Japanese culture is full of traditions, customs, and procedures that must be followed to ensure order, whether it be in the traditional tea ceremony, choosing the appropriate omiyage (souvenir) for your boss, or simply exchanging business cards at a meeting. Although sometimes all this procedure may seem like more nuisance than it’s worth, there can be great value in taking the time to meticulously follow each step. I am discovering the value of patience and careful learning of procedure to science and my research in particular.
In my research I am trying to get deep-sea limpets to tell me something about how they live their lives and how they came to live them the way they do. This requires certain skills. Skills that require patience and attention to detail and good hand-eye coordination (if you’ve ever played sports with me, you know this is not something I have much of). So, before I can start collecting data on the tiny (about 2-6mm) snails I’m really interested in, I’m going to need a lot of practice on larger, more common ones.
Hence, my first assignment in the lab: dissect and draw the anatomy of 3 species of snails, then extract their teeth, the radula. Prepare the radulae for Scanning Electron Microscopy
(SEM), which is a method in which a beam of electrons is used to take a high resolution photo something very small. This method will be very handy for checking out the anatomy of the itsy bitsy limpets I am studying. However, SEM only shows details of the surface of the structure you are interested in, but not the internal anatomy.
To study the internal anatomy, I need to learn another procedure: thin sectioning. This is exactly what it sounds like; you basically thinly slice the critter and use stains so you can see details in the tissue to pick out what the internal anatomy and structure of the critter looks like. But how can we slice such delicate animals without crushing them? We embed them in a paraffin block and use a very sharp and well-controlled blade device called a microtome.
For this technique, I haven’t even used any specimens yet! First I have to be proficient at making and slicing pure paraffin. This is more difficult than it sounds, most of the battle is cutting the paraffin so that it makes a block that has completely parallel sides so that your
slices come off the blade in a straight ribbon of sections that can then be mounted onto a microscope slide. After lots of practice this past week, I think I’m getting pretty good at it and will be ready to start practicing sectioning some blocks that actually have specimens in them. Then I get to learn the fun of staining and
then being able to even identify what I’m even looking at in a cross-section of tissue. Hopefully, I’ll have more to tell about this process later this week in addition to actually using SEM to image the radulae!
On the research side of things, I’m learning a lot about these specialized techniques, but I think by having to go through so many steps and practice them over and over, I’m also learning to be more patient and attentive to detail, which in the end will make the results from my research that much stronger ( I hope).