The Freedom to Conduct Research Without Being Physically Constrained to a Lab

Without the pressure from the heavy course load during the school, summer has always been the perfect time for me to get more involved with research, reform my lifestyle to restore all the unfortunate damages that I did to my body during the school year due to irregular sleeping schedule or unhealthy diets, and check off my bucket list. Since research has been a major component of my summer, let’s talk about my experience in conducting theoretical research first.

It has been a very interesting experience transitioning from an experimental lab group to a purely theoretical group. Unlike what many people associate scientific research with – wearing a chemical spill proof and ski-mask-like goggles, while tweaking your cutting ledge laser optics setup or cultivating your biological samples in an advanced lab isolated from the rest of the civilization, my research group simply does not perform research in a traditional lab setting. My own “lab” has been my petite yet fully capable 11” laptop. To me, it really is a great privilege to be able to have great flexibility in terms of how and where I could work on pushing advances in my project. My comfortable apartment could immediately be turned into a lab as I wish, and so could a secluded coffee shop, or even a close by beach could be a lab if I really wanted to expose myself to some much needed vitamin D!


My lab has similar perks to this

Although as dreamy as it would sound to conduct “research” at any beautiful beach that Santa Barbara has to offer, I do appreciate very much that I have an office in our physics department’s main building Broida that my faculty advisor reserved for me. It is where I spent most of my time and having an office where I can concentrate without distraction has undeniably contributed to the progress that I’ve made in my project so far.


A sneak peak to the kind of data that I work with. Courtesy to the Human Connectome Project. Click on the picture to learn more about Human Connectome Project

Now without getting into the specifics of my own research on network neuroscience, which will be reserved for my final oral and poster presentations, I do want to touch on the new things that I learned regarding research in this summer. This is my third summer doing undergraduate research and, in my opinion and from past experiences, the hardest part in research is not necessary the lab work itself, which undoubtedly could be very tough in various aspects, but the process of bridging your knowledge and insights that you gained in your own project with the existing literature. Depending on your field, the literature could be incredibly rich or in the case of relatively new fields, a coherent and unified school of thoughts could be lacking. It then could be challenging, yet equally interesting at the same time, to form interpretations from your own data, and be able to confidently defend your own data and methods when it’s faced with different results from the literature. As a young student with relatively limited research experience, the process of improving experimental methods and advancing the understanding in the field based on the existing literature is something that I’m still learning. And it is needless to say that it truly is a privilege to be able to contribute new information to the general knowledge to certain scientific fields.

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Saw the beautiful Milky Way when I hiked up to Lizard’s mouth at night

Besides research, I have had the time to be eating way healthier unprocessed food compared to my horrifically nutritionally deficient diets during the school year. Combined with better sleeping schedule and exercising habits, this summer has been a great one and I feel fully charged to take on another challenging, schedule packed fall quarter in a month!

An Introduction to Magnetic Tweezers

Today I am going to introduce you to an instrument that is widely used in biophysics and biomaterial research: magnetic tweezers.

Magnetic tweezers setup

-An illustration of a magnetic tweezer

In my project, we are studying the mechanical properties of microtubules and my particular area of focus is on the stiffness of microtubules. So far we simply rely on the thermal fluctuation of of microtubules to study the stiffness of microtubules. However, sometimes it might be in our interest to be able to control the exact magnitude and direction of an applied force as we wish. A magnetic tweezer allows us to do exactly so.

A magnetic tweezer usually consists of magnets and a magnetic bead that is attached to the biological entity, such as a DNA molecule. Magnetic field created by magnets exerts a force on a magnetic bead, which in turns exerts a force on biological entities. In order to track magnetic beads and study biological entities’ deformations, a microscope and a CCD-camera is usually implemented.

-A flurorecent tagged magnetic bead under the influence of external magnetic field causing the deformation of an entangled microtubule network

The magnitude and the direction of a force is usually controlled by the position of magnetic beads, since magnetic field created by magnets are not uniformly distributed throughout the space. Magnetic beads are usually in the micrometer range and only move by a few micrometers, therefore, the applied magnetic force can be well approximated as constant. Besides linear motions, magnetic field can also exert torque on magnetic beads. Magnetic beads often consist of magnetic nanoparticles, and the net magnetic moments of magnetic beads are not perfectly aligned with external magnetic field. Therefore, external magnetic field will exert a torque on magnetic beads and causing it to align the magnetic moment with the net external field.

 \boldsymbol{\tau} = \mathbf{m} \times\mathbf{B}

-Equation of the torque on magnetic beads,  where m is the magnetic moment and B is the external field

The advantages of allowing users to control the magnitude and the direction of an applied force precisely and the ability of producing rotational motion make magnetic tweezers great instruments in single molecules and soft matter studies. Considering their broad applications in various projects, Dr. Valentine’s group has done work on optimizing magnetic tweezers and making them more portable. Great work is being done in this area and the advances in instrument development will certainly help researchers make progress in various areas in biophysics and biomaterial at a faster pace.



Neuman, Keir C; Nagy, Attila (June 2008). “Single-molecule force spectroscopy: optical tweezers, magnetic tweezers and atomic force microscopy”Nature Methods

Yali Yang*, Jun Lin*, Ryan Meschewski, Erin Watson, and Megan T. Valentine. “Portable magnetic tweezers device enables visualization of the three-dimensional microscale deformation of soft biological materials,” BioTechniques 51 29-34 (2011)

A Brief Guide to Finding Your First Research Lab

Congratulations! You have gone through polishing your application essay, asking professors for recommendations, undergoing the interview process, and have finally received the long-awaited offer letter. You may think that you have gone through the hard parts of seeking a research position; however, finding a research lab could just be equally challenging as applying for an internship. Listing down general interested areas, contacting professors, and making final commitment could all be intimidating. Therefore, I decided to base on my own experience to write a quick guide that I wish existed last year to help you find the most suitable lab for you.


     1. Identify a few personally interested areas

Without clear goals and directions, we would just be clueless flies that chase after lights for no reason. In my opinion, for your first research project, your personal interest in it should be the first priority. This research experience might be a critical experience that you base your decision on when deciding whether or not you are going to pursue a graduate degree. A more compelling project would much more likely make the experience enjoyable. And as a direct result you might be able to make greater progress in your project. Therefore, you want to identify a few interesting areas and set them as the general directions when finding potential research labs. The general areas could be as broad as green energy, or as specific as quantum metrology, as long as you are interested in the subject.


     2. Look into the research webpages of your department and a few institutes on campus

Assume that you are in a major that you are passionate about, it is always a good idea to start with your own department. For instance, I wanted to work on projects that involved optics or superconducting devices. I went on the condensed matter experimental physics research webpage and identified a few labs by searching for these key words.

I also recommend looking into webpages of CNSI, Institute for Energy Efficiency, and MRL. They are all very active research institutes and many novel and interesting research projects can be found here.


     3. Contact professors to set up appointments

Contacting professors could seem daunting. However, I found that professors generally are delighted when students show interests in their research. I sent emails to professors written in a general format:

I first briefly introduced myself the internship program that I was doing. It is important to mention that your program provides funding for you, as it is perhaps the best selling point for yourself at this stage of your career. Then I proceeded to talk about how their research interested me and how their lab would be an ideal place for me to explore certain subjects further.Finally, I closed the email by asking if the professor would like to meet in person to discuss any possible research project. Since you already have funding with you, from my own experience, many professors would agree to schedule appointments with you.

The bottom line is: try to contact all the professors that you would like to work with. If they think you are not suitable for their lab due to limited experience and knowledge, they would just email you back and tell you that you are not the best candidate for their research projects. It is always better to hear a polite rejection than wondering what could have been different if you had gotten in touch with the other lab when you are working on a project that you are less passionate about. Also note that professors are extremely busy. Please do not be too worried if the professors don’t reply within one week.


     4. Give thorough thoughts before committing

After you have met with all the professors, reexamine what each lab offers and what the projects could lead you to. It is important to pick a project that truly interests you and would allow you to gain the most relevant skills and knowledge to your own field.  Professors would not want someone that is not truly passionate about the project working in their lab. With that being said, don’t rush through your decision and talk to your program advisor or academic advisor when you are having trouble deciding which lab to commit to.


If you have been provided funding, you have proven that you are an intelligent hard worker that people are willing to invest federal grant in. So, why not pick a project that you would happily put in 100% of your effort into and gain the most from the experience? Remember that finding a lab is just as important as any aspect of the internship application process. I wish you luck to finding a project that you are truly excited about!

Eight Weeks After…

Before I started this internship, I had little to no idea what research really meant. Thanks to the precious opportunity that I was given, I have been able to not only gained a good deal of technical knowledge but also get a sneak peak of the life as a researcher.

One of the best things that I like about research is that there is no standard answer. We are all pondering on questions that no one has answered before. This nature of research has taught me well in terms of paying attention to every single detail of the experiments and carefully examine any unexpected results. I especially love the freedom that comes with research. The direction of the project is entirely in our control. It certainly was a joy when my data matched with previous study; however, I often found myself getting even more excited when I saw something unexpected that was not due to errors. Often times these interesting results would spark some great discussions and lead us to new ideas of hypotheses and more experiments to further investigate the situations.

Besides learning about microtubules, microscopy, image analysis, and MATLAB from my project, this internship has also given me many opportunities to meet inspiring and intelligent people throughout the summer. Being in a scientific community, I feel very lucky to be surrounded by incredibly hardworking and talented professors, mentors, and fellow undergraduate researchers. Many of them have directly or indirectly given me advice on my future career path. Most importantly, their professionalism and knowledge on science and engineering have motivated to work harder to match up the high standard in this professional community.

It has been a very fulfilling and enjoyable summer and there are many people to thank. I want to thank the people from CSEP and the coordinator of EUREKA, Dr. Arica Lubin,  for putting their faith in me and awarded me this internship that brought me many great learning experiences. I also appreciate the support from everyone in my lab, and especially the additional guidance and mentoring from Dr. Megan Valentine, Dezhi Yu, and Dr. Ben Lopez. I look forward to continuing working in the lab, further expanding on my current project, and investigating more on the mechanical properties of microtubules throughout the school year.

My First Impressions with Research

Hi everyone, my name is Kuang and I am a second year physics student at UCSB. I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the EUREKA! interns to get a taste of the life as a researcher at an early stage of my college career. I am working in Dr. Megan T. Valentine’s lab under the Department of Mechanical Engineering this summer and my research project is to study the mechanical properties of microtubules.

As a physics major, I have grown used to take problems apart and look at the underlying fundamental principles in order to tackle the problems systematically. So, when I first started my project, I thought that my experiments would go smoothly without any trouble as they would in theory. By the end of the first week, I had proven myself to be wrong. There were many factors that I did not put into consideration while running the experiments in my head. I learned that not everything would be 100% perfect and that sometimes the things that seem relatively easy to accomplish in theory can be quite hard to accomplish in a laboratory environment.

Even though I’ve made countless mistakes while conducting experiments, the whole research experience has been a very precious and pleasant learning experience to me. I love seeing my knowledge on the subject matter grow and seeing my lab skills improve everyday. Research allows me to learn the freshest discoveries and breakthroughs in some of the most novel fields of science and engineering that one cannot find in textbooks. With that being said, if you are someone who is willing to face many intellectual challenges in order to answer the questions that are critical to humanity, research is definitely something that you want to be involved in!


If a picture is worth a thousand words… then a movie is worth…



We study the stiffness of microtubules by taking movies of microtubules and analyzing their fluctuations.