Pros and Cons of Working as an Undergrad Researcher

In summers past, I’ve spent my time working  more “traditional” teenage jobs, such as a camp counselor or fast food employee. This summer, however, marks my first internship in a lab, and the day to day role of undergrad researcher has presented its own unique set of perks and drawbacks, such as:

#1: Not having a set schedule

Want to get off work before 1 PM so you can go to the beach? Or sleep in late every day? One of the best parts of working in a lab is the flexibility of my schedule. As long as my work gets done and I go to weekly meetings, I can choose what times I want to come in. However, this only works in my favor if the work actually gets done. Unlike a normal job, there is no set “clock out” time for me. I can go into lab early with the intent of having my afternoon free, but if the experiment needs to be redone, or someone else is using a piece of equipment I need, it looks like I’ll be staying late. I never really know what time I’ll end up leaving lab, and making plans with friends can get quite tricky, as there’s no guarantee if I’ll be able to make “dinner at 6”. While the lack of a set schedule can be frustrating, I believe it’s worth the flexibility and knowing you can leave as soon as your work is done, rather than waiting around until your shift is over.

#2: There’s always something to do

This brings me to my next point; there’s never any waiting around because there’s always something to do. Samples in the thermocycler for 3 hours? I can clean slides for the microscope, work on my powerpoint presentation for EUREKA!, or even start setting up the next part of my experiment. Sometimes, if there really isn’t much work to do, I’ll even go to the gym on campus while I wait for my samples to anneal and come back to lab when they’re ready. The flexibility of working in a lab allows me to utilize my time a lot more effectively, whether it’s getting my lab work done or other to do’s. However, there never seems to be an end the projects I can be doing. There’s always more data to analyze, more experiments to get ahead on, and more slides to clean. It can be hard to justify taking a full break for lunch knowing there’s something else that needs to be done or judge when it’s time to leave the lab for the day; there’s always more progress to be made. I find, however, I prefer being constantly busy and on my feet than sitting around staring at the clock, waiting until I can go home.

#3: You never stop learning

I might not be taking classes this summer, but I’m definitely learning just as much through my internship. I’m finally getting the hang of the various techniques we use in my lab, such as running an agarose gel or using the microscope. I’m also learning more about the science behind what we do, whether my PI is explaining a procedure to me or I’m reading a paper for our journal club. Yet, I still feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. In my past jobs, there was set start and end to my training, but that doesn’t feel like the case in the lab. There’s always a new protocol to learn, an unknown reason why an experiment failed, a new question to ask. The more I learn about the background behind the research I’m doing, the more it dawns on me how little of the science I understand and how much more I have to learn from my STEM courses at UCSB. The feeling is overwhelming, but at the same time exciting, and I’m looking forward to the many years of learning from both formal schooling and research I have ahead of me.

Take a Hike: My Summer Research Experience

With summer in full swing, I now have more time to pursue two of my interests: hiking and research. Before I went into the lab last Saturday, my roommate and I decided to go on a short hike to 7 Falls. We kept climbing up, and before we knew it, we had gone far past what should’ve been the halfway point. We kept debating if we should turn around or “just keep hiking for another ten minutes”; after many “ten more minutes” and no end in sight, we finally decided to head back. Later that night, when I returned from lab, I googled the trails in the area. We had turned right at the wrong fork, and had we kept going, our three mile hike would’ve turned into an eleven mile one that we certainly weren’t prepared for!

In my first three weeks as a EUREKA! Intern, I’ve realized hiking and research have more in common than meets the eye. In my lab, I’m learning to create DNA nanotubes, and throughout the process, I have to ask myself “Should I turn around?”. If I make a mistake, will it ruin my progress and be a waste of time to keep going? Or, was my mistake minor enough that it won’t affect my results, and it would be a waste of resources to start over? Once, for example, we were running gel electrophoresis (a process which uses electric current to separate DNA by size through the pores of a gel) but our wells overflowed since we poured the gel too high; we decided it would be best to keep going since most of the wells contained the same type of sample. Another time, however, we realized we used the wrong type of buffer when making our nanotubes, and had to restart.

When I first started in my lab, I was as unfamiliar with the procedures as I am with the local trails in Santa Barbara. My mentor had to guide me through each step and it took us three days to complete the process of making our nanotubes. Now, as I gain more confidence and a better understanding of how the nanotubes are made, I am able to complete the process in a single day. I’m able to better judge where I made a wrong turn and how far back down the “trail” I need to go in order to get back on course. When I was imagining a sample under the microscope this Friday, I initially couldn’t see anything. I decided to remake my slide but dilute my sample less, and this time around, I was able to see the nanotubes. While this particular backtrack solved my imaging problem, the nanotubes themselves appeared extremely short, and the measurements of the concentration of DNA in this sample were much lower than normal; unfortunately, it looks like it’s time to go back to the start of the trail.

As the summer progresses, I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my understanding of how scientific research works (and also getting in a few more hikes). The more time I spend in the lab, the more I’m able to judge whether I’m on the right path or not. Hopefully I’ll soon learn to do the same with our local trails.