arthritis can affect people of all ages, but predominantly tends to affect women post-puberty and post-menopausal.  You might notice that these are times of major hormonal shift, and many autoimmune diseases such as lupus and arthritis manifest about these times, in fact, many autoimmune diseases are found at a much higher incidence in women.

Knowing this background, my arthritis is relatively “normal”. I was diagnosed when I was about 26, and yes, I am female.

I am also a scientist.

Continue reading