Dear Diary: Today, I Worked – Grad Student Researcher

| Boston Magazine |

What people in three quintessentially Boston jobs do during a typical day at the office. And why (according to Harvard labor economist Edward Glaeser) they earn what they do.


Stephanie Courchesne
Salary: $29,000

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Courchesne, a fifth-year graduate student in Harvard Medical School’s neuroscience program, is working full time on her doctoral dissertation. She studies the development and diseases of neurons in the spinal cord, which, if better understood, could lead to more-effective treatments for conditions such as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her pay comes in the form of a stipend funded through private fellowships and government grants.

9 a.m. I have a one-hour commute by bus, which gives me time to read journal articles like the one I’m reading now, about how young neurons grow connections to communicate with other neurons.

10 a.m. I get to work at my lab, which is pretty typical-looking: long workbenches, shelves for storing chemical bottles and other supplies, and a desk. There are several sinks, and refrigerators and freezers to store chemicals. My bench is in a state of organized chaos, covered with journal articles, tubes, bottles, a box of clean gloves, and my notebook. First, I check my e-mail. Today I have a lot, mostly about a series of free public lectures I help organize locally called “Science in the News.”

10:30 a.m. As part of my research, I am looking at different proteins within neurons. To start, I slice neurons into thin sections using a machine called a cryostat. After that, I’ll put the slices on microscope slides and label the proteins I’m interested in with fluorescent tags.

1 p.m. Lunch. I often resign myself to the hospital cafeteria fare, but the bonus is sitting with my labmates. It’s not all neurons and data analysis with us—we talk movies and weekend plans. We are a pretty close lab and enjoy spending time together, so everyone is excited about our latest group outing: trapeze lessons.

1:30 p.m. The protein-labeling process is moving along, so I decide to attend to another task. I am teaching myself a computer program that will help me complete an experiment I started a few days ago. In that one, I am comparing differences between genes that are expressed in healthy neurons with neurons diseased with Lou Gehrig’s. Learning the program takes up a lot of my spare time.

3 p.m. Every week we have a lab meeting where one person presents the latest progress from his or her work. Today an undergraduate who has worked here for the summer is presenting before he leaves. In honor of the big day, he’s baked an amazing chocolate and caramel torte. Great snacks always seem to help scientific presentations.

4 p.m. Back to work. To label my proteins, I use antibodies with fluorescent tags on them. The process takes some time—mixing the antibody solution, waiting an hour or so for the antibodies to attach themselves to the correct proteins on my microscope slide, then mixing the fluorescent tag solution and waiting another hour for the tags to attach to the antibodies. Like most science, it gives me long stretches when my direct attention is not needed. I do some more planning for the “Science in the News” lecture series, and e-mail a scientist I saw at a recent seminar who used an interesting technique I want to learn more about.

8 p.m. Although I’ll let the slides dry overnight, I take a quick peek. The labeling looks pretty good! Since experiments need to be repeated to confirm the results, this means I can probably start labeling other sets of neurons later this week.

8:30 p.m. The evening commute means another hour by bus. I’m still reading the same article as this morning. Scientific papers can get pretty long and detailed.

Edward Glaeser says: She’ll find better pay as she advances her career, although she’ll always make less than she would working for a hedge fund. Her modest earnings reflect the steady supply of passion-driven, socially conscious workers who are willing to make less money to produce ideas that might change the world. If that supply suddenly dries up because young people stop wanting to better humanity, wages would have to rise fairly quickly.