The Highs and Lows of a Research Project

One of the enticing facts that drew me to UC Santa Barbara was that it was one of the top schools for research. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t have a great idea of what you actually do in research. When I imagined what a research project was like, I imagined a “grown-up” version of my fourth grade science fair project where I compared mung bean plant growth in sunlight and in shade. It wasn’t until I completed my own small research project that I learned how difficult but rewarding research actually is.

During the summer of 2016 I took EEMB 170: Biology of the Marine- Land Interface. This was the most challenging and the most fun science course of my undergraduate career so far. I experienced firsthand what it’s like to do fieldwork and conduct a research project. This class had lectures with set material that we had to learn, but in the labs I had the opportunity to be creative and learn independently by designing and conducting an independent research project. Compared to previous classes, I never felt as much responsibility for my learning than when I was working on the research project.

Soda Bottle on Clam Gun

Something as simple as a 2L soda bottle can become a cutting-edge research tool!

The final project was a research paper about some aspect of the beach food web. I wanted to study something I had no experience with, so I studied blood worm abundance and distribution. The experiment was conducted with a partner, while the analysis of the data was done individually. We would use clam gun to take a few cores at a site at different times for a few days, and count the number of blood worms found in each core, as well as the depth each blood worm was found. However, when we tried sampling the sites, we found that this project would be much harder to accomplish.

I thought that sampling would be easy because we had planned it out well, but it required a lot more problem solving. I learned that the provided tools may not be enough, so I had to make my own. When we released the cores into a dish pan, the sand would crumble instead of holding the cylinder shape of the clam gun.

The solution? Find a container the exact diameter of the clam gun. We would place the clam gun in the container, shake out the core into this container, and this would allow us to dig out the blood worms and note their location. We brainstormed different ideas, like cutting a PVC pipe, or shaping a sheet of plastic. I spent a few hours at the Home Depot trying out different cylinder-shaped items, but I couldn’t find anything that really worked. Luckily, I found that a 2-liter soda bottle is the perfect fit for a clam gun.

I asked many questions throughout this research project and I had the advice of two research professors, a graduate student, and a lab assistant to brainstorm with and answer all of my questions. I also had help from the members of the lab I intern. I thought research projects were more of a solo effort, only involving the researchers. It was a nice surprise to realize how collaborative the process really is, and the support was encouraging. I learned so much from asking questions, and this helped me the most when writing the paper.

The hardest part was figuring out how to use Excel and how to understand my data. The most interesting part was reading about other research projects that people have done on blood worms. From one of the papers, I learned that blood worms have practical use as biological indicators for environmental management. I had no prior knowledge of or experience with blood worms, but after reading through many research papers, I ended up learning more about blood worms than I needed to write my paper.

Blood Worm

A sandy beach blood worm. It gets the red color because the molecule it uses to transport oxygen, known as hemoglobin, turns red in the presence of oxygen. Sound familiar? We have hemoglobin in our red blood cells!

I’ve learned that research is about repeatable results that can be clearly interpreted, so it was interesting to see how my partner and I drew different conclusions from the same data. I thought that we could neither prove nor deny our hypothesis, while she thought that our hypothesis was correct. I thought that data was made of solid facts, so there was only one way to understand it. It seems that data doesn’t always speak for itself, and that research projects won’t always have simple answers.

I hypothesized that blood worms burrow vertically into the sand when the tidal level rose. After sampling and analyzing the data, I didn’t have a definitive answer. It only led to more questions that led to ideas for future research, which I found to be exciting. I wondered how researchers find so many topics to research about. It seems that, while the purpose of a research project is to answer a question, it often leads to more questions. There’s always more to learn, and I think that’s something to look forward to.

My experience in this class, and especially with this research project, has validated my decision to pursue a science degree. I thoroughly enjoyed the learning and the challenges I faced in this class. Finishing this research project felt like more of an accomplishment than any success in a more traditional class setting.

Dhanika Halili

Dhanika is the Research Writing and Media Intern for the Office of Research. She is an aspiring science writer and illustrator, and she recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Professional Writing Minor in Science Communications.