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Lab technician: What I do and how much I make

Brian Dobosh, a lab tech at MIT's Weiss Lab for Synthetic Biology, combines biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering to solve biological problems. His work involves cloning DNA, making RNA, and ensuring lab safety. Brian emphasizes the importance of curiosity, problem-solving, communication, and continuous learning in his role.

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Video transcript

My name is Brian Dobosh. I am 23 years old. I am a research associate, more commonly referred to as a lab tech at the Weiss Lab for Synthetic Biology at MIT and I make $47,000 a year. Synthetic Biology is really an interface of many different fields. Biology, chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, computer engineering, chemical engineering. So it's all of these different fields coming together, bringing their expertise, to tackle a biological problem. We're trying to induce systems or processes in cells within the body that we don't have naturally. For example, for some chronic disease, you might take a pill every single day. Instead of taking a pill every day, maybe we'll just give you an injection once a month. And that can be a lot cheaper, less manual labor on the patient. That could be a lot better. So in the Weiss Lab, there's definitely a very defined hierarchy. And this would change from lab to lab, but in general you have your PI, which is your Principal Investigator, the person in charge. And underneath them, they have a group of post docs. Post doc meaning people who have their Phd and are doing something right after. Practiv for running their own lab, perhaps. And then you also have graduate students, people in the process of getting their master's or Phd. And then you also have lab techs, or research associates. We talk back to the post docs, the Principal Investigator, and some of the grad students, and assist them with their work. Doing a lot of the day to day tasks. Lab techs I would say are generally either undergrads or people have recently graduated. But you do have some lab technicians that are also having that as their career. As a lab tech I spend most of my time within the lab doing wet work. Moving liquid from tube to tube such as enzymes, DNA, RNA, using a pipette which is a liquid handler that could handle very small amount of liquid. I also am part of EHS, which is Environmental Health and Safety, and making sure that we're up to compliance and talking to the proper people about managing our hazardous waste, where that goes, and other safety regulations. Some of my main responsibilities in more science terms, I will clone DNA which are the blueprint and then from DNA I will make RNA. And from RNA you will transfect that into cells which will then make a protein product which you can measure using a few different instruments. And once you collect that data, you'll analyze it and then present it in such a way that other people can understand it and then because this is an engineering lab, you then take that data that you got and you back to the design step. Because nothing is ever perfect in science or anything else. And so you see what happened and you try and make it better. And you keep on doing this iterative design cycle until you get a product that you're happy with. If there's a structural defect in, maybe, your heart. There's a valve missing, perhaps. A lot of times you'll have surgery that can replace that but the hope for the future is that maybe we can put in stem cells that know how to reorganize themselves and can create a portion of that organ again. Which could be a lot safer, easier, than our current methods, non-invasive perhaps. But one of the things that I like about science is that it's a puzzle and so you have to be wanting, really enjoy a problem solving mindset. And you have to be curious about what's going on. You can't just tackle a problem without caring about it. And you have to be voracious for knowledge, really wanting to learn as much as you can, understand what is going on, and then of course you have to communicate with other people, so you have to be good at talking and be able to communicate with otherS effectively. Definitely in addition to communication you should certainly be a good listener as well. Because not only do you have to communicate your ideas or your data, but you have to listen to the data and ideas from other people so that you cannot only learn from them but incorporate that into your own designs and youR own work. And then additional skills are always, if you have more programming knowledge, that's always a plus cause that could help with being able to analyze data. If you have a digital arts background, making figures and graphs appealing to the eye and easy to communicate data with is incredibly important. And actually a lot of scientists lack the ability. My first time when I got into a lab was in high school and at the time I had no idea what a lab environment was like. I had never worn a lab coat before. I had never touched a mouse. I was a little bit squeamish about that at first. And so there's definitely a whole new series of experiences that you would never get just growing up. And it was a lot to take in at first but hopefully if you're in a good lab environment, your mentor and the other people around you will be understanding and willing to help. Yeah, I've definitely made a lot of mistakes. I remember when I was in undergrad, I was working in this one lab. We have an instrument that is able to control temperature really well. So if you have a reaction that requires a particular temperature to work at that's not just room temp, you use this machine. When I set up this machine, I had my notebook right next to it, a physical notebook. And the machine turned on and the fans go but you have to exhaust all the heat that you're generating. And my notebook page went up on top of the machine, covered the fan, and everything started smoking up. And that was one of my first experiences with, oh my goodness, what have I done. Cause I ruined the machine which is not a cheap one. Overall people are understanding. People both get very invested in their experiments so when someone else screws it up, it can be difficult. But part of science is understanding that things can go wrong and it's not anyone's fault necessarily. So when I was applying for this job, I definitely was aware of the range of salaries that I could be getting. And when I was hired, I was hired at $40,000 a year, and then there was a proposal by the National Institute of Health, NIH, for people on an RSA grants to make a higher amount. And so when that was proposed, MIT raised the salaries of all lab techs and post docs to that amount that was later overruled, but MIT has kept it at that. So if you stay on, at MIT, if you stay on as a lab tech, you do annually get a raise but in small increments. And in an academic environment, there's definitely a ceiling that can be tough to breach. But there are ways around it. I've seen a lot of people go from a lab tech role into maybe an EHS advisory role. Or becoming lab managers later on in their careers. But in academia there's definitely a ceiling that can be tough to reach without a higher degree, as a master's or Phd. Industry labs, or government positions, you can make a little bit more than you do in academia. Maybe upwards of 70 or 80,000 a year. Working in a lab can be incredibly fun and also frustrating. Because you're solving a problem, or attempting to solve a problem, that no one else has tackled before, or has really had an answer to. You're doing something that no one else has done before and that's a really cool thing for me. It makes sense that would also be incredibly frustrating because, if you're solving something so difficult, well there's a reason it's difficult. You're gonna experience a lot of failure, a lot of issues, along the way. And so it's both good and bad being in that lab.