Call of doody: When science stinks

Quartzy Business Development Associate Nicole Wong studied biological sciences in college. She’s worked in multiple industrial labs, too. But Nicole’s friends—as well as most people who’ve never worked in labs—still don’t quite grasp her background.

“People who aren’t in science look at it as glamorous,” Nicole says. “They think you’re creating cures for cancer or making big discoveries every day. It’s actually very repetitive and monotonous.”

Nicole Wong

And sometimes lab work is just, well, gross—a lesson Nicole learned early in her career. Nicole was a research associate at a biotech company that developed enzymes for animal feed. Her work entailed implementing microbial genetic techniques, directed evolution, and high-throughput screening approaches to develop and improve protein expression in microbial strains for fermentation production. And for one long, unforgettable period, Nicole’s duties revolved around doody.

Nicole led an experiment to test whether a novel enzyme her company produced could reduce coccidiosis—an inflammatory intestinal disease prevalent in poultry—in chickens. For two months, Nicole collected chicken cloacal swabs and fecal samples, from which she extracted DNA to test coccidiosis levels through a multiplex qPCR assay. “The fun part was doing the DNA extractions,” Nicole says. “Luckily, the poop samples were frozen, but they still smelled horribly.”

Nicole wasn’t alone in detesting the fowl odor, but she was left solo to suffer the stench. Early in the experiment, Nicole was moved to a late-night schedule because the rest of her lab could no longer stand the smell. Nicole worked in stinky solitude, breaking off pieces of samples she would then weigh and disassemble using a special sonicator to extract and purify DNA. When she got home, her friends would ask “How was work?,” to which Nicole replied, “Well, it was a little poopy.”

The experiment was one of Nicole’s first, which explains her participation. “A lot of my coworkers were kind of like, ‘You got suckered into the poop project!’ Nicole says. “They were more senior. They knew what it meant when our boss offered it up to them. I, on the other hand, fell for the jargon.”

While Nicole still bears malodorous memories of the experiment, the pungent price paid off. “It did show that it reduced the amount of the disease, so it was a very promising study,” Nicole says. And it didn’t detour Nicole from lab science, which she continued for several years before joining Quartzy. “I really loved the challenge of it,” Nicole says. “You’re trying to create or discover something that’s never been done. You have to take bits and pieces of what other people have done to solve the problem you’re tackling.”

Lab life does, however, have pain points, which Nicole enjoys solving for scientists via Quartzy, where her team grows product supply chain and helps labs manage inventory. “My last lab was in the dark ages,” Nicole says. “We used paper notebooks for inventory. We just wrote down what we needed, and the PI signed it, so only one person really knew our inventory.”

Nicole says Quartzy’s collaborative features would have prevented her lab pet peeves, such as running out of Taq in the middle of an experiment. “Quartzy helps with communication without speaking, because you don’t talk much in labs. You put on headphones, put heads-down, and do work.” Nicole still occasionally wears headphones at work, but she’s glad to no longer need a HEPA mask.

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Greg Schindler

Greg has a BA from Stanford (English/Football) and MS from Oregon (Journalism). He's our Director of Marketing and Pastries.