How to Stay Sane in an Optics Lab

Santa Barbara.  A city coined the “American Riviera.”  A city whose average temperature throughout the year varies by only 12º F.  A city where it rains only 37 days out of the year and is sunny for 283.  Santa Barbara is pretty great; but I’m stuck in a dark room.
This summer I interned with the Schuller Group characterizing a thin gold film to implement into our Organic Photovoltaic (Solar) Cell research.  Characterizing that thin film involved hours of measurements in an optics lab.  We measured the intensity of a laser reflecting off of the film in complete darkness to minimize background light.  Sitting in a dark room, fumbling over a keyboard to enter specifications, feeling for the mouse, listening to the click of the camera lens after each measurement, hearing the squeal of the pico motor as you pinpoint the laser, and placing one foot carefully in front of the other to cross the room can start to drive you a tad crazy.  You lose track of time.  You get drowsy.  You get hungry.
So here’s some tips to help you stay sane in an optics lab:
  1. Play music
    • Listen to some of your favorite music.  Or, try some new genres or styles.  You have plenty of time and varying the sound will keep things more lively.  Personally, I like to listen to mostly classical and big band jazz, but I do throw in some 80s rock every now and then.  With all these streaming sites, you have access to an incredible library.  Spotify and Pandora provide free access (with commercials) to all sorts of music and will allow you to explore a plethora of artists of the same or similar genres.  YouTube has everything from amateur covers to playlists of your favorite albums.  SoundCloud can help you discover up and coming artists or smaller non-mainstream artists.  If you’re into classical music as I am, UCSB has a subscription to the Naxos music library (, which has over 140,000 tracks of mostly the classical genre, but does have some jazz, world, new age, and pop and rock.
  2. Listen to an audio book
    • Reading simply isn’t possible in an optics lab.  It’s dark and you’re busy using your hands and eyes to take measurements.  There’s a few free ways to get your ears on an audiobook.  LibriVox offers free volunteer read books in the public domain. Audible, by Amazon, offers a free 30-day trial period, but after that it’s $15/month. offers 1 free audiobook after joining.  I haven’t tried using audiobooks much, but my friend, who was performing AFM measurements for several weeks, found himself going through a multiple books per week!
  3. Take sun breaks
    • In addition to taking a lunch break (don’t skip lunch!), you might find it helpful, relaxing, and invigorating to take 10 minutes or so and take a walk outside.  Find a patch of grass, lie down and watch the clouds glide by.  The lab I work at is a mere 3 minute walk to the beach, so that’s always a nice option.  Perching on the bluffs, watching and listening to the waves roll up to shore.  Being in a dark room for extended periods of time can get lonely, disorienting, and cold.  Taking a break to go outside, breathing in some fresh air, feeling the grass beneath your feet or the sand between your toes, maintains your sanity in the dark bleakness of a light sensitive lab.
  4. Have a partner
    1. If possible, having a lab partner makes the experience much greater.  You can talk, share music interests, alternate turns taking the monotonous data, which brightens up the dark room.  In my lab, I’m lucky enough to have a partner.  We have similar music interests: he appreciates classical, enjoys jazz, but also has a wider palette of genres than I, which brings some variety to the table.  We talk about tv shows, science, career plans, social lives, politics and whatever comes to mind.  We grab lunch together and enjoy the trip outside to lunch.  Having a partner will delay the onset of insanity, but not eliminate it, be sure to still get out of lab some time.

Don’t Forget that it’s Summer!

After my first year as a physics major, my advisor and professor reminded my class to enjoy the summer— relax, travel, visit family and friends, do things that aren’t physics— this would be our last free summer before grad school.  I’m a physics major in the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which often makes people double-take.  They think: “Creative” sounds like an arts school, you’re a physics major?  While CCS has some phenomenal arts programs, the focus of the school is to promote creation.  Whether that creation be of new knowledge in science, an original piece of music, or a sculpture, the school aims to involve its students in the process of creation as soon as possible.  For physics majors like me, this meant an extra rigorous course load and researching with labs by the end of the second year.  Now that I’m entering my final year as an undergraduate and working my second summer in a lab, I’ve learned a few things.

Don’t forget that this is summer. This is a break in the school year designed to allow you freedom from homework, exams, papers, and daunting schedules (trust me, I know daunting, I’m hoping I’ll get my first opportunity to take less than 20 units this next fall).  Summer break is necessary for avoiding burn out and maintaining your sanity.  So, now you’ve chosen to complete a summer internship and have been awarded that opportunity. What about your break?  What about your sanity?

First, relish the fact that you have no homework, exams, or papers!  Then figure out your work schedule.  Personally, I aim to start working, whether it be in the office, in the lab, in the cleanroom, or at home, around 9:30-10 am.  Then I work


Enjoying my morning skate to campus! (I may not look too happy because I’m trying to get a clear picture and not drop my phone!).

around whatever events are built into the internship and typically leave a little before 5 pm (most of my research group heads out then).  This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the freedom, weather, and relaxation of summer.  Take a walk down to the beach during the lunch break, or, in my case, when you start to go a little crazy after a few hours in the darkness of an optics lab.  Enjoy your morning commute, this is Santa Barbara!  Or in Reagan’s words: “…if not heaven itself, probably has the same zip code” in reference to Rancho del Cielo.

You learn very quickly that research is not fast, not instantaneous, but slow.  You will have time when you’re not sure what to do.  Because of this, you should often have things working in parallel, but as an intern, you’re typically just working on one project.  I use this time to knock out some of the internship side projects, presentations, and workshops.  Freeing myself up at 5 to go practice my trumpet, skateboard, surf, bike, socialize, play games, watch movies, whatever summer avails me.  During your time doing summer research, remember, it’s still summer.