My lab works with tuberculosis, which requires BioSafety Level 3 (BSL-3) containment. You know what else needs BSL-3 containment? COVID-19!
BSL-3 lab spaces have a lot of specialized safety features that make them expensive to construct. To save money different labs at UC Davis often share the same BSL-3 space and just schedule their time in that lab space to not get in each other’s way.
Because of that, when researchers started working on COVID-19 at UC Davis they needed a place to do it. My boss’s space was volunteered, so now another lab researching COVID works in the same space as us.
Besides the safety features, the BSL-3 also requires biohazard suits and respirators. Additionally anyone working in the room within 24 hours of COVID being used in the room has to do temperature checks for two weeks afterwards. Our safety protocols have been successful and no one working in the space has contracted COVID-19.
But working in that space puts our lab into a high risk factor, just like healthcare workers. As such, I got contacted by my HR supervisor at UC Davis Health that I’d been approved for being one of the first people to get one of the COVID vaccines.
So here’s what that was like!
I scheduled an appointment for 8:30am on the first day of distribution. I got there at 8:25, checked in, and promptly waited for an hour in line.
I know! Field trips in a Master’s of Science program? How ridiculous!
It was awesome. We went to the Institute of Regenerative Cures in Sacramento.
I arrived early and waited out front with some classmates. Our tour guide arrived and we waited out front a little longer til everyone showed up.
While waiting the tour guide, who had designed the building we were about to go into, told us about his hobby, early television history!
After the primer on early television we entered the building and got a tour of one of the best facilities for practicing biology in existence right now.
The building itself was actually built a long time ago for the California state fair. It was the “women’s building.”
The brick exterior and columnaic entrance have stayed the same since the building was constructed to maintain the historical site. The interior has been heavily modified.
The building had no roof back in the day and was just an enclosure for a bunch of different events that you usually see at state fairs.
The building was sold to the University of California system. They slapped a roof on it, and used it to store records.
Our tour guide said that he was called in to turn it into a biology facility later on. Half the building is used for bio research while the other half is rented out to other companies.
The researchers in the Institute are working on a number of things. They researched a treatment for the “bubble boy disease” there. They’re working on using umbilical cords to create bone marrow for transplants, using Tal proteins to treat Huntington’s, creating HIV resistant cells, and helping people who can’t swallow to swallow are just a few of the things they work on there.
The tour guide also showed us the section that he was most proud of as he had designed it. A set of rooms for making the actual drugs and proteins to export to hospitals. Making the drugs requires extremely sterile technique to prevent giving someone who is already sick something that will make them worse. The rooms are designed to be extremely sterile.
To enter the rooms you pass through an airlock where you are required to cover every inch of your body in a disposable gown.
The airlock goes to a hallway with access to three separate clean rooms.
There is “negative pressure” in the rooms. That means that air is constantly entering the room from the top and going out the bottom. This is so that if any cells that are worked with in the rooms get into the air, they will be redirected to teh ground and sucked out through a grate in the wall instead of ending up in someone’s medicine.
The air is cleaned excessively to about 3000 times more clean than average air before entering the facility.
There is a lot of electrical equipment in the rooms that will require replacing eventually. To prevent electricians from having to gown up just to replace a lightbulb, all the eletricals are accessible from panels on the second story of the building.
It was pretty cool for a scientist like me to see the best possible place to do research in. The tour guide mentioned that he does tours of the interior of the super clean rooms for smaller groups. I might take him up on that at a later time!
Last week the rice research lab I work in was all but abandoned due to a local conference on plant pathogens.
I didn’t go to the conference as I’ll soon be changing to working entirely on C. elegans.
Spending the lab’s money on me learning more about a topic that I probably won’t encounter again would’ve made me feel guilty.
I was left in the lab with a few people who stayed behind or came back early.
I finished all my usual duties in the lab like taking care of plants and setting up stuff for next week, but I still had a lot of extra time before the end of the day.
I cleaned up the lab a bit and… FILLED TIPS.
I filled two entire shelves with boxes of tips.
You might be wondering what are tips and what are they used for?
Biological research often requires very small amounts of liquid to be measured.
For comparison, in the science we usually measure volumes of liquids in liters.
Most people are familiar with liters in the form of those two liter soda bottles that are used for parties.
A milliliter is equal to one thousandth of a liter, or two thousandths of a soda bottle.
A milliliter is still rather big though. It’s about the size of the last joint on your pinky finger.
The research I perform measures liquids in microliters, which are one thousandth of a milliliter (or two millionths of a soda bottle).
A microliter is about as big as a period.
So how is something that small measured?
With a pipette!
A pipette is essentially a mechanical suction device, similar to a straw.
A pipette tip is added on to the sharp end of the device you see above.
The button on top is pressed down, expelling a specific volume of air from the pipette.
When the button is released the pipette sucks that volume back up into the pipette tip.
Pretty much the same principle as using a straw to drink a two-liter bottle of soda.
The amount of air expelled from a pipette allows researchers like me to work with extremely small volumes. Some pipettes can even measure volumes as small as a thousandth of a micoliter (Another name for that is a nanoliter).
When working with small volumes like this its even more important to be clean.
Any small contaminant on the pipette tip would be a large contaminant in a mixture of only a few microliters.
So the tips are put into those boxes in the first picture and then autoclaved to sterilize them.