Stop and Smell the Buffers

Note: I have lots of thoughts and they like to all come out at the same time. I attempted to organize them the best I could into a cohesive, focused blog post, but alas the lots of thoughts may have won this battle.

Time, the universal limiting factor of just about everything and I’m sure every college student can agree that they always feel like they are needing more. Your first year of college, especially living in the dorms, flyers are being thrown at you and posted on your door every minute of every hour inviting you to academic clubs, sports games, student government, cultural events, volunteer organizations, etc. and it all seems so fun and exciting and you want to try everything you can, until you realize that you’re in college and you have classes, possibly a job, maybe a social life, and if you’re really weird, a biological need to sleep.

Last year, I did try to do everything and it was a blast and I enjoyed every new experience, however, it was also impractical to keep up. I was getting less than five hours of sleep on average, I was irritable, I was stress eating A LOT, and maybe I cried a few times because I bombed my physics final winter quarter.  This year, I knew I needed to make a decision about what I really loved enough to continue for the sake of my mental health and my thighs. Luckily for you, the reader, research remained worthy of my time, so here I am sharing my experience with anyone that knows how to use the internet. If this is the first blog post of mine you’re reading, I’ll give you a little background about myself, I’m a second year biology major, I have three jobs on campus, I’m on the UCSB Women’s Rowing Team, I volunteer weekly with elementary school students in Goleta, and I have a terrible guilty pleasure for Bravo reality TV shows. Those are all the things I decided were important enough to squeeze into my schedule this year in my effort to cut back and prioritize and so far, so good. Since the beginning of summer, I’ve lost ten pounds while gaining an immense amount of muscles, I go to bed around 9:30/10:00pm on a regular basis, I got promoted at two of my jobs, and I’m all caught up on the Real Housewives of Orange County.

I think the point I am trying to make with my incessant listing of all of my commitments and involvements is that the value of college lies so much in the overall experience in addition to the education and you should do everything you can to optimized the time. Never else in my life will I be granted the opportunity to be completely submerged in a lab after having essentially zero relevant experience or travel across the country competing in a sport that I learned just over 6 months beforehand. So many students get lost in the competition of academics and have their sights focused on graduating and getting their dream job but they miss out on all the dreams they could be living out while they’re still in school. While research does look incredible on a résumé, no one should do it solely for this reason. I continue to do research because I know it makes me happy, in addition to being invaluable experience that teaches me something new every time I go to lab that I can use in the future which is something mindlessly studying to get A’s can’t do.

If you don’t learn how to prioritize what you want out of your college experience and budget your time accordingly, you’re going to have a bad time. If you seek out a few things you’re passionate for and devote yourself to them rather than just trying to do all the things you “like”, you’re going to be able to enjoy what you’re doing as well as prosper and excel in those areas.

PSA: It’s OK to be Confused

The number one piece of advice I could give to anyone planning on getting into research is don’t be discouraged if you feel like you don’t have enough experience or background knowledge. Going into my second year as a Biology major, this fall will be my first time since junior year of high school taking a biology course, so one could only imagine how nervous I was when I found out I got a research position in a biology lab this summer since I had such little experience. After interviewing with my PI and lab mentor and then attending my first lab group meeting I started to realize how much of what they were saying was going completely over my head, but over time I also learned great ways to fill theses gaps and I thought that maybe it would be helpful to the methods that I used.

Tip 1: It’s okay to smile and nod even if you don’t understand a particular discussion, but NEVER stop paying attention or let yourself “zone out”. As I learned more, little tid bits of information from past conversations would come back to me and I made new connections in my project or whatever I had been reading that I didn’t see before. The seemingly complicated information that can be easily blown off and forgotten about can later become the missing piece of whatever puzzle you’re working on.

Tip 2: Write down the things you don’t understand, ALWAYS. At the end of the day I would go home and look up whatever terms I didn’t know or whatever project or paper someone referenced that I wasn’t familiar with. If I still couldn’t find the answer I was looking for I would ask my lab mentor, which leads me into my next tips. Don’t just hope the topic you didn’t understand won’t be brought up again because I guarantee it will come back to haunt you.

Tip 3: DON’T be afraid to ask your lab mentor or even other people working in your lab for help. Lab mentors are there to mentor you, they don’t except you to know everything and they are willing and ready to teach you. Chances are that they and everyone else in your lab was in your situation at one point and they understand the difficulty of learning the ropes of research. Trust me, no one will think you’re any less intelligent and asking questions can save you from safety hazards and other costly mistakes. Plus, a lot of the times you’ll get funny anecdotes from the graduate students or faculty about times they made mistakes too.

Tip 4: READ. All the time. As much as you can. A lot. Research papers can look so daunting at first with pages and pages of text and complicated graphs but once you get through your first one, you will feel like you can take over the world. After you finish reading a couple more, there’s a chance you might even ENJOY it. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s possible. Whenever you start a new project it’s crucial to know as much background as possible and what kinds of similar projects have been done before and their previous outcomes. This can be used as reference so you can check if your results are consistent and if you might have made any procedural errors, sometimes you’ll totally unexpected results and from there can check if maybe previous conclusions were incorrect.

Everything obstacle or task that you come across, not just in the research field, but life in general, is completely doable if you have enough drive and passion to devote your time and learn. It’s like starting to exercise and go for runs again after taking a break. The hardest part is getting yourself up and moving, but once you get through the first mile you realize it isn’t as bad as you thought and you feel a lot better after. Once you have a better grip on what you’re researching, your confidence in your lab work will sky rocket and you’ll be able to explore more areas of your interest and tackle your problems head on instead of being stuck fumbling through the fundamentals. And hey, maybe after giving it your best effort, you may realize that research just might not be your thing, that’s OK too.

Worms Can Be Kind of Cute…

When I was accepted for the EUREKA Internship, I thought it was so amazing how I was going to be starting research and that I had this opportunity as a first year. However, I didn’t realize that just because the internship program accepted me didn’t mean that a lab would. The research world is a bit of a tease; instead of replying a quick yes or no, most researchers won’t reply at all, leaving you wondering and worrying. Some example thoughts that ran through my own head during the strenuous process of finding a lab: “maybe they just didn’t see it”, “oh no, what if they’re ignoring me”, “maybe they’re just playing hard to get and I should send them five more emails”, and lastly if your faculty advisor of interest is a frequent traveler, “maybe their plane crashed, and that’s why they won’t reply to my email”. I spent two months emailing, waiting, showing up at offices, and borderline stalking different PI’s just to get in contact with someone before I finally got a reply for an interview, with some help from the EUREKA Program Coordinator, Arica Lubin.

Much to my excitement, the long awaited reply came from Dr. Joel Rothman, whose lab focuses on developmental biology, the field I was, and am still, most interested in, as I’ve always found it fascinating how we all start as one tiny cell and then become these walking, talking beings. The Rothman lab studies all sorts of developmental pathways using C. elegans as a model. What the heck is a C. elegans, you ask? Well, it should have been a question I asked too, long before asking to be in the lab because C. elegans are worms, and guess what I have a ginormous phobia of. WORMS. I didn’t find this out until about halfway through the interview, which I thought was going fabulously as every project they were describing was like music to my ears, exploring almost every part of my interests. But then my soon to be mentor, Geneva Miller, brought up another one of her projects in more detail which was, if I remember correctly, “amplifying a gene that codes for gut development that would then make more mini guts in the pharynx and uterus regions of the worm”. Gene amplification? Cool. Manipulating organ development? Super cool. Worms? Nope, nope, nope. At that point, I was in too deep, all I could do was keep smiling and focus on the science because this lab’s research area was perfect for me and also I was running out of time to find a lab before the school year ended.

Once the initial anxiety subsided, and I got a very blunt pep talk from my roommate teetering between “Face your fears, you can do it!” and “Quit being such a baby and get to science-ing!” I decided to keep my little fear to myself. I decided to do some of my own research on these little worms before the internship started and I found out that these things were only 1mm long. How could I be afraid of that? After the first day of watching them roll around in their E. coli seeded agar plates, I fell a little bit in love with the silly little hermaphrodites. Since then, I have picked, plated, and cultivated my own beautiful little worm families, and it’s all for the greater good of mankind. You’re welcome, everyone.

c elegans

C. elegans

With that being said, I would also like to elaborate on why the title of this post includes “kind of”. Before being in the lab I had never heard of what a “bag of worms” was or what it meant for a worm to “bag”, until I observed it with my own two, once pure, eyes. A “bag of worms” occurs when a worm becomes ill or has a problem with its vulva and cannot properly lay eggs so the eggs hatch inside the mother and the embryos continue to develop until they become too large and burst through the mother. Sometimes when a viewer is unaware of the misfortunate worm’s bagging situation they can be tricked into thinking the worm is still alive because they will continue to move, but don’t be fooled, the movements one may see are all the eager larvae struggling to break free, creating a puppet like effect on the worm. This, my friends, does not fall under the category of cute.

For your viewing pleasure:

*viewer discretion is advised, it is gross.