Photonics and the Future Ahead of Me

This summer, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work under Justin Norman and Dr. John Bowers in the ECE department here at UCSB. My project was analyzing and characterizing quantum dot lasers epitaxially grown on silicon. These lasers are a high-performance, more economic-friendly alternative to lasers grown on a III-V substrate. This hands-on research experience has been so much more than I could have dreamed of. It developed my ability to quickly absorb information and figure out what’s important for me to know. It also taught me how easy it is to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you bite off about a subject. At the beginning, I tried to consume everything that was thrown my way and very quickly got bogged down in specifics that I didn’t necessarily need to know to understand what I was doing nor function in the lab. Photonics has the capability of being an endless source of questions, which is a double edged sword: it’s the reason I’m so fascinated by the field, but also why the field seems so daunting.

My plans for this upcoming year are ambitious, to say the least, but I’m the type of person that prefers being overwhelmed and running around to being underwhelmed and bored. I plan to run for a second term as Executive Vice President of my sorority, I will be beginning my upper-division coursework for my physics major and wrapping up my Mathematical Sciences major, and I hope to continue working on my research under Dr. Bowers and learn even more than I already have this summer. I’ve started to fall in love with the field of photonics, so I want to get as involved in the field as I can, whether that be in the lab setting, attending research talks, or reading journal articles.

It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay

If there’s one thing I can say about this summer, it’s that I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned a lot about chemistry (working in a chemistry lab and all) but surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for my future, career skills, and, probably the most important of all, general life lessons. Of course, every time you go to a new workplace and work with new people you learn different things about life but one of the most important lessons I learned was actually from one of the Eureka seminars.

This seminar was titled “Grad School A to Z” so I thought it would be a boring talk about how to be a good student and how perfect everyone needed to be. I was surprised when the grad students we were talking to started talking about something called impostor syndrome and how they really struggled with grad school because they felt like they didn’t belong. Now I know I’m only an undergrad and they were talking about how much harder grad school was so I probably shouldn’t have taken too much comfort in their words, but I did. I’m someone who always likes to know what I’m doing, I don’t ask for help unless I absolutely need to even when it comes to homework problems. So I guess it’s no surprise that when my grades fell a bit spring quarter and I started working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met (both graduates, doctorates, and undergrads) I felt really overwhelmed and quite frankly, not good enough. The entire summer I felt like I always had to be the very best version of myself. That’s not a bad thing, striving to be the best that you can be is good, but I feel like I’ve been hiding parts of myself that weren’t good enough and unfortunately, that’s been a lot.

As fantastic as the summer’s been it’s also been the most stressful summer that I’ve ever had and it’s all because of this underlying feeling of not being good enough. When I went to that meeting and heard them talking about feeling that way it made me feel a lot better. No one is perfect and while I have a lot that I need to improve, I’m not alone. Those people happened to be talking about grad school but it applies to undergrads too. School is hard, life is hard. If it’s easy then maybe you aren’t pushing yourself enough. Now I’m not normally this cheesy but I spent a lot of my summer feeling overwhelmed and alone and terrified. For anyone doing a summer program like Eureka just know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, I promise you aren’t alone

Making Research Feel Doable

The vocabulary used in describing research often makes it come off as excessively dense and confusing. Which of the following sounds like an easier set of tasks? “For my project this summer, I sat in front of a microscope to pick grains of sand, did some coding, made a bunch of PowerPoint presentations, and also poured vinegar in buckets,” or “I extracted and analyzed microfossils found in sediment samples taken from the Pacific and the Caribbean to gain further understanding of ecological baselines for parrotfish, as well as quantifying the effect of fishing regulations on herbivore populations”? The first one probably sounds a lot more manageable, but both statements accurately describe the research project I undertook this summer.

I remember thinking that research was only for “smart” people, and that I wasn’t qualified to do it in any way until some unspecified point in the future. Who would have wanted me to work in their lab? I hadn’t taken any classes relevant to this project, and while I liked ecology, the last time I had a formal lesson in anything related to marine biology was elementary school! What could I do to be useful in something as complicated as research?

I did not feel confident about my abilities at the beginning of the summer. I didn’t have any experience working with fossils, and I didn’t fully understand the larger context that my project fit into. To my surprise, my project mentor Erin was incredibly patient and accommodating. She understood that I had little experience in anything related to this field of work, and guided me through explaining the importance understanding ancient herbivore populations and linking me several academic papers to read for context. Once I was caught up to speed, my summer project felt a lot more accessible, as I understood the goal of the research and what I could do to contribute with my knowledge, ability, and available time. I was able to start thinking independently about how I wanted to sort and display my data as well as what comparisons and analyses I wanted to make. I didn’t know everything, and certainly felt foolish many times, but feeling stupid and feeling your way through (with some guidance!) is probably the best way to learn in research. (See: http://jcs.biologists.org/content/joces/121/11/1771.full.pdf)


Research can be really slow! When I started the EUREKA summer program, I thought that I would have all this data to show at the end because I would be working full time for two months, but I’ve only managed to get through six or seven samples by the end of this whole process. In order to get a conclusion that’s worth publishing, I would probably need to get through somewhere between thirty and one hundred samples. I’m not trying to say that this is a bad thing, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see how much time needs to be put in to move science forward. I feel lucky to have been part of the EUREKA program, as the best way to see the speed of the whole process of research is to see every stage of a study or experiment, and this program gave me a look into that.

In my experiences, people tend to recommend reading departmental websites and research papers before approaching professors to look for opportunities in research. Which is great advice! But sometimes it can seem really daunting because of the complicated language and all the vocabulary words being thrown around. To that I say: understand as much as you can and go for it anyways. You don’t need to know everything that’s going on to get started, because a lot of it will make more sense once you start feeling your way through the process. And I’m pretty sure that professors and graduate students know this, and are willing to help you learn as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort to honor your commitments and do your best to contribute to the group while also gaining understanding along the way. You absolutely do not need to be a genius or have a 4.0 GPA to begin doing research, it’s just a matter of taking things seriously and getting out there!

The most important thing for getting started in research is to go for it, so the link to the directory for NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates is below! The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a governmental agency that uses taxpayer dollars to pay for academic research in sciences (including social sciences!) and the link below shows programs that use NSF funding to help undergraduates get into research.

Most programs listed occur over the summer, where you get paid to go stay at another college for a little while to do a project. Whether you want to pursue graduate school or not, it’s definitely a great experience that helps you understand the process of research and academia while also getting to travel and live in another place for a bit! It looks great on resumes too, as most of these programs involve a lot of independent responsibilities and public speaking. You do NOT need to be a perfect student or have prior research experience to win these, so get out there and apply if you’re interested!
https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp

The AIM Experience

I remember the first day of the internship: as I walked into Professor John Bower’s lab for the laser safety training, I wondered when I’d get to run all of the advanced machinery and lasers I had heard about.

It began with reading journals, books, and scientific papers for about a week or two. Coming in around 10 AM, reading till 4 PM, and then heading home each day. As I began reading the papers, I realized how complex the level of the material was compared to what we learned in classroom lectures and acknowledged the fact that I needed to be able to understand the equipment I would be spending the summer working with. MMI’s… Couplers… PDK’s… These words were all foreign to me. Though the reading seemed long and tedious, it helped build an understanding of how to read and interpret such a different style of writing.

Once I finally got into the lab, I learned about some of the various different applications of light and optics in a lab setting. From developing and implementing an algorithm in order to control automated test setup to determining measurements in epitaxially grown quantum dot lasers, I gained knowledge and hands on experience that I would never have been able to receive from only a classroom lecture environment.

Now nearing the end of my AIM Photonics summer internship experience, I can say with a 100% guarantee that I was able to establish successful results in a professional laboratory setting by interacting and working proficiently with my colleagues and mentor. The weekly activities organized through the program really emphasized the key aspects of what goes into research outside of the traditional laboratory setting. Gaining so much advice about graduate school from older students and making connections with various professors and mentors were just the beginning of the kind of valuable information I obtained from this program. I would definitely recommend this program to all physics and engineering undergraduate students regardless of their career and academic paths. One thing I would definitely not give up on is being deeply involved in the future of photonics by developing new techniques and set-ups using optical fibers.

It was truly an amazing and unique experience to feel that I was contributing to such an important field, and I value the chance I was given to be a part of something bigger. This opportunity has opened a doorway for me to the research life, and all I can say is give it your all because whether or not you find a career in research, the experience will broaden your mind and uncover a whole new spectrum of engineering that you may never even have thought existed.

More than Cell Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how our lab experiences have differed, her being in chemistry and me, in biology. The physical things we have done have been vastly different (I can’t imagine running a reaction for 24 hours), but I found that the things that have happened to us have been very similar. I mentioned to her that I was frustrated because I had done a reaction, following all of the steps my mentor took, standing beside him, using the same tools, and still somehow, I ended up with much less product than he did. I thought that I was just inept and clumsy and figured I had made some sort of error along the way, but much to my surprise my friend said something very similar had happened to her. It wasn’t that I was happy that she messed up too, but in a place full of such intelligent people who seem to know what they are doing all the time, it was kind of comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one having hiccups.

I have also started to notice little things about myself that I’ve picked after working in a lab for almost 2 months. Cell culturing is very sensitive and it’s important to be as sterile as possible when doing it. Gloves, spray everything with ethanol, use a new pipette every time, don’t have the plate uncovered for too long, don’t wave your hand over the open plate, and put the cells back in the incubator as soon as you can, all while being as careful as possible and NOT clumsy (very hard for me). The first few weeks, my mentor had a fixed view on my technique and would have to keep reminding me of all of these rules. When I managed to contaminate cells with bacteria, I realized I had to step up my game. With many hours of practice doing this, I have gotten much better at culturing cells swiftly and carefully, so much I may overdo it with the ethanol sometimes. I have also, incidentally, started applying these techniques to my life outside of lab, like putting the lid of the butter immediately back on when cooking, or throwing away new disposable plates after I even slightly make them touch something that’s not food. I will continue to perfect my technique and see what other weird things I pick up.