A Necessary but not Sufficient Lab Lesson

For the past year and a half, I have had a tremendous opportunity to study the dynamics of mitochondrial DNA mutation inheritance and clearing, in a developmental biology lab at UCSB. When I started, my professor explained to me, “as a young scientist, you will have countless failures, however, eventually when you are successful, the result will be worth the effort.” I began with a drug selection condition project comparing two strains of C. elegans’ growth rates and sensitivity to various antibiotics. After ten repeated trials in order to replicate one promising lead, months of confusion, frustration and great uncertainty, the results we found about drug selection in the two strains were inconclusive. We decided to stop the experiment indefinitely – the experiment had failed.

Following that project, I’ve worked on crosses and a genetic engineering project in hopes to someday help piece together answers about mitochondrial DNA inheritance. As a Beckman scholar, I have presented at national conferences, won poster awards and improved my understanding of science – a challenging and stimulating exploration for answers. In my “second home,” I’ve been fortunate to develop meaningful relationships with dedicated postdocs, graduate students and researchers who work in science’s steady pace, to unleash novel ideas about cell fate acquisition, apoptosis and mtDNA transmission. The research experience has been an extremely didactic one that has instilled in me the maturity to carefully think through problems, and persistence to achieve a goal. I’ve failed numerous times – my gels sometimes showed surprising restriction fragment sizes, and my transformations were not effective with certain types of cells, I also experienced times when the tiny C. elegans simply did not behave as I desired. However, through such failures I was challenged to think deeply about creative solutions, strengthen my fluency with the concepts, and research through the dynamic, convoluted network of mtDNA and nematode genetics. I succeeded in my growth as a critical thinker, young scientist and mentally strong student.

So, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from science is that of failure. And this failure, arguably, is the obscure success of a lab journey because it challenged me to learn and grow. Before I immerse myself into the lifestyle of a physician, I have lived the similar one of a science problem solver, where solutions are often slow, uncertain and not straightforward paths. And I understand that the limitations of medicine are just as frustrating at times as those of basic biological sciences – treatments may fail just like experiments; when a treatment succeeds, another problem may result, just like unanticipated side results in experiments. However, through the research struggles, I have persisted to grow into an even stronger scholar. I can appreciative of the important implication even the smallest nematode lives have towards larger, human life and am curious and ready to learn these implications through studying medicine in the future.

Keep Calm and Continue to Learn

With “Pomp and Circumstance” on replay, and masses of students wearing Hogwarts style black gowns and orchid leis around their necks, graduation season marks the ceremonious finale of a challenging, yet exciting four years of our lives. Last month I graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences, B.S., and welcomed the new adventures that emerge with becoming a Gaucho alumnus. I am no longer an undergraduate student worried about doing well on undergraduate exams, meeting paper deadlines, or choosing courses for my major. Instead, I am now writing extensively to meet application deadlines, striving to do well on future interviews and finishing up my research commitment at UCSB. Although the tasks of “the real world” are different than those associated with coursework and student life, there remains a fundamental similarity in all these activities – one that we are so fortunate to experience everyday: We continue to learn

In lab this summer I’ve been reminded of this similarity. I may have graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences, but I am still learning new lab techniques, concepts and troubleshooting methods in order to maximize my experience, and contribute in a small way before I leave. The very concepts acquired through classroom learning are now the stepping-stones from which more specific and deep knowledge can be gained. For example, in one class, I learned about GFP as a protein visualization tool, and in lab, I recently learned how to use the powerful Nikon fluorescence microscope to observe GFP signals in early embryos of C. elegans.  I also applied concepts from an invertebrate zoology lab when I learned how to dissect adult worms using the same needles that doctors use to give injections. So, now, as a direct result of the classroom learning in undergraduate courses, I am able to apply the basic concepts learned to explore more specific and deep ideas, and to critically analyze fundamental questions and results. In this way, I’ve realized, learning must be coupled with action to make progress.

As I grow as a young scientist and future physician, I’m excited to continue this cycle of learning, and to use the new knowledge for a larger purpose to alleviate pain in patients. The sense of fulfillment and personal satisfaction that comes with applying a newly learned concept to advancing science, in a small way, or to medicine has also encouraged me to welcome this learning. Although my four years of classes, new experiences and personal evolution has officially concluded last month with my own Hermoine Granger black robe, and UCSB decorated cap, I will always keep learning for the progressive action that it can create.

Science Communication at URCA: experience and education

Before I begin discussing science, I would like to acknowledge the unexpected, tragic shootings of Isla Vista:

Five days ago, our IV and UCSB community experienced an unthinkable act of violence and tragedy. The outcome was disturbing, as many of our friends and students were traumatized, and the deaths shook people both locally and nationally. I was touched by the memorial ceremony yesterday by the turnout, heartfelt speeches, songs and strength of the families and community. Without addressing the root cause, the problem that induced such violence, we cannot progress as a society, but instead remain in a static pattern of shootings, violence and tragedy. So, although I’m very appreciative of the UCSB family and IV community responses, and touched by the support, memorials, comfort we’ve found through each other, I really hope that this can be our wake-up call which plants a seed of sanity in our society for gun reform and mental health. I imagine the beautiful souls lost through this terrible act will be remembered as the pioneers whose events will stimulate enhancements in safety, public health and security. I hope we can come to realize, as a Nation, the “irresponsible, craven politics” so that “not one more” such terrible action will occur.

This quarter I attended a presentation by Chemistry Prof Read de Alaniz describing the funding challenge facing science in the US. I was surprised to learn that 43% of the National budget (federal tax dollars) is allocated towards Defense and International and social security, according to the center on budget and policy priorities. Following Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP, safety-net programs and interest, only 18% is allocated within an “All other category”, 2% of which is distributed to Science and Medical research. Additionally, the NIH, a major source of funding for many basic science, biology and medical related research lab projects, invests 30.1 Billion dollars for medical research, and awards 80% of this in grants towards individual projects at university labs Nationwide. Although this may appear like a high amount, the competition and large numbers of grants ultimately dilute down the funding useful for a given research project. Due to increase in competitiveness and selectivity of grant acquisition in recent years, a few patterns are emerging that are arguably declining the rate of scientific progress in America. First, less undergraduates may be applying to graduate school because of the lack of money, and second, less graduate students may decide to pursue a career in academia because of a similar concern. Finally, current professors running research labs, may find themselves writing more grants, and applying more frequently and possibly not experience grant renewal like previous years.  These changes have the potential to slow our rate scientific progress and medical advancements, unless we realize the importance of science communication and explain the need for better funding.

So, we ultimately learned that science communication – explaining the project goals and applications to a general public, or even a specific audience, creates awareness of the importance of science to society, and can thus change our funding situation. And our student researcher population was recently able to participate in an annual symposium held by the URCA program, and present posters and practice communicating effectively to a people from a variety of backgrounds. The 2014 URCA Symposium held on May 20th, displayed hundreds of student researcher poster presentations, including many from biology. I enjoyed creating the poster, which allowed me to synthesize several months of research projects, and also interacting with other students, faculty members and interested people who came by. I learned to modify the presentation in terms of length and depth based on the backgrounds of the viewers, and enjoyed hearing the thoughtful questions of some enthusiastic viewers. Additionally, interacting with other student researchers and seeing their posters was interesting and enriching, as I was exposed to other fields like psychology, linguistics and engineering research projects. This poster session allowed me and other students to practice science communication, an important skill that, through practice, can serve to effectively educate others on the importance of both goal directed, or curiosity based scientific discovery.

Optimizing lab experiences

I recently participated in an undergraduate research panel discussion for a Biology course. A group of pre-bio majors interested in research asked us questions on our experiences of applying to labs, contacting professors, and project progress. The discussion was interesting and would be beneficial to those planning on trying such lab experience. So, here is my advice on the path to and excitement of undergraduate research:

1. Time commitment: Initially starting in the lab requires lots of time and effort. You learn two broad categories of new ideas – the project concept, and experimental techniques, – which can take weeks or commonly even months to understand comfortably.

2. You will make mistakes! Unlike intro course labs, which are time tested classic experiments and graded of a scale of “0 – perfection”, lab research experiments are not meant to be flawless. Especially in the beginning, when you start learning new techniques and experimental methods, you will make mistakes. Many will be small, errors (that should decline rapidly over time), like miscalculations in newly introduced equations, or incorrectly assembling a gel apparatus; and some will be fundamental errors in understanding the concept. Although some of these mistakes are easily avoidable, they are part of the process of learning and experimentation. This is also an opportunity to learn from your mentor who has experience with the procedures and concepts at a very high level. Over time, you will reduce these small mistakes, and will feel confident using the instruments, conducting procedures, and even troubleshooting problems!

3. Go to lab meeting – Each week, if my schedule permits, I look forward to Tuesdays when we have lab meeting. The meetings are stimulating discussions between grad students, post docs, faculty and undergrads, in an informal and intimate environment. The group meeting allows me to understand different lab-members’ projects, start thinking more deeply about various mechanisms and pathways, and to see effective ways that data is presented.

4. Be friendly – The labs especially at r1 universities like ours are composed of intelligent, talented and accomplished experts in their fields. They have interesting paths, stories, projects, and can give meaningful advice as you start looking at your future. Don’t feel intimidated to make friends with others around your bench, as these grad students, post docs and professors all share a passion for science just like you.

From my lab opportunity, I have gained one of the most fulfilling and stimulating experiences in my undergraduate education. And as I continue working on my project, I hope to keep the above four ideas in mind, just as I hope you do, if starting in a lab.

Exposures to Omnipresent Science

We were all probably told in one of our intro courses that science is all around us. As I’m studying here right now, this is observably true: the light illuminating my desk is produced from excited electrons returning back to the ground state; molecules vibrating together at very high speeds make my wooden desk solid; and actin-myosin interactions in my fingers allow me to type quickly and in an agile manner. Biology, chemistry and physics are omnipotent in nature because they create matter and sustain life. But they also form the basis for non-natural, man made technologies, cosmetics and appliances. Thus, as a senior now, involved in research, and getting more exposure to applications of learned concepts, I am beginning to see how science is not only around us, but is a powerful application and solution can be applied to society progressively.

Dr. Chalfie and me at my poster

My most recent exposure to a wide range of scientific hot-topics was last month at the “SACNAS” National Conference. I had the opportunity to travel to San Antonio, TX for a four exciting, stimulating, and deeply memorable days! Our group of Gauchos attending really made the most of this experience by networking, seeking mentorship, engaging with other students and researchers, and presenting award-winning posters. The workshops involved many different topics in science – I really enjoyed learning about heart vessel angiogenesis as a potential therapy for Coronary Heart Disease at a developmental biology session, and an interesting round table discussion mediated by an SDSU faculty. But we learned many other interesting ideas ranging from materials science to drug development to applying to Grad schools too. I had the great opportunity of meeting with one of the pioneers of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), Dr. Marty Chalfie, also a Nobel Laureate, and as my project involved C. elegans (the model organism in his lab), and GFP, it was even more exciting to meet him! Though the days were filled 8AM-10PM with workshops, lectures, and presentations, we still managed to peruse the nice surrounding area at the Alamo and Riverwalk, as shown in the pictures on the other blog posts. Presenting for the first time at this National conference with nearly 4,000 attendees was an amazing experience from which I learned so much!

Prof Goldstein giving a MCDB Departmental Seminar

Another recent memorable experience that showed me the power of science occurred last week. I had the honor of hosting Professor Larry Goldstein of UCSD Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, as part of the Beckman Seminar course. We invited Dr. Goldstein, a well-respected neurobiologist studying the causes of Alzheimer’s disease using stem cells, as a guest speaker for our “Science for the Common Good” course. Dr. Goldstein was a strong advocate for stem cell research during the ban years, and often was consulted by the government for his opinions. Given his experience with basic science and initiative for its application to society and the common good, he was not only a very interesting speaker for our class, but also a welcomed presenter in the MCDB departmental seminar series. Arranging the departmental and course seminars and various faculty meetings took organization, time and many email messages, but everything came about smoothly. I also had great guidance and help from Dr. Foltz and Dr. Lubin, who are seasoned at organizing such events. For two days, our small group of undergraduates in the class, was able to have in depth, stimulating and thought-provoking conversations with Dr. Goldstein about topics including stem cell controversy, academia vs. industry, university science education thoughts, and healthcare. It was another amazing opportunity allowing me to appreciate the intricacies within academia (collaborations with other labs, busy faculty schedules) and the importance of undergraduate research.

As I continue to work in the lab, I am energized by these exposures and interactions. Science has the potential to change the world progressively by its application to society. And this potential begins to see its fruition through basic research in labs similar to the Rothman lab I am in, and many others around UCSB. The skills I’ve gained in creatively thinking, presenting confidently, and understanding results have exceeded my expectations about research experiences, and I am excited to keep experimenting throughout the year.