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What in the hell is a Leica?

Frank Lee 3 November 2015

Beloved shiny (photo by the author)

To a farm boy from East Texas, this was the scientific big time - the most awesome piece of lab equipment I had ever seen

Istarted graduate school at the University of New Orleans in the Fall of 2008. I had been working as a mental health and substance abuse crisis interventionist in Dallas, and it took me two years before I decided that I wasn’t cut out for that. I had heard and seen enough sadness in that job to last me three lifetimes, so I decided that it was time to go back to school and focus on something I had always had an interest in: neuroscience. I had been accepted to work with Dr. Gerald “Jerry” LaHoste who was researching dopamine transmission in relation to a newly discovered striatal protein named ‘Rhes’.

I was woefully unprepared. I hadn’t been in school for several years and even then my exposure to serious lab work was limited. As an undergraduate, I had taken a heavy science load for a psychology student so I had genetics labs, organic chemistry labs, and had even learned how to skin and stuff birds in ornithology lab. None of that compared to the level of intimacy I had to acquire with my lab in graduate school.

My labmate Brandon and I were the first graduate students to enter the Applied Biopsychology program with the intention of working with animals since before Hurricane Katrina had devastated much of the New Orleans metro area. When Brandon and I started, the lab spaces at UNO were almost unused. We were inheriting space that was empty of researchers but definitely not empty. Jerry told us the horror stories of returning to the vivarium a couple of months after the storm to find it full of the corpses of starved lab animals still in their cages. Jerry, and two of his post-docs, had single-handedly cleaned the vivarium of death. They had to use respirators because of the smell and propane lanterns because there was no electricity. The wet labs surrounding the vivarium were mostly untouched, and the faculty who had operated them were long gone.

The stench of death was only just dissipating, but Brandon and I were undeterred. We set about cleaning up areas we intended to use with the vigor of new graduate students. There was plenty of space to go around so I chose a lab at the end of the vivarium hallway and opened it up.

The lab consisted of three adjoining 10x10 rooms with a sink in the middle room. It was an absolute mess. It looked like no one had set foot in there in twenty years. A bag of rat chow had been spilled in the back room. An enterprising rodent had survived quite some time off of its contents. Gallon jugs of cresyl violet waste and used paraformaldehyde were littered about randomly. The lights did not work, giving the lab a horror movie vibe. After replacing some light bulbs I got to work removing garbage, cleaning cabinets, and washing glassware. I called facility services to have them paint the walls and wax the floors.

Next, I set about scavenging. This was my favorite part. There was so much abandoned lab equipment around the department. I nabbed all kinds of cool stuff: a practically new set of micropipettes, a refrigerated centrifuge, two lab ovens, a lab refrigerator, lesion generators, and lots of small supplies. I organized things on carts, and strategically positioned equipment on neat countertops.

During one scavenging expedition, I found, in the back of one of the abandoned labs, the coolest piece of equipment I had seen yet.

I had absolutely no clue what it was. It looked like a dorm fridge on wheels. It said ‘Leica’ on it and it had a sliding glass door on the top. I said to myself, “What in the hell is a Leica?” I had no clue, but I knew it was really cool-looking and it must have been expensive given the construction, size and number of buttons. I hastily wheeled it into my new lab space and found a good spot for it: in a corner across from the main door so every time I came into the lab I could see it.

A faculty member saw what I was doing and said, “Oh, that’s a very nice cryostat.” I agreed heartily, even though I didn’t know what a cryostat was. Armed with a clue, I went back to my office and consulted Google. The internet informed me that a cryostat was a refrigerated machine for sectioning tissue. BADASS! I didn’t think I’d even ever use it but it was so cool that I wanted it in my lab. To a farm boy from East Texas, this was the scientific big time. I had a Leica cryostat and it was the most awesome piece of scientific equipment I had ever seen in my life.

About a year later, I went to work at the Neuroscience Center for Excellence at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. I had been hired on a grant to work for the summer. I was in for a shock. I thought my humble lab space with its ovens, shakers, and cryostat was as good as it could possibly get. I hadn’t seen anything yet. They had everything a feverish grad student could possibly imagine there. There was a whole room full of plate readers, and a whole room of cell culture equipment. It blew my mind: science on a whole other level that I was only vaguely aware existed. I had read papers from big labs with multiple experimental methodologies, but now I was there, seeing it first hand.

Fast forward a few years. I had finished my master’s research project and was moving in a new direction for my Ph.D. project. I wanted to look inside the brains of mice that had Huntington’s disease to track the formation of neuropathological markers. Jerry showed me how to perfuse the mice to preserve brain tissue but I wasn’t very good at getting the needle into the heart correctly, and it was a time consuming process. I researched different approaches to preserving the brain tissue and came across an article about sectioning brains on a cryostat and fixing the tissue on slides. Brilliant! This would save me a load of time and I would have an excuse to learn how to use the Leica cryostat!

There was one problem. No one in the department had ever had any experience using it. I didn’t let that deter me. I found the owner’s manual, which I had liberated along with the machine, and took it home. I read it from cover to cover to learn how all the buttons worked and how to mount the tissue and blades. I also looked up other people’s experiences on the internet, which provided invaluable information. The next day Brandon and I convened at 8 am. We didn’t leave the lab until we had successfully sectioned and slide-mounted 20-micrometer coronal slices of mouse brain through the entire dorsal striatum.

I proceeded to make thousands of slices on that Leica cryostat, and even taught several other graduate and undergraduate students the dark art of tissue cryosectioning. It did break down once. I spent three days fixing it. I spent good times and bad times with that piece of equipment, but I’m grateful for every moment. The Leica cryostat taught me that that science isn’t necessarily about equipment. It isn’t about having the world’s most awesome lab. Science is about the intellectual curiosity of figuring out how to answer questions with whatever you have at your disposal.

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Edited by Aaron Radicke