Experience with experiments

In a sterile biology lab senior Rowan Hamilton wore purple gloves while pipetting cheek cells into test tubes.  Hamilton spent the summer shadowing a graduate student.   

Hamilton wanted to attend Smith College’s biology camp for high schoolers in Northampton, Massachusetts.  But the price tag, at almost $2,000, was a deterrent.   However, Hamilton had connections with her father who works at Smith, and he arranged for her to go there and shadow a Biological Sciences graduate student, Cait Kirby.

“I came there with only a basic knowledge, but Cait was really cool,” Hamilton said.  “She put up with me!  She walked me through everything she had to in order for me to learn.”

At first, Hamilton shadowed Kirby, who taught her how to do various things in the lab, such as pipette.  Hamilton soon acquired enough experience to become an assistant to her graduate student.

“There was really hard work involved,” Hamilton said, referring to the tests, projects, and readings she had to complete while working in the lab.   However, working in the lab was an “unexpected, fun and cool experience,” Hamilton said.

In the lab Hamilton and Kirby experimented on DNA, mainly the X-Chromosome.

“There are two proteins—emerin and filamin—and in certain people they are flipped.  What we tried to do was find out why,” Hamilton said.

They took cheek swabs from volunteers and separated the cells through a process called PCR, which heated and cooled the cells.  Then they put the cells in a gel, which separated the DNA strands so they could see different components and proteins.

It was through this experiment that Hamilton and Kirby tried to disprove another theory that was proved years ago.  The experiment had already been running at the college for about a year and a half before Hamilton arrived, and unfortunately Hamilton and Kirby’s tests proved inconclusive.

“The results weren’t consistent enough,” Hamilton said.  “One time we proved [our theory], then another we disproved it.”

Though they didn’t get far with the experiment findings, Hamilton now wants to minor in biology at Smith College.

“The process became rewarding when I was working on a reading from my book and I had an ‘aha!’ moment where I suddenly understood everything!  It all made sense!  That was the best feeling,” Hamilton said.