Melanie in Oman playing a geologist. Look out -- biologist with a rock hammer!

What do I do all day? I either work in the laboratory, growing microbes, or I sit in front of a computer (preferably at home) thinking about what my microbe experiments mean and writing the experiments up so other scientists can read them. During the day I don't work 100% on the topic at hand; it is important that I interact with people around me to make the science community function. The scientists and students in our department are constantly chatting about science and asking each other questions. It takes a lot of motivation to go back to the potentially boring task that is next on the list of things to do! Here you can see a day where I was mostly motivated and a day when I was less motivated, though I think even so there was an overall benefit to the community.

I also spend time at sea (or at other field sites like Yellowstone) and at conferences presenting the results of my work. Here is a typical day on an Alvin cruise, where the schedule is fairly regular because the submarine only dives during the day.

Lab day (relatively motivated)

Catch bus to the Waterfront Activities Center. .
Row for about an hour and a half, three to five days a week with club.
Get to Oceanography and check email.
In the lab. Take overnight culture tubes out of the incubator. Plan the day.
Examine the fresh cultures under the microscope. [Some cultures are brand-new deep-sea microbes and some are old isolates that I am trying to grow in new ways. It is a very satisfying feeling to grow microbes, in the same way that it is satisfying to grow plants. I spend a lot of time looking at the cultures under the microscope to determine how well they have grown].
Wash culture tubes. Adrienne, a graduate student, asks a question about chemical buffers and I talk to her as I wash dishes.
Make growth media and go down the hall to use the pH meter. Talk to Karen, another graduate student, about her new bacteria from sea ice.
Put the glassware and media in the autoclave to sterilize. Wander around the halls, looking for someone who would like to have lunch.
Use the laminar flow hood in a neighboring lab to prepare culture tubes (with the clean glassware and fresh media).
Take the tubes back to lab bench and find that the stoppers cannot be pushed into the tubes. Put the whole kit and kaboodle in the oven to soften the stoppers.
Finish preparing tubes and begin to transfer cultures into them.
Go to an astrobiology seminar entitled "Searching for habitable planets".
Call Steve, my husband, and ask what we are doing for dinner. Finish transferring tubes and put them in the incubator.
Walk home and stop at store on the way.

Lab day (less efficient)

Catch the bus to the Waterfront Activities Center.
Set up the Boston Whaler that I will drive as the rowing coach of the day. This duty is rotated.
Boats are off the dock and I try to give everyone a good workout while making sure that nobody ends up in the water!
Get to Oceanography and check email.
Remove and check yesterday's culture tubes.
Fax a big order to the University's Central Stores for ml syringes and other items.
Jon, graduate student and labmate, comes in to the office to discuss new scientific paper. We disagree about the technique that was used and go to find a geology professor who has used the technique before, to settle the argument.
Spend the 15 minutes before lunch seminar straightening up tiny things in lab.
Go to Marine Geology and Geophysics lunch seminar "Microseismicity on the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge".
Stand in lab, planning. Show Sheryl, lab technician, the phylogenetic trees that I have constructed from her data.
Go back into lab to plan. Place an order with Sigma Chemical for chemical needed for experiments.
Plan the next steps of an experiment with Susan, a college student, doing work in the lab.
Talk about the paper, recent experiments, and general philosophy for about an hour with graduate advisor.
Find organisms that need transferring and do that.
Walk home.

Day of data analysis/writing

Catch the bus to the Waterfront Activities Center.
Take the bus back home.
Sit on the couch in front of the computer, look at notebooks, and attempt to write.
Make cocoa. Enter some old data in a spreadsheet and plot it a number of different ways.
Call the lab to see if anybody needs anything.
Grab a clipboard and scribble outlines on scratch paper.
Get up to get a snack and clean kitchen.
Sit down again, try to turn the outline into prose.
Get distracted by the cat.
Write some more.
Eat lunch.
Go back to writing. Delete last few paragraphs.
Make tea. Take a big piece of chocolate back to the couch. Writing improves.
Turn on the Mariners' game on the radio.
Order pizza and go back to writing.

Day at sea

Melanie in the lab on board the D/V Joides Resolution.

Still awake from the night before. Working in lab, trying to finish inoculating the fresh sample into culture tubes. Periodically step away from the work to eat chocolate. The B-52s are in the CD player to help me stay awake.
Crawl into bunk for a few hours sleep.
Wake up to check science gear on the submersible ALVIN. The equipment that I am responsible for is in place and secure.
Review notes from the previous night. Are they coherent? What samples can I expect from today's dive, and do I need to brief those who are diving?.
Have a mug of hot water. Watch the launch of the submersible Alvin. Give last-minute instructions to those going in the sub.
Wander into the mess (the dining room/living area) where a group of people are watching "Night of the Living Dead" for the third time. Watch the second half with them.
Take a nap.
Go to lab and check ongoing experiments.
Science report from the sub is received on the ship. Knowing what kinds of samples to expect, I prepare my experiments.
Go out on deck to watch the submersible recovery. As soon as the submarine is in its hangar, we take charge of any samples that were collected specifically for me, and for pieces of other samples (if there are leftovers) for culture work.
Attend a science meeting, where those who were in the submarine tell the rest of us exactly what the samples are, where they were from, and what the local characteristics were (temperature etc.).
Start working up the samples.
Eat a quick dinner if I can get my samples in some sort of stable environment (like my portable oxygen-free glove bag).
Work really really hard in lab!
Periodically Dave the chemist and others bring more samples as new sample bottles are opened. Sometimes other scientists come to talk to me about the quality or location of the samples.
Go for a walk around the ship to clear my head and look for a snack and something to drink.
Back in the lab.
Done with today's samples from the submersible, but there is another group of scientists sampling at night with water bottles. I'd like some of this water, but that means I have to stay up for a few more hours.

Melanie Holland

  • Faculty Research Associate,
  • Arizona State University

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