Tales from the bench: The puzzling nature of research

Periodically we feature “Tales from the bench” stories of life in the lab from our grantees. Jacqueline Ward is a graduate student in the lab of Albert La Spada at the University of California, San Diego, where she has a CIRM training grant to use stem cells to better understand and treat forms of blindness.

I’m a huge fan of puzzles. This is probably not unsurprising, as I’m a biologist, and biologists by nature like figuring out how biological units–molecules, proteins, cells, organisms–fit into a bigger context. It’s also kind of a nerdy hobby, so that fits the stereotype too.

The other thing you need to know about my love for puzzles is, that sometimes I hate them. When you get really challenging ones, I’m talking 2000+ pieces, and no defined lines anywhere (thanks for that, Van Gogh), it’s really tough to finish those suckers. I’ve spent weeks working on puzzles and some days, getting just one piece in place is a big victory. Occasionally, science feels the same way.

The difference between puzzles and science is that with science, you don’t have the front of the box to guide you. This can be really frustrating sometimes. In the lab, we have to make educated guesses, hypotheses, as to how certain biological mechanisms work. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re not. In one puzzle, I tried to fit all the blue pieces in the sky only to realize that half of those sky blue pieces went in the ocean after all. The pieces don’t always fit the way I expect.

In the lab, I’ve spent weeks working on certain questions that feel really promising, but don’t necessarily pan out. A few months ago I started working on an exciting new project to use stem cells as a model for a novel genetic disease. I thought the easy part would be determining which cells had this genetic mutation. To put it briefly: I was wrong. It took me months to troubleshoot the issue and finally find a solution. This is why finding cures for diseases takes so long. We begin very slowly by putting individual pieces together. Eventually the questions begin to get answered and the bigger picture takes shape. In science this can take years, especially in a developing field.

I use induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in my work, a type of puzzle that wasn’t even invented until 2006. We haven’t even identified all the pieces in this puzzle, much less put it together completely. My goal is to turn these flexible cells into the retinal photoreceptors that transmit light in your eye. If I’m successful, these cells will help us understand the cause of certain kinds of blindness; what is going wrong and how we can fix it. I have a rough outline of what the puzzle is supposed to look like, but directing those cells to become what I want can be frustrating.

Science requires a lot of patience. There are days in lab where nothing works, and I just have to remember that there is a bigger picture I’m putting together. What drives me is knowing that when I finally assemble my own version of a 2000-piecer the end result is something more than just an assembled puzzle—it’s something that could directly help people.

Here is Ward describing her research at the CIRM Grantee Meeting Elevator Pitch Challenge:

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