Take a Hike: My Summer Research Experience

With summer in full swing, I now have more time to pursue two of my interests: hiking and research. Before I went into the lab last Saturday, my roommate and I decided to go on a short hike to 7 Falls. We kept climbing up, and before we knew it, we had gone far past what should’ve been the halfway point. We kept debating if we should turn around or “just keep hiking for another ten minutes”; after many “ten more minutes” and no end in sight, we finally decided to head back. Later that night, when I returned from lab, I googled the trails in the area. We had turned right at the wrong fork, and had we kept going, our three mile hike would’ve turned into an eleven mile one that we certainly weren’t prepared for!

In my first three weeks as a EUREKA! Intern, I’ve realized hiking and research have more in common than meets the eye. In my lab, I’m learning to create DNA nanotubes, and throughout the process, I have to ask myself “Should I turn around?”. If I make a mistake, will it ruin my progress and be a waste of time to keep going? Or, was my mistake minor enough that it won’t affect my results, and it would be a waste of resources to start over? Once, for example, we were running gel electrophoresis (a process which uses electric current to separate DNA by size through the pores of a gel) but our wells overflowed since we poured the gel too high; we decided it would be best to keep going since most of the wells contained the same type of sample. Another time, however, we realized we used the wrong type of buffer when making our nanotubes, and had to restart.

When I first started in my lab, I was as unfamiliar with the procedures as I am with the local trails in Santa Barbara. My mentor had to guide me through each step and it took us three days to complete the process of making our nanotubes. Now, as I gain more confidence and a better understanding of how the nanotubes are made, I am able to complete the process in a single day. I’m able to better judge where I made a wrong turn and how far back down the “trail” I need to go in order to get back on course. When I was imagining a sample under the microscope this Friday, I initially couldn’t see anything. I decided to remake my slide but dilute my sample less, and this time around, I was able to see the nanotubes. While this particular backtrack solved my imaging problem, the nanotubes themselves appeared extremely short, and the measurements of the concentration of DNA in this sample were much lower than normal; unfortunately, it looks like it’s time to go back to the start of the trail.

As the summer progresses, I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my understanding of how scientific research works (and also getting in a few more hikes). The more time I spend in the lab, the more I’m able to judge whether I’m on the right path or not. Hopefully I’ll soon learn to do the same with our local trails.