On the Pursuit of Science

After seven weeks undertaking a crash course in field biology last spring, I was convinced I wouldn’t be a particularly good scientist. My problem, I told myself, was passion, though this is perhaps a bit of a misleading statement. As our nomadic band of student researchers meandered up and down the coast of California, sleeping under oaks that had stood tall before the first Europeans set foot on the continent and wading through rivers gasping with fresh spring breath, I found myself completely entranced by an astronomically improbable, impossibly beautiful world. I quickly developed a reputation as the head-in-the-clouds idealist of the group, and could be found sketching out plans for a treehouse or writing poetry in the field I was supposed to be surveying for canopy cover. I thought I was a lousy scientist because for the first time in my life I felt a spiritual connection to nature and the people I was experiencing it with, and I believed that not only did this connection supersede the cool, calculated work of science, the two views were mutually exclusive.

My experience conducting research last summer changed my view of what science could be, and of what it could mean to somebody. I took a position as a research assistant on a behavioral ecology project out in rural northwest Pennsylvania. We were examining communities of praying mantises in old field ecosystems, and we wanted to know whether behaviorally diverse mantis communities– that is, communities with some mantises that are “bolder,” and some that are “shyer”— would occupy a different niche than a behavioral monoculture. Would these communities feed on different prey, live in a different physical space, and ultimately have a hand in shaping the overall ecosystem? It’s a fascinating research question, but as I drove east I was unsure of whether I would run into the same problem I had during the spring. I worried I lacked the mental discipline required to do good science.

By my city boy standards the research site was remote: a few miles from one of Pennsylvania’s “scenic byways” lined with fields of hay and copses of impossibly green foliage, an occasional community of ranch houses was the only break from the bucolic landscape. I quickly realized my environment for the next several months would be completely different from anything I had experienced growing up in California. Linesville, the closest town to our research site, offered little in the way of entertainment, so our small research team quickly grew close as we spent virtually every waking minute together. About a week into the field season, we started playing a game in the evenings to pass the time where one person would try and draw someone else without looking down at the paper. The results were often as comical as they were disturbing, and we decided to start hanging them up on a wall in our cabin, with the best portraits occupying the upper right corner. As the season passed, the wall began to resemble an evidence board from a made-for-TV crime drama, complete with crisscrossing red string that connected each person’s body of work.

The wall, midway through its development.

I was surprised by how quickly I came to regard the other research assistants as close friends, although it makes sense given the context. Ecological fieldwork is self-selecting, in that it attracts people who don’t mind sweat, dirt, travel to unfamiliar places, and oftentimes a lack of connection to the outside world. These people are adventurers: they love the thrill of discovery, large or small, and seek out novelty both at home and abroad. In other words, fieldwork self-selects for scientists; in my time in Pennsylvania I revised my definition of what that meant. If someone had told me before that trip that my time researching wouldn’t be spent poring over data, conducting heady calculations, or examining specimens in lab, I would have been incredulous. However, I spent much of my time that summer out in the sun, collecting mantises for assay (read: frolicking in a field), applying a sticky substance called tanglefoot to prevent the occupants of our experimental plots from escaping (painting), and constructing an apparatus to test mantis perch height (doing arts and crafts). Not to mention the actual poetry and art the other research assistants and I spent a lot of time creating and sharing with each other throughout the summer.

My experience made me realize emotional immersion in the system one is studying is an asset, not a detriment, to research. I loved the sound the wind made as it flowed through the field of goldenrod every afternoon and thus didn’t mind checking the plots an extra time to ensure that everything was set up correctly. A fellow research assistant’s fascination with arthropods meant we could identify insects to family onsite and get a jumpstart on the data analysis. And the picture of four kids armed with sweepnets and rubber boots laughing as they sauntered down a lonely stretch of country road caught the attention of more than one interested local and indirectly gave our research more recognition, not to mention connecting two of the most disparate demographic groups in America through the miracle of mutual curiosity. Science, and especially ecology, will never be entirely clinical, and that’s a good thing: who would want to live cut off from their playful, passionate, quixotic, human self?

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to revise my definition of science. Science, I now believe, is a method, a way of asking and answering questions that matter. But the act of science is much more than that. It is a pursuit, an endless chase. It is a shared ordeal that brings people closer than they imagined they could get. It is the childlike wonder you feel when you’re faced with your own insignificance; it is an adventure to unknown lands. When you’re done, when the numbers are crunched and you have your results, you see your same surroundings with new eyes. It cannot be commodified; it is priceless.

Community in science -the best part

Less than a week ago, the project that I had poured two years of hard work into, was scrapped. While the plan for this project (up until this quarter) was to collect enough data on a fly behavior to find a correlation in the genome and publish it…science does not always work out the way you hope it will. The phenotype, egg-laying location, which was originally statistically robust, dissolved away once we tested the behavior in fly lines with specific recombination. This happened near the end of the first year, so I started the project over again using a new method that promised to lower the background noise in our analysis. I spent months rebuilding lines and several more months testing the behavior of these lines. Last week, I finally had enough data again to check for preliminary results by doing some analysis and the news was anything but good. Nothing looked promising or publishable – another year of work down the drain. At this point, the project had taken so much time and money that it was not worth continuing.

Hearing this news, while devastating, helped me put some things into perspective. Biology is messy, and behavior is REALLY messy. By no fault of my own (that I know of) my project failed. But, this one project has nothing to do with the reasons that I love biology or want to be a biologist – science is so much more than the project you’re working on. My love for evolutionary biology comes from the people and the ideas and the process. If it were to come from a focused drive to find an “answer”, I would have quit a long time ago.

I joined this lab because I loved evolution, several courses on the subject had inspired me with interesting ideas and perspectives and I wanted to start exploring some of these myself. It was upon joining the lab that I also started attending the weekly evolution seminar – a journal club for all the evolutionary biologists on campus to come together and discuss new findings, present their own research and dig into interesting literature together. Despite being a mere second year I was encouraged to join in on the conversation and ask questions. I immediately felt, and still feel at home in that community.

I continued to attend the seminar even after I could no longer receive units for it. I was learning new things every week and getting closer to the amazing individuals that comprise the evolution labs on campus. This weekly seminar gave me so many opportunities to grow as a researcher. I was able to present in a constructive, fun environment and even joined another lab at a SICB conference when no one from mine was attending. I started to learn each person’s expertise and was able to go to them for help when I was having trouble with my own research, or needed advice on graduate schools and interviews.

I can’t emphasize how important the evolutionary biology community here, as well as my community in the College of Creative Studies, was to me throughout my four years here. Without the camaraderie and advice I received, the obstacles of being a student researcher and making my way to a PhD program would have felt much too great to overcome. It’s because of this community that I was exposed to so many sides of a fascinating topic and I would have likely never found my true passion for the study of evolutionary development without it.

One of the most important aspects of science is the community and shared ideas it creates. Everyone I’ve met here is working towards the same goal of discovery and is always happy to help each other along the way.

Now, as my time as an undergrad has nearly drawn to a close, I’ve started to reflect heavily on these experiences. While I applied, and have been accepted to several PhD programs, I’m now considering pursuing a career outside of academia and science. Even in these moments of uncertainty, my mentors have helped me navigate my life both within and outside the realm of research. Regardless of my future path, the community I spent my time in as an undergrad has helped me grow in innumerable ways and I will always be grateful for these people and experiences.

Things I wish I knew before I came to UCSB

  1. Sailing: I finally signed up for my first sailing class the spring of my sophomore year. These classes fill up super quickly so by the time my window to sign up for classes opened up, they were already full. If you are interested in sailing (which is super fun), just try to crash the first class even if it is full. Most likely, you will be given an add code. There are also competitive JV and varsity sailing teams as well as community races on bigger boats on Wednesdays during the spring and winter quarters called Wet Wednesdays.
  2. Research internships: I wanted to find an internship for the first summer here but I didn’t know about the opportunities that were available here at UCSB. I ended up working at a hostess for that summer. If you are interested in research and want to be financially support for it, check out SIMS, AIM, GORMAN, EUREKA, McNair, MARC, RISE, FLAM, etc. I am myself a RISE and MARC scholar and these opportunities have allowed me to do funded research for two summers and three academic years.
  3. Massage chairs: One of my favorite places to go to is the career service building where there are massage chairs. They have recently been moved to a building next door but these chairs are next-level relaxing. They help to loosen up my muscles, especially when I am stressed.
  4. Find a mentor: I got really lucky to have found two amazing faculty mentors. They have written me countless recommendation letters and have helped me get into amazing graduate and medical programs. In my opinion, having good relationships with faculty mentors are the most important part of undergrad. Not only can they introduce you to amazing opportunities such as scholarships and internships, their recommendations can help you land that dream job/program.
  5. Adventure program: If you like the outdoors, check out the adventure program. I have gone on some amazing trips with them: backpacking through the Grand Canyons for a week, canoeing the Colorado River, etc. You will meet cool people who might share your interests. They also offer adventure passes for about $50 bucks a year that will let you rent anything from surfboards, wetsuits, camping gears, paddle boards, kayaks, hammock, and more. Currently, I am trying their Wine Tasting class.
  6. Textbooks: Textbooks can be expensive. Don’t rush to buy them until you are sure that you will be taking those classes and that they are needed. You might meet a friend who could find the pdf version. Check to see if you can get them from the library or if you can get them on the Facebook page “Free & For Sale (UCSB)” for cheaper.
  7. Enjoy: It is bitter-sweet that my time at UCSB is coming to an end. I love this town and I wish I had more time to enjoy it before I have to leave. I will keep the memories and the friends that I have made here in my heart. These four years have gone by so quickly but they have been the best years of my life.

Jordan Mitchell ’19, CCS Music

“As a composer, my research is what I produce with the knowledge I end up gaining. If I didn’t change my style, I wouldn’t be developing as an artist.”

Jordan Mitchell

For the first ten years of his life, Jordan Mitchell hated music. When his mom, eager to keep Jordan out of trouble—forced him to take a guitar class, he begrudgingly complied, if only because his friends were also enrolled.

Six months later, Jordan was in love with music.

All it takes is one conversation with Jordan to truly hear the passion he has for the subject—a passion that extends far beyond just the creation of music. With three research projects, one filmed documentary, multiple albums, and years of teaching the incarcerated youth, Jordan has a musical background more befitting of a seasoned veteran in the field than a college student.

When Jordan came to Santa Barbara, he immediately became involved with research, eager to expand his knowledge in the field.

“Research is just curiosity,” he said. “As a composer, my research is also what I produce with the knowledge I end up gaining. If I didn’t change my style, I wouldn’t be developing as an artist.

Jordan’s latest song truly shows off that progression. A hip-hop comedy song, the ending of the song slowly transforms into a Mariachi piece.

The groundwork for that experimental ending was laid in part by Jordan’s research. For one of his projects, he researched the correlation between Bolero and Cool Jazz, discovering that both had similar historical roots. To confirm his suspicion, he transcribed both a Bolero and a Cool Jazz song, and found that the melodies and keys between the two pieces were indeed very similar.

From the moment he stepped on campus, Jordan has done his best to maximize every opportunity afforded to him. In the summer of his freshman year, Jordan was asked to fly to China to make a documentary about a musician there.

“That was a really big learning experience for me,” Jordan said. “They told me I made the documentary too dark, so I had three days to re-edit and change the entire tone of the film. It taught me a really valuable lesson about reading contracts before I sign them.”

Make no mistake, Jordan is an uber-talented musician, one who oozes with musical knowledge and passion. But what really sets Jordan apart is his drive—a drive that is in large part guided by his “passion planner”.

“I pretty much have a 12 hour day every single day, so I let my passion planner plan my day,” Jordan said. “I also always need to make sure I have time to write music, so I usually do that either late at night or super early in the morning.”

While Jordan loves creating music, perhaps nothing rivals his joy for teaching music. In his sophomore year of high school, Jordan’s teacher told him his grade in the class would be based on how well Jordan taught the other students for the rest of the year.

“At first, I thought he was crazy,” Jordan said. “It ended up being awesome, and at the end of the class my teacher told me he knew that I would be a great teacher.”

Jordan first started teaching in college as a byproduct of his sociological research, teaching the incarcerated youth in the Santa Barbara area about hip-hop and how it ties to racial identity. After that, he knew he wanted to keep going. For the last two years, Jordan has taught music at the Isla Vista teen center, where he loves building bonds and seeing the success of his students—even attending all of his students’ graduations.

In both winter and spring quarter, Jordan will be teaching classes in the music department based on his research. His winter class will tackle the similarities between hip hop and live orchestration, while his spring class will discuss the sociology of modern hip hop.

Despite his immense individual talent, Jordan has little interest in blowing up or touring. His long-term goal is to return to his alma mater in Stockton to teach music composition, where he hopes to impart his research and knowledge to the students.

“Teaching gives you an eternal experience, where you can see the domino effect that your teaching has on someone’s life,” Jordan said. “I love pushing students so they can reach their 100 percent.”

Wait a minute… Don’t Lasers Heat Things Up? A Laser Cooling Primer for the Uninitiated

Classical mechanics is the study of macroscopic objects and how they react to forces, and it works well. Really well. But when it comes to small particles, the same rules don’t apply. Quantum mechanics is the underlying theory that all particles can behave like waves, and vice versa.

We can’t see quantum effects in our day to day lives because things are too hot and heavy. Even though all particles behave likes waves, the amalgamation of the sheer number of them that it takes to make anything macroscopic cancels out any ambiguity. To see the effects of quantum theory in the lab, we have to cool lithium atoms down to just microKelvin away from absolute zero and pack them all together, where they will begin to show quantum interactions.

Unfortunately, I can’t buy ultra-cold lithium at Costco (you need a gold membership), so how do we make it ourselves? Cue the lasers. Laser cooling takes advantage of the interaction between atoms and light to slow them down. Since temperature is a measure of average kinetic energy, they are now ‘colder’.

“I hate to break it to you Max, but you’ve really lost it this time. We’re talking about lasers here. LASERS. Lasers heat things up. I saw this video of a laser blowing up a balloon.”

Ok fine. You got me. I saw that video too and it’s cool. Lasers usually heat things up. They are good at doing this because of how tightly packed the energy in a laser beam is. To put it in perspective, the average person probably puts out about 250 Watts while running. A horsepower is almost 800 Watts, and engines can put out many hundreds of horsepower. So, it may be a bit of a shock that even a 0.2 Watt laser beam is actually pretty powerful, sometimes even enough to permanently blind you. Yikes. Even with less than 1/1000th of the power that you can put out just by running, a laser can do some serious damage.

This is partially due to the fact that laser light is coherent, effectively meaning it is all the same color. However, this combination of homogeneity and power ‘density’ actually also makes it perfect to cool atoms down. But how do you do it?

The answer is very clever: using the doppler shift. Most people have experienced an ambulance siren dramatically changing pitch as soon as it passes you. This is because the motion of the car changes the spacing of the sound waves travelling towards you, and so they hit your ear more or less frequently if the car is moving towards or away from you, respectively. We interpret this increased or decreased frequency as a change in pitch. Atoms ‘see’ light in exactly the same way. Light also has wavelike properties, and the motion of the atom will change the perceived frequency of the light depending on its velocity (see picture).

Another important piece of the puzzle that we need to use is the fact that a given atom can absorb or emit light only at specific frequencies. This is another quantum phenomenon, and although it is strange, it is true. A frequency of light corresponds to a color, so think of these specific frequencies as a specific color of light. For lithium, it is 671 nm, which is a deep red.

We’ve got the ingredients. How do we get the cool? Well, throw out your Ray-Bans. Imagine sending out light that has a frequency that is a little less than the one we need for the transition. If we send this beam into a cloud of gaseous atoms, then only the atoms that are moving towards the beam will see an increase in frequency, and therefore the right color light for the transition. The other atoms will see frequencies that are too low.

Even though photons do not have any mass, they do have momentum. When the atom moving towards the photon absorbs it, it gets a kick back in the opposite direction, and it is now slower! Over many cycles, we kick more and more of the atoms until they are cool enough to confine.

Although this is only the first step of many to get temperatures that are low enough to explore quantum interactions, it is amazing that massless light can cool atoms with real mass. Under the right conditions, lasers aren’t just a way to pop balloons and remove tattoos that you thought you wouldn’t regret.