Progress from the labs

It’s been one of those months. Yep, you know the ones I mean, where you seem to be simultaneously rushed off your feet and bored out of your mind at the same time. The main deadlines we have been working towards are linked to the Smart Matrix patent.

Vaibhav and Elena have been trying out different chemicals ensure we have the best formulation for Smart Matrix. This means carrying out coagulation experiments on our new spectrophotometer. They have to repeat the same experiments over and over again. This is often a tiring exercise, and it can get very confusing if you are not concentrating.

If you walk into a lab, you will hear Heart FM blasting out on the radio, you will see them hurrying about trying to get the reagents ready, then staring eagle eyed at cuvettes as they add the reagents at certain time intervals. The next half hour is spent calling out and recording seemingly random numbers. Intervals between experiments are marked by Vaibhav’s characteristic laugh, which can be heard from the other end of the building.

They then have to take the successful reagents and make scaffolds out of them. Seven of the 10 scaffolds will turn out as unidentifiable blobs which may be comparable to blancmange – according to Dr Julian Dye.

The three successful scaffolds will then be handed to Nivedita for histology. Histology is like an archaic and mysterious art and watching Nivi perform histology is like watching a magician. She will first use paraffin wax to preserve the samples, slices them into sections as fine as turkey ham wafers, and carefully mounts them on glass slides.

Then begins the confusing process of dipping these slides into various chemicals, which are brightly coloured and smell dubious at best. She will chat away effortless as she sets, and resets the timer to an exact protocol that she has long ago committed to memory. Nivi will then glue on cover slides to hold the fine scaffolds in place. The result of this process is images of pink and white scaffolds, which show us the microscopic structure of the scaffold.

This is where I come in. Part of my work involves stitching the images and organising them by giving them labels and specifying the formulation. This is possibly one of the most mind numbing tasks I have ever done, by the end of the day I am haunted by pink and white scaffolds; they are there even when I close my eyes forever imprinted on my retina.

Melodrama aside, these images are vital for the patent paperwork, without which we will not be able to proceed with our work. The other side of my work is the rheology. Since you last heard from me, we have been able to obtain a second hand rheometer at a very reasonable rate.

Rheology has proven to be a challenge, to say the least. I have been experimenting with the rheometer using various materials like washing up sponges and such, to try and get some results, and I will hmm and aah at the screen - I have yet to figure out where on earth the software is saving all the graphs (but that’s Windows 95 for you). I have been teaching myself from a old text book and whatever is on the internet.

As you can imagine, there isn’t an awful lot there, and whatever there is, is badly communicated - here’s to reinforcing scientist stereotypes. A lot of the time they like to assume you know exactly what they are referring to, causing me a lot of sarcastic forehead slapping and exclamations of ‘Oh what poetry!’ from my corner of the room.

Unfortunately the work I’m doing right now involves a lot of reading, and something else I have rapidly discovered is that some articles are deceptively titled. You spend a good hour trawling the internet for papers, get excited at the prospect of a few that have titles that sound relevant to your work, spend a whole two hours deciphering the paper and then only discover three-quarters of the way down that it has almost nothing to do with what you need.

But that is research for you, like everything else in life, full of highs and lows. It’s all part of the experience, and a lot of the time I have to say to myself ‘the good things in life never come easy’, but when you make a breakthrough, God, it’s so worth all the work!

Niroshehaa Ragunathan
Research Assistant

Sixteen years at RAFT!

When RAFT was moved to its current location, there was a lot of work to do. The group leaders had to lay down their stethoscopes and pick up their DIY tools. “I remember one of them tiling that entire section.” chuckles Nimesha, gesturing to a corner of the lab.

Nimesha has been here from the beginning of this transformation.

Having completed her degree in applied biology at Hatfield, she joined RAFT in 1996. Since then she has become an integral part of the team. Nimesha worked full time, when she joined, most of her time was dedicated to helping set up the labs.

Since having children, she now works part time. She now helps Khwaja (our lab manager) run the labs efficiently, and also helps the research assistants in designing and setting up experiments. During her time here, Nimesha has worked with many a talented surgical fellow and scientist, and has played a significant role in their time at RAFT, providing both advice and experimental support. She has even experienced first hand, the growth of the Smart Matrix, from concept to reality.

Nimesha is very easy to work with, she is easy going and kind. If you make a mistake, far from scolding you, she will make a small quip and correct you. If I’m confused about something, she is generally my first point of call. Her brain is like a gigantic library of biochemistry.

Since I have started working for the Smart Matrix team, I have made so many mistakes, but without Nimesha’s experience and kindness, I doubt I would have dared to set foot in the labs ever again. So, I have to say a special thanks to Nimesha.

Niroshehaa Ragunathan

Why scientists at RAFT need the equipment we raise funds for.

Science is in its own right, as old as time. Scientists have existed for as long as humans have. It becomes impossible to determine when science officially came about. But I like to think the first scientist was a caveman named Ook, who wanted to know what would happen if he poked a sleeping sabre tooth tiger with a stick. I am sure he had a hypothesis; the sabre tooth tiger would wake up. But maybe he didn’t think much past that point. This is in crude terms what science essentially is. Experiments involve varying properties to see how (for example) cells react. I’d like to think that we 21st century scientists have come far since the days of poking sabre tooth tigers with sticks. These days, scientists work on cellular, atomic and even subatomic levels. To work on such small scales, we need to isolate and maintain these components, and this inevitably requires a lot of highly accurate equipment with price tags to match. Let’s face it, no one’s going to find the cure to the common cold with the afore mentioned stick.

Translational medicine is the process of taking a good laboratory idea to patients. Its split into two stages, pre-clinical and clinical. Us scientists at RAFT deal with the pre-clinical stage, which involves a lot of work with cells. Cells are notoriously fickle, ask any cell biologist; you may be working with a set of cells, repeating the same experiment for weeks on end, but then you will come in one day and discover that they have just decided to up and die. It then becomes critical to find out why on earth, after months of giving the same results, they have decided to stop behaving. Worst case scenario, the incubator (which keeps cells at 37 degrees Celsius- body temperature) has broken down. This means all your cells are dead, months of work has gone to waste and to top it all off, lack of funding means having to wait while the fund raising team try to raise the money to get it fixed.

The cells are cultured to be seeded onto the Smart MatrixTM. One of my roles on the team is to help make these scaffolds. The whole process can take anything up to twelve hours to make up a batch. There have been times that Vaibhav has slaved away for hours only to come back in the morning and discover a blizzard in the lab, because the freeze dryer has broken down. Again this is a high precision, expensive piece of kit essential to the work we do. Again, while the fundraisers are furiously trying to sort out the finance to fix or purchase a new machine; all work is on hold.

I myself have been twiddling my thumbs for some time now, while trying to locate a second had rheometer, which is a strenuous exercise, and a valuable lesson I have learnt is that even in science if something looks too good to be true, it most definitely is. There have been times when I’ve come across a machine that would be just perfect, only to discover the reason its so cheap is because its twenty five years old and in the fine print; ‘please note, this machine may require some attention before it is fully functional, and some components may be lacking.’

A lack of funding is something that many small research labs struggle with. Especially in this climate, everyone is feeling the pinch. As a charity, we rely on the generosity of the public to carry out our research.

Niroshehaa Ragunathan

Life as a Scientist

Since starting as a recent graduate at RAFT, I have learnt that it is, to say the least, incredibly frustrating. It involves a lot of forehead slapping, and exclamations of ‘Why God, Why?’ Even though you’re not entirely sure if god exists, this seems the perfect opportunity to appeal to a higher power.

Some people think that science is about spending large amounts of time holed up in a tiny corner of a sterile white lab, in a white lab coat mixing chemicals of bright colours which do exciting things like change colour, bubble, fizz and explode. Other people think of little old bespectacled men with wild white hair, who speak to themselves and secretly plot world domination. I can’t say with total honesty that we don’t have our fair share of accidentally blowing things up and setting other things alight, and I have to admit that during my lunch breaks I often find myself day dreaming about being Queen of the world. But there is much more to it than that.  

Given the nature of the research conducted at RAFT, much of the work is done on cells. The fantastic thing about cells is that they are ridiculously resilient; they will survive being removed from tissue using harsh enzymes, being frozen down, starved and irradiated. But then one day you might realise that they have all died. For no particular reason at all, but then again it could be worse, you may culture them for a week, and looking down the microscope, find that they don’t really look like human cells, in fact they don’t look like any cells you’ve ever seen (yes, this has happened). When you finally give up trying to figure out what the hell is going on, its time to beat a tactical retreat to the kitchen, for a coffee break.

One thing I learnt quite early on is that the research department is fuelled by coffee, and there is nothing worse than when the coffee runs out. Even the stale stuff that sat in the corner and stopped resembling anything organic a while back. The coffee I assure you is absolutely pivotal to scientific research.

Some experiments can take up to twelve hours to set up and observe. You may turn up diligently at oh nine hundred hours sharp, but it will take you another hour to locate all the various chemicals. Then calculations must be done to figure out how much of x or y you are going to need. Then comes the weighing and measuring. There will also be some chemicals that will flat out refuse to dissolve. By the time everything is ready, half the day has gone, and its already one o’clock. After running to the canteen for something that vaguely resembles something you would call ‘food’, its time to start. In my experience, experiments work out only about half the time, and in the words of Dr Julian Dye (Head of the Wound Healing Research Department) ‘If an experiment works out first time, you’ve probably done something wrong’.

One of the most frustrating tasks has to be to figure out how to make a new machine work, using nothing but a user manual spanning three thousand pages, and let me tell you right now, this is one thing Google definitely can’t help you with. There will be much head scratching, page flicking, staring into space, then staring at the machine, hoping the power of you mind alone will make the machine work. Failing all these things, you could always take to pressing random buttons, which could however cause a random component to come hurtling towards your head (I refuse to accept that there is no excitement in science).  It will actually take you on average two hours to work out how to get the sample loading station to move up and down.

I actually stumbled into science, its possibly the best thing to have happened to me. There was no miraculous sign, or great booming voice in my head, but having become a scientist, I find myself working with people who’s intelligence astounds me every day. People who not only get, but appreciate my geeky jokes. Every day is a challenge, and you have to be creative and think on your feet, but then even if the worst comes to pass, there is an office full of people who are willing to take the time to offer you advice and guidance. I love my job. It has me jumping out of bed in the morning. I get to conduct experiments never done before, meet people who are doing ground breaking research. The best thing about Science is there is no such thing as failure. If an experiment doesn’t work, you’ve still learnt something new. And even after millennia of research, there is still so much to learn!

Niro Ragunathan

Research Assistant at RAFT