Coming home to science

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 5:11pm

Zachary M.S. Waarala

Zachary M.S. Waarala Buy this photo
NOSELL

Since my freshman year, I have been working in a biochemistry lab on the Medical Campus. It was a job I procured out of peer, advisor and personal pressure to do research in any way possible after a significant academic pivot from pre-law to pre-med during my first semester.

After doing away with math and science, disavowing their application or importance in my vastly superior world of law, I had not taken a STEM class since my junior year of high school and successfully snuck around the reaches of calculus and A.P. physics. Gone were the days of numbers and lab partners and calculators.

However, after a less-than-affirming experience interning in a district court and an exhilarating experience in an emergency room, I realized that I was in fact not going to be a lawyer, and I was really meant to be a doctor. Back to the drawing board, I found that I would need the numbers and the lab partners and the calculators.

Void of any university-level scientific knowledge, I interviewed for a position doing biochemical research before I had even enrolled in general chemistry. 

I was taken on as a volunteer, washing dishes and organizing boxes, trying to get some sort of grasp on what was going on by watching the post-docs do their work. I was blown away at their experiments, bewildered by the concept of effectively growing yeast cells with different fluorescent properties. It seemed superhuman — I couldn’t understand it. Everything went over my head, and I was afraid that it was too late to make such a monumental shift to pre-med.

Nevertheless, I stuck with it, as I worked through an overloaded schedule of introductory chemistry, biology and calculus. I tried to understand more from the lab, but it was still remarkably challenging. The head of the lab had to sit through my floundering attempts at explaining what I thought was going on.

I stayed in Ann Arbor over my first summer to continue my catch-up work, and I continued working in the laboratory. I was officially hired to continue my work washing dishes and organizing boxes, but now I could also make a couple solutions. I knew about molarity, more or less, and could put together a sodium chloride solution. I figured out how to use an autoclave and how to make synthetic media for bacterial growth, though I still didn’t know how the cells could just grow like that.

Sophomore year came around and I was still working at the lab as I worked at organic chemistry and neuroscience courses. I began to understand more about how biological molecules worked, why carbon is so important, how cells can talk to one another and why bacteria can just grow like that. With the help of patient mentors, I began to piece together an enormous scientific puzzle with an innumerable number of puzzle pieces. My labwork became a constant parallel to my coursework, a benchmark to check my understanding and fill in gaps.

Over the past summer, I learned how to grow yeast cells with different fluorescent properties and how those properties can be evaluated. The work that once seemed superhuman now made sense. It was tactile, and I could do it myself.

Now, as a junior returning to the lab this semester, I continue to have revelations of the biochemistry that once confounded me. I continue to piece together the enormous scientific puzzle, though there is still a great deal to learn and a great deal to be confounded by. Still, reflecting on my homecoming to the laboratory each semester, I see what a remarkable resource it has been over the past three years —not only for learning biochemistry and laboratory techniques, but also because I can see my intellectual growth in subjects of study that I had once feared were beyond my reach.