The Unsung Heroes Of The Lab

Author:  Maria Zagorulya

Institution:  University of Rochester


JYI spoke with Julia Ablaeva, a Russian lab technician working at University of Rochester. Ablaeva tells us what it’s like to be the power horse of the research lab and how she got there. Today she performs cutting-edge research in cancer and ageing in the laboratory of Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov.

Could you please tell me a little bit about your educational background?

I got a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Novosibirsk State University, Russia, in 1989.

What did you do afterwards?

I first worked in the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Novosibirsk for 13 years. There I studied the mitochondrial DNA in OXYS rats, a line of rats with premature ageing. Then we moved to Moscow and I worked in the Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry researching nucleoli proteins and autoimmune diseases for two years.

How did you decide what career path to follow?

I was always interested in biology. I really liked the university itself when I visited the college campus in summer. The atmosphere is very special, very creative and open; there are many enthusiasts and professionals, and a thriving student life. Also, my aunt lived on campus teaching university mathematics and she helped me make my choice.

What are your roles and responsibilities at work?

Today I work in the lab of Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov. My job is to coordinate day-to-day laboratory activities. From the administrative perspective, I ensure that services are provided in accordance with state and federal regulations and oversee laboratory budget.

I am also responsible for all the technical aspects of the laboratory, such as maintaining inventory, preparing solutions, sterilizing materials and troubleshooting equipment. Furthermore, I am responsible for packing and sending different laboratory genetic constructs and genomic DNA for sequencing, animal tissue samples for customers all over the world as well as maintaining plasmid stocks. Additionally, I supervise laboratory personnel, organize weekly laboratory meetings and train new students. As far as research is concerned, I run my own project. I establish and maintain tissue cultures, continuous mouse colony breeding, and perform experiments both in vitro and in vivo. I design and implement new methods or steps in protocols and consult literature for new ideas if necessary. Following my research, I prepare and deliver presentations summarizing the projects.

What are your favourite things about the job?

I like the flexibility of planning my own experiments and the lack of a strict schedule. I enjoy the science: obtaining exciting scientific data, engaging in the research of cancer and aging, and being part of a team at a leading laboratory at the university. Also, I enjoy working with people.

What kind of person do you think is best suited for this job?

A person who has the goal of obtaining a good background in laboratory practice and who wants an insider’s view on the life of a researcher would be best suited for the job. A laboratory technician is a very good starting job for further professional development. To be a good lab technician, you need to have good hands, be scrupulous, responsible, and flexible; you cannot be slow. You need to have excellent organizational and communications skills, the ability to multi-task and to work well in a team. You must be a responsible workaholic, and you must have some previous laboratory experience.

I have heard that there are different kinds of lab technicians and all of their work is very different. Could you briefly tell me about the different kinds of lab technicians?

I have only worked in scientific research laboratories. But I know that laboratory technicians working in medicine perform a multitude of analyses from histology to ultrasound. Some laboratory technicians work specifically with equipment; others work only with patients. It provides a relatively flexible schedule and self-planning – this is exactly what I like about being in a scientific research laboratory.

What are the differences and similarities between working as a professional lab technician and researching in a lab at a university or academic institution?

Certainly the difference is enormous. In the industry the salaries must be much higher, but the responsibility and the cost of making a mistake is also much greater, especially when working with people.

How many labs have you worked in? How was your job different in them? Are there differences between working in a lab in Russia and America?

Of course the job of a lab technician is different in every country. In Russia the schedule is not as stressful, there are fewer orders, the experiments are simpler and the atmosphere is not as competitive as here in the US. Thus there are fewer results too. Because of customs all the lab orders in Russia take much longer, up to 3-4 months on average, and this also defines the work schedule. I also spent around one year working as a visiting scientist in Taiwan, Academia Sinica, Institute of Molecular Biology. The work there was tough and challenging, and the atmosphere was very competitive, similar to US labs.

What are some of your most cherished accomplishments?

One interesting discovery was confirming the correlation between sudden necrotic cell death of blind mole rat cells and the release of interferon beta. The research was published in PNAS in 2012 as “Cancer resistance in the blind mole rat is mediated by concerted necrotic cell death mechanism”.

I also achieved interesting results when working with naked mole rat cells and researching hyaluronic acid. These results were published in Nature last year as “High-molecular-mass hyaluronan mediates the cancer resistance of the naked mole rat.”

Looking back would you have chosen something different?

Looking back, I think that I would have still started work as a lab technician, but afterwards I would have tried to achieve maximum professional growth in science by getting a PhD. However, although a PhD gives certain advantages, it also makes it harder to find a job, because a PhD holder requires a higher salary. Laboratory technicians, on the other hand, are always in demand in both the academic sector and in the pharmaceutical industry.