My Summer Research Project: Why not?

I’m Alison, and I just finished the first year of my Environmental Science degree at U of C. When thinking about a summer job I figured I’d email my professors from first semester asking if they knew anyone who had a project that could use a newbie who likes to learn more cool stuff. Since, first years are generally regarded as the babies of academia, I didn’t really expect too much. Lucky for me, my Geology 201 prof Ben had something I could do. He met with me and briefly explained that I’d be doing work with oil core samples, by looking at isotopes from those samples. With nothing else to go on I figured, why not? I know that isotopes are atoms of the same element with a different number of neutrons, and that oil core samples probably come from the ground somewhere in Alberta… With all my previous expertise, they took me on.

Measuring samples for carbon-13 analysis on the microbalance.

My science knowledge is from high school and first year (which overlaps quite a bit). So my first week was just learning more about isotopes, like what a stable isotope actually is, and how we can use them to learn about environmental systems. My previous knowledge from physics, chemistry and geology helped give me the basics: isotopes have the same number of protons, a different number of neutrons, and different isotopes of the same element react slightly differently, because they don’t have the same mass. Makes sense right? They’re different, so they get used differently in chemical reactions. Now, a stable isotope is nonradioactive, so no radiation occurs and it exists forever through the geological record. Carbon and sulphur are two elements that have stable isotopes. By looking at what’s referred to as the isotope ratio, it’s possible to figure out how the carbon and sulphur got there in the first place! For example, having a lot less Carbon-13 (a carbon atom with 6 protons and 7 neutrons) than usual means that the carbon is most likely organic – the carbon was once alive.

So in the core samples, I’m going to take a look at the organic carbon (in the oil mucky stuff itself), some inorganic carbon (in carbonate rock that is actually pretty easy to find in the oil muck), and some sulphur (in the pyrite grains). Pyrite’s that shiny fools gold that’s so easy to recognize, but I still needed some help looking for it since the grains are so small. And the first time I thought I found something exciting, it turned out to just be some ink on the rocks from the drill cutting procedure. Things like that you just have to learn as you go. And by looking at those isotopes in those places, I’ll hopefully be able to help figure out how the rocks and oil got there in the first place. Or that’s the plan anyways.

So now that I know the plan, hanging around a lab all summer seems like a pretty good time. I have to ask about pretty much everything (like, if I wanted to weigh something, what would I weigh it in? I’d never used a weigh boat before today, but that’s how you do it). But I get to learn and see more everyday. I feel like even if I just hung around and watched I’d learn a lot more cool things about a lot more cool stuff. Which in my mind is really what science is, so why not?


*** editor’s note: Alison will be a contributing author on the blog this summer while she works on her project. Stay tuned for more details on her work!

When you strike out three times in one game …

To continue with Peter Newbury’s (@polarisdotca) baseball analogy week, when you’re playing baseball, and have struck out three times in one game – you go up to bat the next time even more determined to get on base. This mentality is one of the reasons I think baseball players make good scientists – when you’re working in the lab, sometimes your procedures don’t work – again, and again, and again. Determination to get a result is sometimes all that matters.

Sometimes in the lab it’s faulty equipment. Sometimes the reagents have expired. Sometimes you don’t know what happened and have to go back and troubleshoot. After doing my DNA extractions and PCR reactions last month, my positive controls have DNA, my negative controls are free of DNA (both good things) and my Agar Gels seem to look clean of any problems. Unfortunately, my real samples aren’t showing any bands of DNA anywhere. Possibly there isn’t much DNA in the samples to begin with (they’re methanogens after all, low-biomass communities), or the oil in the samples interferes with the extraction process. Either way, I’m starting from scratch this week to get results, and not giving up – the geochem and isotope data look great in this experiment, and having some proper DNA sequencing will be the Mariano Rivera (or Tom Henke, if you prefer) of this study – providing the last bit of evidence to close out a really great story.

Baseball is life. Life is baseball. Particularly true in science, these analogies never seem to end.



Tom Henke, closer for the Toronto Blue Jays first World Series win in 1992. Photo: