When I'm not in my research lab, I enjoy breathtaking vistas and good conversation.

Offbrand Cereal: A Chronicle

It was either the sixth or seventh time I took a shower using hand soap before I realized I was probably doing something wrong. The whole living on my own thing was not going quite as I had planned. Living on roughly $50 a week has been a brutally humbling experience that has altered my appreciation of pretty much everything. Somehow the absence of wifi leaves even the most furnished house feeling like some shack in a rundown shanty. Even without wifi I would settle for just a furnished house, but after sleeping on the hardwood floor for the past three weeks my back has probably suffered the full extent of irreversible spinal damage, so I think I will hold off on buying a mattress for a little bit longer. With my spine in the shape of an S, I hobble from place to place. I had a truck but that was before it died on me, right before I was going to see Finding Dory at the drive in with my friend, Sarina. Bummer. Although it’s not really as bad as it sounds. The past three weeks have been filled with a lot of redeeming upgrades. I no longer eat cereal straight out of the box with my bare hands. Nowadays I eat my tootie fruities (no not Fruit Loops, off brand has quickly become my go to brand) with a fork. My favorite memory though has to be using the open flame from my stove to toast (burn) my bread. Don’t worry Berta I will not burn down your flat, and that reminds me, thank you. As much as my difficulties may disagree, I’m grateful for the last three weeks in their entirety. If I had the ability to opt out and move to the Bahamas, I would still choose to stay in Isla Vista nine times out of ten. Why? Because Isla Vista has quickly become my home in a way I never thought possible. The community here is unmatched. A paradise filled with beach bums and beautifully intelligent people is not supposed to exist, but it does, and I get to call it my home.

Not only have I found my home in IV, but I have also found a pretty stable job out here. For summer sixteen and throughout my second year, I’ll be working in the Daugherty Lab hoping to revolutionize diagnostic medicine. Our goal is to develop a method by which we can use antibodies to diagnose disease. If antibody antigen combinations are specific, and antigens are also specific to their disease then by the transitive property or something antibodies are relatively specific to different diseases. Rather than looking for the foreign invader hiding throughout our entire body, we want to start looking for antibodies, the location of which is more well known. We do this through a process called bacterial display. With a bit of protein engineering, some nutrient filled broth that bacteria like, and some FACs analysis, one day we will reach our goal, hopefully. In reality what I do is a lot of pipetting and a lot of babysitting bacteria. During my short time in the Daugherty lab I came to the realization that the cure for cancer is not locked behind some unlockable door, or even behind some immovable mountain. The cure for cancer is behind hours and hours of pipetting. So until that day I will pipette. I will pipette and I will babysit bacteria and feed them a broth that probably has more nutrients than my current diet. Joking aside research is serious work. It can be seriously fun work too, but at the end of the day there is a goal and there is funding and those are the two most important things in a lab. You can’t work on a project that doesn’t have any funding and you have to make sure you’re always making progress towards the larger picture. Research labs live and die by their ability to earn grants. You could have a Nobel prize worthy project but without any funding it will never come to fruition. I say this not out of any spite but to give a clearer picture of how labs work and what drives them. Money drives research.

Working with Joel this summer has been one of the single greatest most gratifying things I have ever done. This experience has affirmed my desire to pursue an MD/PhD (the degree Christina Yang has, so I’ve been told) and think of research as a life-long career. Genentech here I come. With all that being said, I believe my first blog update has reached its conclusion. I’ll let you know all about interrogating e. Coli and using enzymes to separate and sequence DNA in a future update. For now this is Rafael signing off.

Starting At Zero

My debut in undergraduate research has been (at least in my mind) tumultuous. If I were to condense the experience to something that gets the point across, I would point you to this image:

It'll sort itself out, right?

It’ll sort itself out, right?  

First, some backstory. I am a physics major. While I love the major, I also wanted to pursue some technical skills like coding and knowledge of hardware. That’s why I decided to venture into the field of electrical engineering for my first foray into undergraduate research. Interdisciplinary research is big these days, and lots of physics majors don’t limit themselves to research within just physics. I figured that starting in a different field would be fine. The challenge was finding a way to do so.

The AIM Photonics program helped me with this, introducing me to the Blumenthal group (led by Dr. Daniel Blumenthal). Here I am currently, working on a research project that is heavily based on hardware I’ve heard nothing of before, software programs I didn’t know existed, and programming languages I’ve not learned. In other words, I was a bit out of my element.

I’m liking the challenge. I learn that much more because I knew so little about the tools I’m using. I learn things I wouldn’t normally learn.  At the same time, there are downsides. I feel that I have to learn more than someone who is an electrical engineering major (where they might traditionally study these things). It’s some good parts, and some bad parts.

To that I say, “This is fine.”

And to you reading, know that this is normal. The process of undergrad research demands that you learn about things you’ve never seen. If you’re like me and start your research career in a different field, then you might know even less. That’s where most everyone starts. We spend weeks and months learning more about our projects, our tools, and our fields. It’s normal to find it intimidating- we’re just interns starting out. We don’t have the experience our mentors do.

We’ve got to take it one day at time, and then we’ll grow out of this phase.

Setting Goals in Research

As undergraduates, we attend classes, complete homework assignments, follow weekly routines, and have deadlines by which we must finish certain tasks. Generally during the school year, the goals we set are short-term, whether they be reading a physics chapter or writing a recommendation report. There is a clear path and purpose to this routine; each class will last for a quarter, there will be homework and midterms, and our knowledge will be tested at the end of the quarter. Although learning continues throughout one’s lifetime, the specifically targeted goals regarding a particular subject area may last for a relatively short time.

This can be vastly different from research. Without a clear question that needs answering, as well as at least a general idea of the means necessary to achieve an end goal, one will lack a sense of direction when conducting research. Here, the goals one sets are more independently drafted than those in a course-filled routine. When conducting research, one is his or her own boss and has more control on their actions and behavior on a day-to-day basis. Hence one must set goals in a manner that maximizes productivity without sacrificing much enjoyment.

When setting goals for research, I found that planning ahead to a few weeks was beneficial. This does not mean creating a strict daily schedule where one accurately approximates the amount of time required to complete each individual task. I tried this, and felt too confined to this schedule. It is important to be flexible in case an experiment takes longer than anticipated or needs to be repeated due to an erroneous lab setup. However, because research is a long-term process, having a general idea of the progression of tasks on a weekly basis is important. At the beginning of each week, one should also set goals for each day of that week.

Whether one wants to complete this by creating a to-do list using post-its or a smartphone app is their choice, as long as it is easily accessible. By having a list, one validates the tasks at hand, and more importantly, can refer to the most important objectives that need to be accomplished. At first, this could seem overwhelming. However, it is ultimately an excellent means of reducing procrastination and the likeliness of dates being pushed back.


Research. What is it good for?

A few nights ago, my fellow CSEP scholars and I had dinner with faculty from STEM fields all across the UCSB campus, and we chatted about this very question: what is research good for? From these conversations, I got a lot of insight from people extremely well-qualified to answer such a question. So I am here to share this expert advice so that you may learn these lessons sooner than I did.

There is the more obvious answer to what the benefit of research is: resumé booster. Whatever it is that you want to do in STEM, research experience is helpful. Whether you want to go on to get your Masters, go to graduate school, or go straight into industry after your undergraduate education, previous lab experience, in my opinion, is an unspoken requirement for admission. This was reinforced by a conversation I had with a professor at dinner. He told me that research experience is often used as a filter to narrow down the pool of applicants. Therefore, many smart and capable candidates are not even given a chance—a sad reality. However, this is not done in malice. It is done because the amount of qualified candidates is so large (and growing every year) that they must narrow them down somehow. Now, I am not telling you this story to scare you or to say that those without research experience have no chance of progressing in their careers. I am telling you this as advice to seize all of the opportunities you can so that you are not tossed aside when you really are a smart and capable candidate. Therefore, research in your undergraduate career gives you a leg up, which is nothing but helpful in the competitive world we live in. Many of the skills and techniques that you need in both grad school and industry are taught through lab experience as an undergraduate, such as how to set up, purify, and analyze reactions. You learn what the research process is like and how to move forward when your reactions either do or do not work. It even teaches you what lab culture is like and how to navigate within it. This, among many other reasons, is why previous lab experience makes you a more desirable candidate.

While this may be a good enough reason to jump on board the undergraduate research train, it is not the only or most important answer to why research is good. Research (at all levels) teaches you about yourself. Personally, it has taught me what my passion is and, as a result, what I want to do with my future. It has forced me to carry on in the face of adversity, whether that adversity came from a project failing or from lacking role models for my education. From the people I have met and the experiences I have had, I strongly believe that research helps produce people that are driven and strong, as well as guides them to careers they love. At dinner, Professor Joel Rothman told me that he loved his job and would not want another one, and I believed every word. Not only because of the conviction in his voice but also because of his story. He had taken time off during graduate school and found his way into winemaking. After a few years, he had made it to the top of the winemaking industry. However, once there, he looked around and saw what his future would be like, and he saw a life that could not give him the excitement and gratification that research could. So he went back to graduate school, and although he did not take the typical path to get to where he is, Professor Joel Rothman is now a successful professor, mentor, and researcher. Therefore, I would like to leave you with this remark: while research makes future employers happy, it should, first and foremost, make you happy.

A New Research Experience as a Freshman Mechanical Engineer

I have been asked how I got into research so early in my undergraduate career, so I’ll break it down.

Summer 2015: The Summer Institute of Mathematics and Science

The summer before my Freshman year I got an email inviting me to apply to the Summer Institute of Mathematics and science (SIMS). I didn’t know it when I applied, but SIMS was a two week intensive program that introduced research and introductory classes in a condensed and fast-paced way. These short few weeks was my first research experience. Working with Ryan Need and other SIMS students, I melted together iron and germanium to make crystals that have a square shape in their lattice structure. These exhibit a phenomenon called skirmions, which may one day lead to a more efficient way of storing data. What does any of that mean and how do you communicate it in a way that other people can understand? Welcome to research.

Fall 2016: Finding Another Opportunity for Research

I knew after SIMS that I wanted to continue down the research path, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. I went to a couple of seminars that had been advertised, and learned a bit about what research others were doing. I found a couple of projects that I was interested in and emailed the professors. Unfortunately I did not have the experience that they were looking for (understandably). After some other attempts, I emailed Sumita Pennathur essentially asking if I could sit in a corner of lab to observe. She kindly replied that I could attend the weekly group meetings. Yay, I got an in! And after the first few minutes of the first meeting I attended, where one of the lab members presented on their research, I realized that I knew very little as a freshman. All the more reason to pay attention and learn what I could.

Winter 2015-Summer 2016: Gorman Scholar Internship

In winter quarter, the SIMS alumni were recommended to apply to the EUREKA! program, which rewards a stipend to students during 8 weeks of research–in a lab of your choice–over the summer. What a great deal! I applied and got in, actually as a Gorman Scholar, which is a similar program that differs a little when it comes to funding. I emailed my acceptance to Sumita and she was happy to make me an offical part of the lab. So here I am now, a Gorman Scholar Intern, working in Sumita Pennathur’s lab, with Mike Garcia as my graduate student mentor.

The morale of the story is keep trying. Keep emailing professors and graduate students and go to showcases and seminars. Put yourself out there and grow out of your comfort zone. Keep persevering and you’ll make it.