What not to say to a patch clamper

1. “It’s character building”

Often said when you’ve been banging your head against a brick wall for weeks, trying to get your experiment to work.

I agree, it is character building when you’re just starting out – I think it’s really important to instil the notion that patch clamp is incredibly difficult and frustrating. But when you’ve been doing it for at least a year with virtually no data to show for all those weeks and months of “character building”, then the person saying this is in danger of getting stabbed in the eyes with patch electrodes.


Death by patch electrodes

Death by patch electrodes


2. “I can see lots of cells”

The person saying this is either looking over your shoulder at a screen, or looking down a microscope at a cover-slip.

Yes, they think  they can see lots of cells. They assume that all those perfectly round, transparent blobs are cells that can be patched. But the truth is is that all those “cells” are in fact dead. Some are so dead, that all that’s left are ghosts of cells. When hunting around for that one reasonable-looking cell; a cell that can temporarily alleviate your misery, the last thing you need is someone with an untrained eye making completely pointless, unhelpful and incorrect observations.


3. “Are those miniature currents?”

Similar to the above, where someone (usually a PI) looks over your shoulder at a computer screen showing the latest trace of your cell’s electrical activity.

Once again, they think they can see miniature currents and yes, those currents are quite tiny. What they fail to notice, however, are the signs of a crappy cell, let alone the fact that the cell isn’t being perfused with any drugs (in order to isolate the miniature currents).

The same can be said for the relatively huge spontaneous currents. No, they are not inhibitory postsynaptic currents because I haven’t actually isolated them yet. I’m waiting for you to go away so that I can dash around the lab and prepare my solution before this cell dies.


4. “When will you have this dataset complete?”

How long is a piece of string? In an ideal world I can get 6 replicates (the minimum amount I need to run a statistical test) in a couple of weeks. The reality? A couple of months.


5. “Can you just do a quick ‘look-see’ experiment for Dr So-and-so?”

Seriously? You think that I can just do a ‘quick’ patch clamp experiment? For someone else? In a different part of the brain? With a completely different cell type and shape? On top of all the other experiments I have to do?

How about….. no.

Patch clamp

My journey in to Neuroscience

I didn’t grow up believing that I would one day be conducting scientific research, let alone regarding myself as a neuroscientist. From a fairly early age I wanted to be a vet and continued to think that this was the path for me right up until my second year of Sixth Form College. However, the stark realisation that I would never be able to achieve the straight A’s at A-level soon had me considering other options.

At first I didn’t really know what to do. I just knew that I wanted to do some sort of biological science degree because biology was one of my favourite subjects. Having amassed a collection of university prospectuses, I read through the list of subjects taught as part of one of the veterinary degree programs and I came across a particular word again and again: Pharmacology. My curiosity piqued, I decided to look it up and discovered that a lot of universities offered it as a degree in its own right.


Pharmacology is the study of drugs, their mechanisms of action and how they can be used therapeutically

For those of you who may not know what Pharmacology is, it’s basically the study of drugs, their properties, their mechanisms of action and how they can be used therapeutically. As soon as I discovered what Pharmacology was all about I knew that I just had to do it.

It wasn’t until my second year at university (studying Pharmacology) that I first started to fall in love with Neuroscience. The brain was a complete mystery to me up until this point. At school and college I had learnt the basic structure of a neuron and the basic principles of action potentials (neuronal signaling), but the brain was left well and truly alone.

One of my favourite aspects of Neuroscience is neuroanatomy. The brain isn’t a homogenous blob with no defining features. In fact it contains many distinct regions and intricate structures – all of which have specific functions (some multiple). I was incredibly lucky in the fact that my university had a prestigious medical school and this meant that we had access to fixed (preserved) human brains. So once a week, as part of our formal neuroantomy training, we were permitted to very carefully handle these brains. The novelty never wore off and I always felt immensely privileged to hold such a fascinating organ in my hands.

The brain contains many intricate and beautiful structures.

The brain contains many intricate and beautiful structures.

Once I completed my Pharmacology degree I decided to do a Master’s degree in Toxicology, the reason being that I wanted to try and specialise in an area that would lead on to a more specific career path. The Master’s degree culminated in a 3 month full-time research project over the summer and I chose to do something that really interested me; a Neuroscience research project. I learnt a lot during that project; in particular how to work in a proper research lab – and I absolutely loved it.

After finishing my Toxicology degree I continued for a time on the work I did as part of my Master’s research project, which gave me the experience and confidence in the lab required to do a PhD in Neuropharmacology.

I chose to do a PhD for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was bitten by the bug of laboratory-based research. It played to my strengths of manual dexterity, patience and meticulous attention to detail. Secondly, having a PhD is like a stamp of approval for a scientist. By the end of it all I will have proved that I am an independent thinker and worker, with the ability to present my research in a variety of different ways. Thirdly, I hope the economic climate will have improved somewhat in the ~5 years that I’ve hidden away in academia since the beginning of the recession. There are probably more reasons, but the three I’ve already mentioned are the primary ones.

Actually, I suppose there is one more reason… I absolutely love Neuroscience and Pharmacology. More on that later.

Lab humour

There’s definitely a certain kind of humour that goes with working in a lab, especially when the vast majority of people are PhD students and postdocs.

Break supervisor's head in an emergency

‘Break supervisor’s head with rock in emergency’

Of course, there are sometimes other people found in the lab – such as undergraduates. It’s fairly evident that they don’t spend all of their days, weeks and months here. Undergraduates tend to treat the research lab like one of the teaching labs, where they automatically assume that some poor technician will sort out and clear up any mess they’ve made. They also like to congregate in large, noisy groups, which led to one PI taking drastic action.


It’s not hard to remember that other people have to use the communal facilities too

Lots of undergraduates congregating in tissue culture led to drastic action being taken

Lots of undergraduates congregating in tissue culture led to drastic action being taken

However, not all of us who work here are exempt. Some electrophysiologists can be particularly messy – much to the annoyance of the anally-retentive ones.

Electrophysiologists have to use a lot of tubing and wires

‘No mess please, we’re electrophysiologists’

Ice boxes are also subjected to handwritten messages.

Just another anonymous ice box being carried across campus

Just another anonymous ice box being carried across campus

Pearls of wisdom for any neuroscientist

Pearls of wisdom for any neuroscientist

Some are a work of art

‘I blinded me with science’

Some messages are in fact ominous warnings.

You have been warned

You have been warned

A look round the electrophysiology lab yields a few more gems. Electrophysiologists, myself included, probably have the driest and darkest sense of humour. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry – and believe me, we’ve cried a lot.

A common affliction to the sleep-deprived and stressed

A common affliction of the sleep-deprived and stressed

Have you washed your hands and checked for Cthulhu?

Have you washed your hands and checked for Cthulhu?

Looks as ominous as it sounds

Every rig has it’s own descriptive name

Something every patch clamper can relate to

Something every patch clamper can relate to