Dealing with Research Frustrations

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

Research is exciting because you can learn something new that no one else has ever known of before. And with this new knowledge, you can spread it to a community of others who are eager to learn new information. But since sometimes you don’t exactly know what you’re looking for, research can be just as frustrating as well. During my internship over the summer, I realized how frustrating research can be sometimes when experiments do not go as planned and days of work in the lab are wasted. But during the same time, I also learned how to deal with these frustrations in various ways.

I’m currently investigating protein-surface interactions in Plaxco’s research group. The bulk of my time in the lab is dedicated to engineering and producing our own proteins needed for our experiments. Since we’re acquiring our own proteins, we must capture and purify these proteins that are purposely overexpressed in bacteria cultures we grow. This process requires many steps and spans over multiple days. And within this process, many variables – both human and experimental – can affect the outcome of this procedure. Of course, not everything in research can go as planned. Failing to acquire our proteins have led to frustration, self-doubt, and a sense of wasted time.

Luckily, I have spare time outside of lab that I can dedicate for dealing with these frustrations. Whenever I leave lab feeling as though lab work did not go as well as I hoped, I sit outside reflecting on my frustrations. There isn’t really much you can do if research plans fall through. Usually, you diagnose what went wrong and hopefully fix a mistake in your experimental procedures. Otherwise, you have to start from square one. Yes, it feels like I’m beating myself up at some points. But this moment of self-reflection allows me to approach mistakes in a logical way.

For the rest of the day, I’d like to take my mind off of research and blow off some steam by exercising. I recently picked up cycling as a hobby. I’d ride with my friends to downtown Santa Barbara and back and we’d usually hang out a bit afterward in Isla Vista. This exercise helps me release stress and also helps me socialize at the same time. If I do not go on a bike ride, I’d go to the gym to lift some weights. Physical activities help take my mind off of research for a brief moment while also benefiting my overall health. In a way, I’m turning something negative from research into a net positive for my well-being.

I felt lost and frustrated a lot of times while working in lab especially at the start of my research internship. I’ve come to accept these emotions because I realized recently that these feelings are normal in a research environment. For instance, an experimental procedure my mentor has been developing for the past three years has only started showing promising results this summer. I could only imagine how many times he has faced feelings of doubt and failure to reach success. This process, however, makes research so much for valuable and fulfilling than one would expect. The hard work and studiousness needed for a job where results are hard to see at first make success a lot more worth it in the end.

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.