Internship at the Smithsonian: Blog 2

Blog 2: The Taxonomist’s Work When people imagine science, they imagine how it is in the movies. Men in white lab coats, peering into the […]

Blog 2: The Taxonomist’s Work

When people imagine science, they imagine how it is in the movies. Men in white lab coats, peering into the fabric of reality, one breakthrough coming after another as if they were results on election night. The truth of science is much more pedestrian—whether it is physicists who pore over the mathematical equations year after year, geneticists who pipette hundreds of vials day in and day out, or chemists that play with models to see how different molecules might interact, the actual act of science can be incredibly boring, especially when compared to how it is presented to the public.

Take the study which I happen to be working on with Dr. H. Dr. H is a malacologist, which means that he is a specialist in mollusks—specifically he studies the evolutionary history of mollusks, how they are related, how and when different traits evolved, and other such questions which involve glimpsing into deep time. Specifically, we are looking at a hybrid population of Cerion, a genus of land snail found around the Caribbean and, oddly enough, in the pine forests of Central Mexico. Because the research is still in progress and unpublished, I can only be coy about the exact nature of the research, but I can say that it could open up avenues into looking at rates of mitochondrial evolution, raises questions as to the meaning of species, and hopefully will help place an elusive species properly into the Cerion family tree.

Worded like that, the research sounds interesting—it almost sounds sexy. The truth is anything but. Take the first day of research; it involves numbering three lots of Cerion collected at different locations. They are still alive, but dormant—that is one of the fascinating things about Cerion, they stay alive for years after you take them from their environment, though they are dormant. I then have to put each one of these snails into a receptacle with their respective number. Because this is the Smithsonian, and the federal government refuses to properly fund any sort of science, let alone basic research such as this, these receptacles are used egg cartons brought by Dr. H from home. I then have to take a photo of each Cerion being used, propping them up on a needle with some clay at the top. In addition, vials of three colours, one for each lot, need to be numbered—it is in these that the buccal tissue of each Cerion will be stored before the primers are prepared to extract the DNA.  It is only after all these preliminaries are finished that the task of actually extracting buccal tissue can commence.

After all the fuss of labelling this and labelling that, the actual process of extracting the buccal tissue that is required is fairly straight forward. Using an old diamond saw at the end of the workstation, I slice each snail, cutting the top of it, with care as to not cut of too much of the buccal tissue, though inevitably the poor living thing is cut and killed. Once the Cerion is cut up, it is a simple matter of dissection. This is not a careful dissection, labelling each organ and looking for specifics of their anatomy, of the sort which are done by first year biologists at Oxford. This is a much more roughshod affair, where the animal is just cut up and the buccal tissue separated from the rest, before being dropped into the small container where they will be held until the primers are ready. Though these dissections are relatively roughshod, they take time—the process of preparing all of the Cerion which will be used takes a day and a half, and three days are taken in just cutting open all the required Cerion.

Even once the buccal tissue is extracted, you cannot go directly to the extraction of DNA. Due to the nature of the Smithsonian, there is a wait for your primers to be prepared in order to get the DNA extracted. Thus you have to work on something else; specifically, you need to start to work on the photographs you took. The rest of the week is spent on photoshop, ensuring each photo is at the right orientation, is brushed up, and that there is a white text on black background saying that the specimen in question is number 27 of station 3. Thus a week was spent doing work crucial for the paper, and for the research, and which had about the same amount of mental stimulation as watching paint dry.

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