Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chaos

Are you tired of manageable workloads?

Do you have too much free time during summer?

If only there was a solution!

Hi, I’m Michael Meneses, and I’m here to tell you about Undergraduate Research Opportunities, the fast and easy way to add some science to your life! As a Gorman Scholar and proud intern of the Hofmann lab, I want to share my experiences to hopefully convince some of you to give research a shot. Surely there must be some payoff to this whole interning thing, right?

A Sneak Peak

I’m going to say it now: there’s a good chance you have little to no experience in your major. And that’s totally fine. But it definitely brings up a weird and somewhat uncomfortable question: will I even like my major in the future? I spent my whole childhood wanting to be a marine biologist, but every now and then I’d wonder that same question and start to doubt. What if I end up not liking marine research? What will I do then?

Luckily, my time in the Hofmann lab changed that. Yes, research was much harder than I thought it would be. Yes, there’s a lot of reading and mistakes and frustration. Yes, my desk looks like a landfill and I send now more emails than a spambot. BUT, I realized that despite all the stress of the job, I only feel more and more excited about what our next project will be. Maybe you’ll realize just how passionate you are about your major, and an internship will help cement your future. Or maybe you’ll find that your major just isn’t for you, and you’re not looking forward to committing to it. An internship can let you test the waters before you decide to dive in. Which brings me to:

Exploring New Fields

Sticking to a major can be hard. We all know plenty of people who suddenly realized that their major just isn’t working out for them. Maybe their whole life has been dedicated to majoring in this one specific (and probably impacted) field. Or maybe they just don’t have a plan for their future yet. Wherever you fit in within this spectrum, taking advantage of a research opportunity can help you find a new direction for your future, even if that direction points far, far away from research. 

I’ve been gung-ho about studying marine biology my whole life, but I didn’t really have any concrete plans beyond “doing research”. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that things would sort themselves out after college and I’d go with the flow. My time with Gorman and the Hofmann lab have changed that for the better by exposing me to the active and chaotic communities in research and giving me the professional and lab skills needed to carve my own place in it. Taking an internship can spark a new passion in you, or open a new door into a field you thought you knew inside and out. Even if you decide you don’t like this new field or decide not to pursue a research degree, an internship is a great way to explore any wild scientific fantasies you might have.

And More!

I’m only grazing the tip of the iceberg here. I unfortunately don’t have the time or space in this post to tell you all the different ways you can benefit from an internship. Even if I listed off all the ways my internship has helped me, I couldn’t guarantee that they’d all apply to you. Every lab will have their own problems, approaches and procedures, as well as different people suffering through all of them. Each experience during an internship will be unique and could end up taking you in a new, exciting direction you might not find otherwise.

We’re Cuckoo for Copepods

The alarm goes off on my phone. I simultaneously acknowledge and try to ignore it. Try. It’s 4 am and too early to be alive, and yet here I am, trying to calculate how many times I can press snooze and still be on time.

Today is sample day.

I eventually dredge myself out of bed and get ready. Now that my brain is booting up, I start to feel excited again. After all, this is the first time I’ve ever done fieldwork for my major, so it doesn’t matter that it’s just a sample collection. My phone buzzes: they’re here. After a final check to be sure I have everything, I hurry outside and get into our sketchy looking lab van.

Location: Point Dume
Date:  July 3, 2019
Party: Sam the man, they call me Logan, and Asher pod catcher.
Objective: collect all the samples, disturb some ecosystems, protect UCSB

After a short drive, we finally reach Point Dume state beach, where we unload our weapons of choice: tupperware and turkey basters. We prowl the edges of the rocky beach, flashing our lights into the various tide pools hidden within the craggy boulders. Our target: Tigriopus californicus, sometimes known as the tiger copepod. Although they’re small, tigs have a remarkable tolerance to conditions that would kill many other creatures, such as low pH, high temperatures, and low levels of oxygen. Furthermore, many scientific papers show that these tolerances vary based on the climate and location of where the tigs live. Our research project aims to find what role, if any, genetics plays in these differences. But before we can get to that, we first need to awaken our inner pokemon fan and catch some tigs.

100% skill and precision.


Back at UCSB, we began the process of labeling our samples and testing the range of tolerances of our tigs. For this experiment, we specifically focus on thermal tolerances to explore how different populations will be able to handle increasing ocean temperatures. To do this, we calculate the lethal temperature 50% (LT50) by putting our tigs through an almost-literal trial by fire. The most accurate way to determine a population’s LT50 is by slowly increasing the temperature of the tig’s environment up to a high temperature, then maintaining that temperature for a while. Luckily, a thermal cycler can do just that, and tigs are small enough that we can comfortably fit 5 of them into a PCR well. We do this through the incredible and highly competitive process known as tig loading.

The set-up is a dream. The prep work is a nightmare.


Thermal Tolerance Testing

12    8-well PCR tube strips
480    T. californicus (if doing a complete 96 well plate)
1    Micropipette, set at 24 microliters
1    Thermal cycler
∞    Amounts of patience

Start by preheating programming your cycler with a temperature gradient of 36-38°C.

Contemplate your life choices as you meticulously fish out 480 tigs using the micropipette as an inefficient vacuum.

Catching multiple tigs at once gives you bonus points.

Panic when you realize you lost your place loading the wells.

Place loaded wells into your cycler for 3 hours total: two to slowly bring the temperature up, then one hour at that temperature.

Remove and serve hot.

We then fully accept our fate as hunchbacks and use a dissecting microscope to look for survivors in each well. By counting the number of fatalities, we can calculate the proportion of survival at each individual temperature. This gives us survivor proportion as a dependant variable with respect to temperature, which can be easily plotted onto a graph using RStudio. The best part about using RStudio is that the different thermal tolerance graphs we plot can be combined with each other into a single graph, giving us an easy-to-read visual comparison between populations.

Pretending that you know how to use R is an important step.

And that’s a wrap! Between the early morning collecting and giving myself nearsighted blindness, I think I’m ready to call it a day. This was definitely one of the more eventful days I’ve had in the lab, but I really enjoyed it. It’s really starting to feel like I’m contributing to the lab and project. Tomorrow will be another busy day setting up cultures for out tigs, and a few days later will be another sampling trip. I can hardly wait!