I’ve been a graduate student in bioengineering for quite a while now—let’s call it “more than five years”—but I harbor a far more embarrassing secret (for a bio-centric program) than that. I’ve only known how to pipette for four of them. When I entered graduate school my lab experience had been limited to computer work: mostly data analysis in Matlab. I had never actually gathered my own data. Perhaps I should’ve directly mentioned this in my application, though at times computational work is all one does to complete a PhD in bioengineering (the field is diverse).

AllYourBugAreBelongToMeThere were many times as an undergrad that I was so frustrated troubleshooting code in Matlab I actually yelled at whatever living thing was inside the computer and obviously out to get me. But I eventually figured out how to massage the computer into doing what I wanted. And that particular problem was solved.

As a grad student I’ve come to know the pains of experimental work with actual living things. One particular technique deserves the utmost reverence: patch clamping.

Less widely practiced than computer programming, patch clamping is one of the most transformative techniques in neuroscience. It’s a delicate process in which you, the experimenter, first bring the tip of a microscopic glass pipette down to a cell membrane ever-so-gently under a microscope. You then physically apply suction with your own mouth on the other end of the pipette, which is archaically connected though a long rubbery tube. By applying suction you draw the cell membrane so close to the pipette tip that it adheres and forms a seal on the rim of the glass. Then with more powerful suction, you break open the bit of membrane that’s stuck to the pipette opening, all while the cell is still alive.