Life as an Intern: Industry vs Academia

Why research?

I believe acquiring research experience is an invaluable opportunity for undergraduates to understand exactly why we must study across a broad spectrum of different disciplines just to graduate. Different research and internship opportunities have helped me realized that undergraduate studies are designed to transition students from effective test takers to effective learners.

Like most students, I spend a fair share of my college life taking notes off of lecture slides and reading textbooks from cover-to-cover just to pass a couple exams for my classes every quarter. I can’t call myself the strongest test taker in the world, but I have acclimated to the fast-pace academic lifestyle of a school following a quarter system. Rather than actually learning though, I sometimes felt I was just memorizing instead of understanding course material to pass my midterms and finals.

I sought different internship opportunities because I enjoyed applying what I learned in class to actual hands-on work in instructional labs. I was fortunately given opportunities to intern in both industrial and academic environments to get a sense of what a career in research may be like. In the following sections, I will compare my life as an intern in both academic and industrial environments with various criteria. Hopefully, some of my experiences will resonate with you and even inspire you to pursue your own positions within labs.

Environment

I started interning for a private contract research organization, Volochem, that synthesized organic molecules to life scientists in the Bay Area during my late high school and early college career. Few places can compare to the Bay Area in terms of different things to do and see outside of work. However, the commute to my workplace was the caveat to this experience. I took many Ubers, rode public buses and subways, and crossed the bay every morning and evening just to commute to and from work each day. Travel time to work would usually total over two hours each day and would sometimes leave me exhausted.

In contrast, my commute to my current research lab at UCSB is just a ten-minute bike ride from my current home. Although Isla Vista – which is a one square mile community of UCSB college students – comes nowhere close to the diversity of the Bay Area in terms of different cultures and activities to experience, the vicinity of our campus and a bustling college atmosphere definitely makes up for it. Living on a beach is also one very small perk that we definitely do not brag about to our friends at home.

Actual Work       

I’m currently researching protein folding and its interaction with artificial surfaces in Plaxco’s research group at UCSB through the Gorman Scholars Internship offered by CSEP. Through my internship, I work underneath a post-doc “super mentor” that advises me through a research project that I’m currently working on. Other than following protocols for protein expression and purification, I realized research involves having a flexible and dynamic approach to obtaining data. Since we’re exploring numerous unknowns in a highly specialized field, we sometimes must think on our feet because we can never predict the outcome of experiments we design.

In an industrial lab setting, I always had a checklist of things to do every day. I knew how each work day of the week would start and how many tasks I should accomplish each day. From chemical inventory management to performing simple reactions, everything I did was already done before. Therefore, I knew exactly how to perform all my tasks and in the event that something goes wrong, I could easily troubleshoot and fix my problems.

Learning Curve

My only exposure to anything STEM related at that time of my internship with Volochem was my AP chemistry class. So of course, I was very nervous and even scared to step foot into a synthetic chemistry lab. Thankfully, my boss and the on-site chemists at this lab were very helpful in mentoring me during my internship. There are many highly specialized instruments with highly specific functions needed in this lab that I have never been exposed to. My peers gave me terrific guidance and eased my nerves very quickly when it came to working with them.

My mentor and lab mates in Plaxco’s research group are equally helpful in terms of pointing me in the right direction. Adjusting to a new lab environment was a very pleasant experience. It seems that in laboratory environments, people are willing to answer questions and build upon each other’s ideas. Group discussions are frequent which really helps in understanding complex theories for our experiments.

Impact

I have acquired more career-specific skills through my internships than sitting in a classroom listening to lectures. Hardly anything from lecture halls can compare to the number of practical skills I acquired by working inside a lab, both industrial and academia. However, working in labs helped me understand the importance of college. The diverse classes I have taken here which ranges through a myriad of subjects have enabled me to critically think through many different scopes. My critical analytical skills developed by my current undergraduate studies have transferred well into a dynamic approach to problems that arise in research. I am thankful the opportunities given to me have helped me develop this approach to tackling problems and I hope readers of this post have experienced or will experience something similar to this.

Eric Pang

Eric is an incoming third-year biochemistry major at UCSB. He hopes to one day help contribute towards the advancement of biomedical technology. He is currently investigating protein folding interactions with artificial surfaces in Dr. Plaxco's research group.