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Measuring CBCs

…and all was well in the village of the Wells Centre.

But on the eve of the Anniversary, lots were drawn to elect the Tribune. Alas, the honour was mine. I could not sleep. Pain, fear, uncertainty: what horrors would I face in the morning? I rose before the Sun, composed myself. I journeyed to the mouth of the Cave. Gingerly, I presented my offering. Silence. Then a thunderclap and the offering is gone. Accepted? Dare I hope? My spirits lift; I reacquire my bearings. But no: the sample is returned. Its inadequacy is encrypted in code:

Error Message

I seek help. The Oracle is old and wise. But her time is precious; “In 5 minutes I will leave for the rest of the week.” I rush through my story. She murmurs knowingly: “appearances are everything. Make your offering shine.” I take the advice literally: with soap and brush I clean my offering, polish it and then with renewed purpose I present it again before the Cave. Silence. And then it is gone. Pause. A long pause. Nothing happens. Is this success? I turn to leave and as I do I hear a sigh. Did it come from the cave or is it my own?

I study the development of the blood system and blood disorders in early childhood. A rapid screening test – in both humans and in mice – of blood abnormalities is the Complete Blood Count. This assay determines the cellular components of whole blood: densities of platelets, red blood cells, white blood cells along with their distribution (%lymphoid, %monocytes, %granulocytes…). At a glance, these values can help guide me to what is wrong with a sick animal. Over time, these values can let me observe theeffects of mutations or treatment on the health of populations.

The HemaVet is the machine that performs these analyses. It is a powerful tool but an unforgiving one. If I have a nemesis in lab: it is it. The HemaVet requires constant maintenance: running calibrated controls to ensure accurate results, frequent changes of its consumable reagents, cleaning cycles to ensure that the machine remains consistent. I’ve become accustomed to an alphabet soup of error messages and learned the tricks to fix them.

Nonetheless, new errors crop up. Earlier this week I got the one shown above. Amid the “normal” operating sounds of steampunk hissing, clunking and buzzing, the machine simply halted. I found the operating manual but no reference to the particular error code. I called customer service. I really did speak with an oracle: a tech who knew the foibles of the machine and could lead me through the special cleaning routine to fix the error. The solution worked well and I was able to process the rest of my samples without unduly raised blood pressure.

When I began my research, I did not imagine myself calling tech support. But I’ve discovered that technical troubleshooting is a common and necessary part of my research. It would have been all too easy to give up when the initial error emerged. To have asked the building manager to take a look at the machine. Dave’s helpful but he’s busy: by the time he could have looked at the machine my collected blood samples would have beencompromised. And his solution would have been the same as mine: call the company and ask for help.

Running the HemaVet is full-day experiment. Drawing blood, ensuring it is free of clogs, running my samples, re-running samples whose results suggest of a sampling error, validating results by flow cytometry and blood smears and finally inputting the results into my computer.  But after a long day’s work, I get the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve added a key data point to my understanding of mouse models of pediatric disease.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.