November 2023

Don't Give Up: A DNA Story for Struggling Research Students teaser image

Don't Give Up: A DNA Story for Struggling Research Students

Serina DeSalvio

This is a story for anyone who’s just not sure that their project is going to work.

I came into graduate school with a central goal- isolate DNA from somewhere it’s never been isolated from before. I mean- I’m a genetics and genomics student, that shouldn’t be that hard, right?

They teach highschoolers to isolate DNA from strawberries, surely, I can isolate it from this tiny organism (that for now, will go unnamed, just in case).

Little did I know, this particular DNA holder was something that two former grad students in my lab had tried to work with- to no avail, EITHER time! I found this out about a year and a half into no results myself on this project… and this was supposed to be my big project. In year one, I did the best I could to come up with new ways to tackle this problem. I read papers from all the different kingdoms of life, looked up all the different tips and tricks seasoned geneticists had come up with to get DNA out of tricky places. I had tons of ideas, and I tried each.. but still nothing worked.

I figured maybe I was overcomplicating the problem, so in year two, I went back to basics and tried all of the traditional methods of DNA isolation on my samples. I saw some small results, but nothing important or meaningful or even close to what I was hoping for. There were enough results to convince me that what I wanted to do could be done… it was just a matter of how.

By my third year, I started to think there was no way this was going to work. I knew in theory, it had to be possible, so despite my despair over the whole thing, I kept trying. And trying, and trying! I felt like I had attempted every protocol alternative I could possibly imagine. And one day, amidst my burnout after my qualifying exams, I sat in on a meeting with a company- who mentioned they were working with someone who had the same samples as me. I perked up, and worked up the courage to ask some clarifying questions about what this other person was doing, and what their goals were. The company was even kind enough to put us in touch. I reached out to this graduate student, who had essentially the same project I did in a different crop.

We spent the summer writing back and forth about protocols and troubleshooting- until, finally, in August right before my fourth year, I did it. I got the DNA I wanted from my samples.

Flash forward a year to now, I’m in my fifth year writing a chapter in my dissertation covering the success of this DNA extraction and the downstream analysis that goes along with it. The moral of the story is- go to meetings even if you don’t want to, and never give up on something you think could work, it could be big!

About the Author

image of author Serina DeSalvio

Serina DeSalvio

Originally from Dallas, TX, Serina is a doctorate candidate at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the Interdisciplinary Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program. Her current research specializes in genetics, cytogenetics, botany, chromosome structure and dynamics, science communication, plant breeding, and biology. She enjoys painting, playing guitar, playing sand volleyball, ice skating, and taking care of her houseplants.

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