A Tale of Two Laboratories

          Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention for a college student is deciding what comes next: academia or industry. Being one of the few fortunate students able to participate in both an internship at an academic neurobiology lab and an internship at a local biotechnology startup company during my spring quarter of sophomore year, I have a few pearls of wisdom for those who do not yet know for certain which type of internship suits them best. And, being a literary art enthusiast who tries her best to entertain herself and her audience when writing blog posts, hereby commences the official entry below:


          It was the best of quarters, it was the worst of quarters. All the while completing the last installation of her introductory biology, organic chemistry, and physics courses, a young girl with an ambition larger than her arms could hold endeavored to continue her work in ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences while exploring the new realms of agricultural chemistry to help solve her village’s strife with quickly rotting produce.
          Girl, as she preferred to be called, had been enticed by the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science and its proposition to cure local and world hunger with their developing product. She believed her skills would be adequate enough to contribute positively to the order of brilliant, young scientists, and adored the impassioned effort each of the members of the order gave. At the same time, she was just as equally passionate about her work in her village’s Laboratory of Neurological Sciences, and could not bear to part with the project that she and her mentor have worked on for a year together.
          After three months of laborious undertaking with both ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences and with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science, Girl had found herself with much insight to document in her personal journal. The experiences had been fruitful and worth her while, but she had noticed very stark discrepancies between the two research positions that had graced her.
          Her work with the village Laboratory of Neurological Sciences involved much less interaction with her fellow laboratory peers, aside from her own mentor and the principal investigator of the laboratory, although the occasional conversation with an expert in a particular laboratory technique was necessary. She appreciated the independence, however, as having a project tied so closely to her name made her feel as though she were the mother of the project, having to attend and care for the project as it matured into a complete research publication with statistical results that can be shared for the rest of the world. In this realm, she was in charge of herself and her surroundings. There was much flexibility with her project, with many forks in the road as experiments fail and succeed. If one result proved that another path must be taken to discover prospective cures for neurodegenerative disorders, she followed the path, even without entirely knowing what may await her at the end. Ultimately, her research success depended on the amount of effort she was willing to put in; the more seeds one planted, the better the harvest.
          Work with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science followed a different pace, although the general requirement of her was to perform productive research on a given subject. In this case, the subject had been organic chemistry in the context of preserving agricultural produce. Unlike with the pathway she followed with her work in ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences, there was a specific destination to be reached with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science. She may take a variety of routes to get there, but she had to get there. Deadlines were more strictly enforced; while this aspect may have deterred some from the prospect of an exponential amount of work, she knew she had a team of close colleagues who were almost always available for assistance when needed. The research was a team effort, and each member served as an appendage to the larger body. Projects were often mandated by the head, but without the proper functioning of each body part, the body could not thrive.
          Two laboratories, both with the interest of facilitating research to be of benefit to the populace. And yet, the two laboratories exist as separate worlds with science being the only foundational similarly between the two. As different as the experiences may have been for Girl, she found many benefits in participating in research in both ye old Laboratory of the Neurological Sciences and the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science. And although she had intended for her journal entry to be a determining factor as to what she hoped to pursue in the future, she found herself no further from where she began. Each option was equally as enticing to her. At this point, she knew not which direction to follow, but knew one thing and one thing alone: that as long as she is contributing to the world of scientific research, she is satisfied.


          Essentially, having both academic and industrial research experience has not really helped me narrow down my professional pursuits after completing graduate school, but the time will come when the decision will make itself apparent to me. (There’s still some time, thankfully.) As for you, reader, who managed to tolerate my awful attempt at a not-quite-story to explain what I believe to be are the major differences between academia and industry, only you can go forth and experience one or the either (or both) and make a decision for yourself. If possible, explore internships in both fields. If given only one option, even if it is the option that you do not believe is the one you are leaning toward, try it anyway. Personal experience insight is valuable, and research, despite what setting, is research.

Workaholics Anonymous

Hello everyone. I’m Karla Bernardo, and I’m a workaholic.

(Hi Karla.)

With graduate school admissions becoming increasingly more difficult, students jockey to become the model student with a 4.0 GPA, all the while conducting research in a STEM lab, publishing scientific journal papers, working multiple jobs to pay off student loans, having dynamic extracurricular activities, participating in leadership, and if applicable, struggling through a personal experience that has all the while made you a stronger person. If you happen to cure cancer along the way, congratulations. The admissions office may just consider you as a competitive applicant.

As a result of this perpetual fear that there is so much uncertainty shrouding my chances of fulfilling my endeavor to be a PhD student in neuropharmacology, I too have fallen into the trap that this aforementioned image is what I must attain. But trying to balance 21 technical course units, 2 research labs, an honors thesis, a job, and a personal life has proven to be tremendously stressful. It is difficult — but not impossible — to excel in every task you decide to take on. There will be times when you may want to break down and cry. But prioritization and perseverance will be your two best friends. Based on my personal experiences, I have developed the following list of advice for current and future students who find themselves working ceaselessly in hopes that they may have a fighting chance to fulfill their academic and professional dreams.

  1. Network with professors as soon as possible. If you are an incoming freshman, do not hesitate to send personal emails reaching out to professors whose research interests you. Your youth is more of a benefit than a detriment. More often than not, research groups prefer to have younger undergraduate interns who are willing to stay their entire college duration with them; training someone early, only for he or she to continue yielding positive work for a longer period of time, is worth investing in. As busy as professors often are, sometimes you have to be a little stubborn and bug them until they notice you. They may not have an opening in their lab for you to be a research intern the moment you ask them, but if you continue to foster that relationship, you may find that they have other connections that will help you take advantage of currently existing opportunities.
  2. Befriend your mentors. Graduate students are super cool, and if graduate school is your primary goal, who better to learn about the application process than from actual students who made it in? They’ll tell you the things they did right, the things they wish they could have changed as an undergraduate, and the research grants that undergraduate students don’t even think of applying for.
  3. Do as much research as you can on a particular lab, and when you find one you love and have successfully integrated yourself into that research group, stick with it. As a freshman, I stuck with the first lab I became a part of because of the exposure it gave me; however, as marine biology is not my main field of interest, it is much wiser for me to finish up my work with that research group as soon as possible, and instead, focus on my projects in my current neuro-specific group. There are multiple amazing research groups within the UC Santa Barbara campus alone, but if you find yourself hopping from lab to lab due to sheer curiosity to expand your horizons, you are less able to produce thorough (and perhaps ground-breaking) results in a single field. To reiterate, focus as much time as you can to a single lab rather than dividing your time such that the labs you work in only benefit from a fraction of the amount of your total work.
  4. Take GEs that satisfy three requirements at one time. If you aren’t trying to graduate a year early like I plan to, you have a little more leeway to take GEs that actually interest you. If you are pressed for time, however, there are certain Chicano Studies and Comparative Literature courses that are an absolute lifesaver.
  5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you don’t think you can give your 100% to biology, biology lab, physics, physics lab, organic chemistry, and organic chemistry lab all in the same quarter, don’t do it. Definitely consider summer school for your more difficult courses. It pays itself off to be successful in organic chemistry lab during the summer than to be slightly above mediocre during the school year. If taking summer courses posits a threat to that awesome summer internship you just acquired, speak with an advisor to reconsider some options for you regarding whether or not you should graduate after x number of years.
  6. Keep applying to scholarships. Although this process is not as stressed as it was during high school, there are plenty of scholarships open to undergraduates. Trust me, receiving a scholarship for being a good student — which you essentially have to be anyway — is a much preferred method of financial support than having to work additional hours on top of your already busy schedule.
  7. Keep a calendar. Take advantage of every second of every minute of every hour of every day you have. Prioritize what you feel is necessary to accomplish in a given day, but do not overload your daily goal to the point that you cannot achieve any of those goals. Start small if you must. “Monday I will power through my chemistry homework. Tuesday I will work in lab for five hours. Wednesday I will go to the gym, have lunch with friends, and study for math.” Keep your tasks doable.
  8. Please, please, please take care of your personal relationships. Your family and friends may think you’ve fallen off the face of the earth or gone off the grid if your only focus is your work. Drowning in work is difficult enough. Trying to overcome the heap of work without a support system will drive you mad. Whether or not your friends, family members, or significant other can help you with your goals, knowing that they will be there for you to cheer you on is enough motivation to keep going.
  9. Take care of yourself. Exercise to release the endorphins and mitigate the tension in your shoulders. You’ve got this. Take a breather. We are all rooting for you.

Exercise Biology

After switching from a flexible university class schedule to an 9 to 6 work day in lab, there is much less lenience when it comes planning out when one can exercise. Sure, a person could wake up in the wee hours of morning to go for a jog before making breakfast and getting ready for the day. Or he or she could head to the recreation center later at night after working on research conference applications, poster presentations, and PowerPoints. But for the STEM folk who just don’t have the same kind of motivation to stay fit as they do to excel in their field of research, I have devised a daily fitness plan for the scientist or engineer stuck in lab for the majority of the day. The workout happens to relate specifically to interns working in the Biological Sciences II building, but it can very easily be tailored to Engineering II, Chemistry, PSBN, or any other multiple-story structure.

Cardio Warm Up: Bike all the way to the Biological Sciences II building from home as quickly – and as safely – as possible. Brisk jog up three flights of stairs to drop off your items in the main lab. Jog up an additional flight of stairs to collect ice for your reagents. Jog down to the third floor to place your reagents in ice. Continue down to the first floor to get a refreshing beverage from the vending machine because you “unintentionally” forgot a drink to keep you hydrated during your lab-inspired workout routine. Jog up to the fifth floor to replace the media in your stem cell cultures.

When Researching on the Computer: Find a stable desk chair, preferably without wheels. If you only have wheeled desk chairs, make sure the back rest is against something sturdy, like a wall. Lower body such that back makes an acute angle with the top of the back rest, and elevate legs from the floor to create a position with your body resembling a V. Legs do not have to be completely straight to accommodate the laptop to be placed on your lower thighs or knees. Begin lifting up your knees to crunch your abdomen. Repeat for thirty to fifty reps. If the shaking of your laptop as you crunch is too distracting for you to effectively read scientific papers, raise your legs slightly higher than resting position so that your abdomen contracts. Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds. Release. Do at least three sets of desk chair crunches (or V-holds). To target your obligues, adjust body so that knees are pointing either to the left or the right. Proceed with aforementioned movement. Be sure to work both sides.

When Walking Down the Hall or to Another Building to Use Some Kind of Equipment Your Main Lab Does Not Have: Brisk walk. Sure, you’ll look a little foolish for keeping your legs unnaturally straight while trying to move quickly, but your calves will thank you after your eight to ten week-long research internship. Also, keep your abdomen contracted throughout the course of the walk.

Lunch Break: As inconvenient as it may seem, purposefully forget your lunch at home (if you happen to live nearby.) Or take the bicycle trip to Isla Vista to grab some food. That way, you are forced to have to slip in a little bit more cardio in your day; plus, your meal will taste that much better. If you have a busy day in lab or are a commuter, however, skip this step altogether.

Going Back and Forth from Different Floors to Access Different Labs: When going up the stairs, skip at least one step to create a lunge-like effect that will target your glutes and hind thighs. For taller folk, skip two steps.

Arm Stuff: Centrifuge containers are easily the best weights you’ll find in a biotechnology lab considering that they weigh about the same as a prepubescent child. Keep in mind not to lift aforementioned containers above your head, as they really are much heavier than they appear. If someone asks if you can help them carry samples, equipment, ice chests, or boxes to a distant location, do not hesitate to say yes. If at a desk reading articles, kick aside the desk chair and do fifty pushups against the edge of the desk while reading (Note: ensure that the desk can hold your weight.) Repeat for four sets. Mountain Climbers, planks, and other arm-related exercises can also be done in this fashion.

All exercises mentioned above can serve as a framework for a more effective lab-inspired workout that you can build yourself.

(Author’s Note: In actuality, you are far better off not engaging in any tomfoolery while in lab to prevent from equipment damage and poor experimental yields, and instead, commit to a daily exercise routine that you can complete after you finish your lab work. Just as it pays to work hard in lab to see results, working out to see results pays just as well.)

Biology is as Real as the Life it Studies


STEM majors come in a large assortment — from mathematicians, to physicists, to engineers, to biologists, to doctors. The amount of subdivisions under the STEM umbrella is almost impossible to quantify (but, considering we are STEM majors, of course it’s possible.)

Despite the fact that each field is equally honorable and important in their own right, there remains a hierarchical structure among those pursuing STEM. And which majors are automatically deemed to fall under the lowest possible caste system of science and engineering? The life science majors. The psychology majors. The less quantitative, “soft” science majors.

And why is this the case? Simple. Embedded into our minds is the age old belief that biology, or anything pertaining to the study of life, is qualitative and relies solely on memorization. Between my engineering major friends, there is a joke that goes along the lines of, “Engineering was too difficult for him, so he became a doctor instead.”

While I admire all those who are competent enough to pursue mathematically-intensive professions, let us not bash the ones who helped your mother deliver you as a baby, nor the ones who assessed your head for concussions after a sports-related injury, nor the ones who witness too many deaths and disease-ridden patients for the sake of trying to save people.

I’ve heard counterarguments that engineers can save more lives than doctors merely because they know how to mass produce products — that, depending on what type of product we are referring to, pharmaceutical scientists and biotechnologists help prepare — to the populace, whereas doctors can save only the lives of their patients. But when it comes to life, even just one life is tremendously valuable and deserves to be saved. Don’t you value your life or a loved one’s life perhaps more than the entire population of a country full of strangers? Quality over quantity, ladies and gentlemen. Although preferably, quality and quantity.

Diverging from the clinical side of biology and returning back to the more research-oriented division within biology, the life sciences have, in fact, become more quantitative in this era given how rapidly technology has progressed, and my experiences in a neuroscience lab this summer have only come to reiterate that fact. There are many interdisciplinary aspects to biology now, especially in regards to computer science. The R programming language is useful for ecologists analyzing statistics for a sample and relating their findings to a larger population. In my lab, Python is a wonderful tool for genomics when trying to sort through the millions of base pairs within a single DNA sequence. Electrical engineers may find interesting that biologists do take advantage of multielectrode arrays to map out electrical networks among brain cells. Mechanical and computer engineers can collaborate with biologists to develop artificial organs. Chemical engineers could work alongside biochemists in distributing new pharmaceuticals to target cancer. There doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between math-intensive majors and life science majors. We are all a part of the STEM family, and we function better together than apart.

As a future neuroscientist, I do have to clarify on psychologists. Admittedly, neuroscientists are held in higher esteem because they implement more math than do psychologists. There has also been an irrational rivalry between neuroscientists and psychologists, as neuroscientists focus on the molecular basis of the brain, while psychologists are more interested in the overall function of the brain’s regions. Regardless, they are both interested about the brain. Each play a significant role in understanding the brain, so why are we acting like the Montagues and Capulets? Why despise an enemy who should otherwise be a good friend?

Lastly, to beat down some egotistical arguments (which, if you are a proponent of, you may want to check for hyperactivity in your amygdala, the brain region responsible for emotion): yes, engineers and physicists make more than biologists in this society. We’re aware. No need to rub it in. That’s like if a man were to tell a woman that he’s making $1.00 for every $0.77 she makes, even after the implementation of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Or if a privileged, upper class citizen told a coworker with the same job position that she is making more money because her coworker happens to be in a racial minority group. Football players and actors make more money than combat veterans. Politicians make more money than engineers even after they’ve completed serving their term.

There are many wage disparities that still confound us; however, your salary shouldn’t be how you base your success. Impact. Influence. Happiness. Are you happy doing your job? Are you making enough to support the life you want? How has your work impacted you? Your company? Your country? The world? Will what you are doing influence society, or are all of your efforts just disappearing into the ether?

Engineers are great. Mathematicians are great. Physicists are great. Chemists are great. Geologists are great. Doctors are great. Biologists are great. All STEM professionals are great. All non-STEM professionals are great. We all need one another to function as a healthy society. All I ask, as a life science major, is to not be denigrated or have false assumptions made about my intelligence by the major I chose to pursue.

My research experience in a neurobiology lab this summer and my previous experience in a parasitology lab have made me appreciate biology all the more. We are all trained in our areas of expertise, and I wouldn’t expect a non-biology major to appreciate or want to learn how to reverse transcript RNA into complementary DNA, or manipulate stem cells to differentiate into a brain cancer. That’s okay. What is not okay is belittling the work I do.

Biology is a real science too. And it’s as real as the life it studies.

Baking Bad

Disclaimer: The title of this entry is not representative of how pleasant baking and biomedical research are. Rather, it is a poor pun referencing “Breaking Bad” made by the author solely for the sake of the author’s amusement.

Many times before has science been likened to cooking, and protocols to recipes. I personally find biological research procedures to be much more like baking. Firstly, you can’t exactly sautée cells without potentially killing them. If you even attempt to “fry” your nucleic acid samples, consider all your proteins and DNA strands denatured. And if you find your cell cultures to be a perfect golden brown, there are way too many cells clumped together in that tiny space, and they need to be separated between new plates. Also, never steam any of your reagents, as they become utterly useless if not kept on ice.

So why would baking be a better analogy for biotechnological practices? Simple. You put stuff into a bowl (collection tube), mix your ingredients (reagents) all together by whisk (centrifuge machine) and wait for it to bake in the oven (incubator) for a long while. Afterward, your valiant efforts reward you with delicious cake — or rather, satisfactory (sometimes not) results for your research project.

Like baking, laboratory work is a hit or miss. One day you may have made the most heavenly soufflé with the perfect fluffiness to it. In lab, that day would be when your quantitative results show successful amplification of your complementary DNA samples. Another day, you may find that you didn’t add enough yeast to your cupcakes, and they droop down so sadly like the frown on your face upon seeing them. In lab, that day is when you don’t add enough yeast to your bacterial growth media, and you produce very few bacterial cells that possess your engineered gene of interest.

There is a secret to both baking and scientific research, however, that make a recipe become the magnum opus of the baker and the protocol the publication-worthy study of the scientist: improvisation. What does one do when the results aren’t coming out quite right? Add a little more of so-and-so to balance out whatever is the cause of a not-so-pleasant result. Try another method. Spoons were made for tasting, so why not try a smidge of that cookie dough to determine what is still missing?

But for the record, as similar as biomedical research is to baking, I would advise against eating anything in the lab given some poisonous, carcinogenic reagents, bacteria, and viruses you’ll likely be working with.