This past summer I interned in the Chabinyc Lab at the UCSB Materials Department, studying the thermoelectric properties of conducting organic polymers. In simple terms, we are studying plastic materials that can convert between heat and electricity. I am a fourth year physics major at UCSB, but when I first began researching in professor Chabinyc’s lab I felt very unprepared. My undergrad academic career left me with many holes in my knowledge of practical scientific knowledge. I can confidently traverse Schrodingers equation and the principles of special relativity, but when my lab mentors asked me to list elements on the periodic table I drew blanks. O-Chem was even more of a mystery. It took me a long time and a lot of independent research to start becoming familiar with unfamiliar branches of science and lab practices. However, by the end of the summer I felt much more comfortable making my way around the lab.
When I had the opportunity to continue my research this quarter I was expecting smooth sailing. I had already made it past the initial learning curve, so I figured things would come more as second nature. Not true! I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although I had become comfortable working with some p-type semiconducting polymers this summer, I was not prepared to work with n-type semiconducting polymers which are much more unstable. I actually had to “unlearn” a lot of the procedures I had learned this summer because the new materials I’m working with are very delicate and require absolute cleanliness. Even the smallest amount of contamination or exposure to air can ruin your samples. Any data you get from these bad samples (if you can manage to get any) is basically useless, so it’s very important that you account for all possible sources of contamination before you began making samples. On top of that, many properties of these polymers are time dependent, so for instance, step 2 needs to be carried out exactly 6 hours after step 1. This can be pretty tricky to balance with a college schedule, where my classes and work hours are kind of all over the place. Needless to say, I realized I had to do some more research and advanced planning before I could get going. One of my mentors warned me the I would probably screw up the first couple of times, and she was right! Oh well, on to the next one.
The moral of this is there is always more to learn! And the more I do learn, the more I realize how little I know. In the end, I’m glad it works out like this. Life would be boring otherwise. Each new mystery is a new opportunity for growth, and I’m thankful to have so many supporting people guiding me through this journey. At least now I will know better than to overestimate myself. It can be a really beneficial and humbling experience to keep that initial feeling of ignorance I had at the start of the summer.