“A summer of Stem Cells” by Ariela Koehler
“It appears all your cells are dead.”
Only shock prevented the tears from streaming down my face. My cells were dead. After being accepted into the competitive Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer research Program (SIMr), and spending approximately 170 hours of the past month manipulating human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), I was back to square one—with only one month of my internship remaining. How in the world was I going to make up for lost time?
As I asked myself the question, I thought back to exactly how I had spent those 170 hours, working to develop the stem cells which now, under the microscope, were hollow with the absence of life.
I started my internship a little overwhelmed by the fancy hoods, automatic pipettes, and high-speed centrifuges. But by the first of the 170 hours, I had familiarized myself with the equipment and begun my quest to find the function of PrDM1—a gene thought to control replication in hESCs. First though, I needed to make a growth medium for the hESCs. I painstakingly measured to the ten millionth of a liter, testing the accuracy of each measurement multiple times before finally dispensing it into the medium solution. After I had plated the hESCs on my new medium, I waited with bated breath for the results.
To my joy, two days later, my cells were thriving and even outgrow-ing their new home. Known for their ability to quickly replicate, it was logical they would need to be frequently transferred. The difficult part was that, as part of my experiment to find the purpose of PrDM1, I had different strains of hESCs (some serving as “control” strains) which could not be mixed. Transferring hESCs is a process requiring great concentration and coordination. It took me about three hours the first time. By the end of the month, though, transferring was second nature and my cells were doing well—I had inserted a fluorescent protein into their DnA to verify the hESCs containing the resistant vector were living, as hypothesized. I had successfully created hundreds of stable hESC colonies of different strains. Everything seemed to be going so well ...
But now was not the time to reminiscence. I snapped out of my daydream and refocused on the situation at hand.
“Ariela? I know taking the news the first time can be hard, but keep in mind, you probably didn’t do anything wrong. You know how sensitive they are ... this sort of thing is common when working with stem cells.”
“I know,” I said, smiling genuinely this time, “I’m ready to try again.”
My project was not completed by the end of the summer, but through hard work, I was able to replicate parts of the experiment to produce valuable data. Although the experiment did not go as planned, I am proud of myself for persevering. As Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
“A Summer of Stem Cells” uses lively dialogue and careful detail to show us how Ariela responded to a major setback during her summer research at SIMR. The introduction, “It appears all your cells are dead,” is gripping and mysterious. We subsequently learn of the astonishing 170 hours Ariela has devoted to her research project with human embryonic stem cells. Ariela’s colloquial tone serves to draw readers in so that we sympathize with her plight. We also wonder how in the world Ariela will make up for the lost time now that she is “back to square one.”
Where “Scientific Sparks” (Chapter 5) used a straightforward chronological narrative effectively, “A Summer of Stem Cells” provides a refreshing twist by going back in time. This tactic also invigorates our understanding of “170 hours.” Generally, numbers are more meaningful when they are contextualized. Had Ariela not described how she spent the 170 hours, this detail may have seemed like bragging, or alternatively might have been dismissed. However, by describing “fancy hoods, automatic pipettes, and high-speed centrifuges” and the painstaking ways in which she used this professional equipment on her “quest,” Ariela gives us a stronger understanding of her dedication and focus. She sets up suspense by writing, “I waited with bated breath for the results,” a statement that invites the reader to share in her nervous and eager anticipation.
By writing about the learning process in the lab with such careful detail, Ariela shows us that she possesses the “great concentration and coordination” necessary for conducting scientific research. We are swept into her optimism: “Everything seemed to be going so well ...”
Here, the ellipses provide a transition back to the moment when Ariela discovers the devastating fact that her stem cells are dead. It would be helpful to know who speaks to Ariela—Is it her lab manager? A voice in her head?—to reassure her that she “probably didn’t do anything wrong” and that “this sort of thing is common when working with stem cells.”
This essay demonstrates that it is possible to write a compelling essay based on experiences related to a circumstance that might be deemed a failure or a project where performance didn’t reach one’s expectations. Ariela writes with admirable honesty when she admits that her project was not completed by the end of the summer. However, we understand that her perseverance paid off, as she was able to “produce valuable data.” Since the original essay asked about “something that you have created,” Ariela might have explained in greater detail what this “valuable data” was. However, her choice to show an experiment that she created that did not go as planned is a unique response.
It is memorable because many people are afraid to admit their mistakes. By ending on a Thomas Edison quote, Ariela shows that she is following the persistent spirit of the famous scientist-inventor in her passionate pursuit of scientific knowledge.