Blackouts, Space, and Roly Polies

I once heard a story about a blackout that occurred in the 1990’s in Los Angeles. When the residents of Los Angeles looked up at the sky they were shaken by what they saw. With fear in their minds, many called their local police department to report the extraterrestrial attack that was occurring. In reality however, they were just looking at the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time. The extensive light pollution that surrounds Los Angeles obstructs the LA residents from experiencing this wondrous world. A blackout of this magnitude hasn’t occurred since so my father and I have been constrained to looking at the universe through books. We spent many hours throughout my childhood reading astronomy books and discussing them with each other, hoping that one day I would make a discovery. My dreams of discovery weren’t limited to the stars however. When I wasn’t with my dad, I spent most of my time outside in my backyard trying to discover. My main targets for research were roly polies. I spent hours searching for them in the grass and dirt and many more trying to create a suitable habitat for them in sandwich bags. I made many habitats for them in the bags, filling them with different combinations of dirt, grass, water, leaves, branches, and other natural objects that I found in my backyard. Each time a combination didn’t work, I spent time considering what might be wrong and would proceed to formulate a new combination, but every attempt resulted in a failure. What I didn’t know was that I was suffocating them, each time closing the bag to keep all its contents in. When my father finally told me why my roly polies weren’t surviving I wasn’t deterred but instead more motivated. This motivation never faded and when I met my mentor, Professor Joel Rothman, and was told about his new project: researching the effects long term space travel has on living organisms, I thought back to the days I spent with my father talking about space and the time I spent with my roly polies. Professor Rothman spoke with the same passion that my father and I once did and I was ecstatic when I was able to join his lab.

My first few days were filled with counting worms and trying to learn everything about them. It was the first week of summer so the lab was basically empty and I resorted to listening to audiobooks to help the days pass. It didn’t feel like I was doing much but it’s important to note that everything, no matter how simple it may seem, is important when it comes to research. What seemed like just counting and learning through simple experiments wasn’t that, it was important research that was teaching me about worm interactions. The most applicable discovery I made however was that cough drops make hiccups go away. This was able to be tested many times thanks to my body’s great need to randomly hiccup.

My War with Protein Purification

I remember my first battles with protein purification—they were long, strenuous, and I never won. I couldn’t even get a few milligrams of pure, functioning protein. It became my least favorite lab activity. I began to cringe every time I heard the words “p53 tumor suppressor protein,” for it reminded me of my never-ending failures associated with protein purification.

 

This experience characterized most of my first full-time undergraduate summer research experience. It left me with a sour perspective toward research, because spending five weeks on failed purifications caused me to get no real work done on my actual project. I couldn’t start my project until I had pure, functioning protein. I never did get the protein I needed, so I finished up my final presentation for my summer program in agony.

 

I know what I’m saying right now must sound melancholy, but I assure you it will get better. In research, you will often be plagued with situations in which your experiments/procedures do not work for weeks or months on end. However, this is all for good reason, because it is how you learn.

 

Recently, in my second undergraduate research experience, I have come back to protein purification. I carried out four purifications over my first two weeks, and I have never been more successful. On one of my purifications, I obtained 22 mg of pure protein. This may not sound like much, but in the world of proteins it is quite a bit.

 

My first experiences taught me that you should never let your first pass on any subject—school or research—define how you feel about it for the rest of your life. It takes training and perseverance to become good at something, so you should always be willing to give it another try before you decide it’s not for you. Just like how protein purification became easier and more successful for me in my second experience, chances are, you will find the same successes in your own endeavors.

Personal FAQ

What am I working on and why is it important?

The arrival of the internet has fundamentally changed so many aspects of our lives whether it be through business, communication, education, or entertainment, just to list a few. And in order to support such a huge amount of internet traffic, we rely heavily on data centers. Data centers are facilities that contain many computers and other necessary hardware. These computers talk to each other and are responsible for data storage, analysis, and processing.

Unfortunately, data centers are power hungry and energy inefficient. However, the integration of optical circuit switches in data center interconnects has shown great promise in terms of improving energy efficiency. Optical circuit switches are made up of multiple copies of a subcomponent that directs how light travels. A subcomponent is made up of an optical ring and it’s corresponding heater. Optical rings are wavelength selective filters that shifts depending on the temperature generated by the heater, thereby acting as a reconfigurable switch. My job this summer is to simulate these optical ring and heater systems in order to determine which configuration yields the widest thermal tuning range at the lowest power.

What’s my impression of research?

Some days can feel frustrating. Sometimes I spend a day or two trying to figure out how to fix the newest problem I’ve run into and it turns out to just be another silly mistake. At times, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get really bummed out, but when something finally works it feels amazing! Food will taste that much better and my body will suddenly feel so much lighter.

It’s also really cool to see how all the things I’ve learned in the past three years have given me more confidence to approach new material. During junior year, I took a fabrication class that included clean room experience. I learned a lot about what goes on into actually making a chip from a bare silicon wafer. When I started doing research and reading papers, it was really cool when I was able to understand certain fabrication terms and procedures. It made the new material much less intimidating. I think my classes have definitely helped me get comfortable with that uneasy feeling of not knowing what in the world is going on and still having to plow through.

What are some cool perks of the AIM program?

I really love the career development seminars (every Monday) because professionals from different institutions are invited to present on their research and their careers. Also, we have workshops every Friday where professors teach how to successfully deliver an elevator pitch or nail a Powerpoint presentation. And even though I dread presenting in front of actual people, I really appreciate the emphasis they put on public speaking.

What I’ve Learned in Lab

Hello! My name is Celeste and I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in EUREKA, a program dedicated to guiding students into undergraduate research at UCSB, as well as aiding them in skills development. I am working in the Kosik lab in the MCDB department and I have really enjoyed my time. I’ve only been in my lab for 3 weeks, but these are a few things I have learned (so far) of what it takes to work in a research lab.

  1. PATIENCE

It takes a TREMENDOUS amount of time and patience to do this kind of work. My project consists of more or less two phases, and the first phase is only just now starting to come to an end. There have been times where reagents are not readily available, a step must be repeated because the results were different from the expected, or a certain procedure might just take an entire day or multiple days. This requires that you not get easily frustrated when things don’t go as planned.

  1. COMING IN ON WEEKENDS

Science is not a 9-5 job, the gears are always turning. I’ve found myself coming in on weekends, even if it is just to do one or two things in the mornings, but the fact that the experiments require constant attention something that aspiring scientists must keep in mind. Even if it means having to cancel on your friends/boyfriend. (Sorry guys!)

  1. PERSISTENCE

I think I have been overwhelmed at times, not necessarily because I’ve needed to do a lot of things, but because it was hard for me to understand exactly why I was doing a certain procedure. This also went along with making sure I was doing the procedures correctly and understanding them when I needed to look back at what I had done. These things are hard to juggle, so it’s important to mentally prepare yourself by taking notes of the processes and reasons why you preformed them, and then constantly look back at them until you truly understand what you’re doing.

  1. CONFIDENCE

The first week in lab, I’m not going to lie, I felt pretty minuscule. There are mainly postdocs and only a few graduate students in the lab group, and I am 1 of only 4 undergraduate students. It was very intimidating at first, going to the ab group meetings and staring at the presenter with awe and confusion, trying to decipher what they were explaining. It honestly still is intimidating, but when you realize they are just people too, they make mistakes, and that at some point, they were in the same position you are in now, it’s easier to feel like you belong.

  1. MISTAKES

Speaking of mistakes, I have made a few and learned that yeah, it doesn’t feel great when you know something went wrong because of you. (Like when cells I split got contaminated… whoops.) But it’s important not to let it get to you and keep trudging forward because nothing great ever came from only perfect runs.

  1. PRACTICE

Lastly, it takes practice to become good at anything. Even those with what you could call “natural talent” practice. I attribute almost all of the things I have accomplished to hard work, and it’s not anything different in the lab.

A Breath of Fresh Air: My Personal Experience and Development as an Intern

I accepted my internship at UCSB expecting not to have much free time. I had never had a full-time job or anything resembling such work hours and so I fully expected to be extremely busy. Work typical hours from 9am to 5pm, come back and cook dinner and the day would pretty much be gone. I was then pleasantly surprised to find I had a great deal of time outside of work to hang out with new friends I’ve met, travel and explore the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, and even relax and work on my hobbies in exercising and reading.

During my undergraduate career I was never the most diligent worker and I constantly had problems with time management and procrastination. I’d find myself going to my classes during the day, then spending the afternoon and evening just dilly-dallying and hoping I would eventually start my homework. The internet is such a great way to waste time and it just pulled endless hours out of me as I opened and closed the same social media sites again and again. I definitely noticed this happening and identified it as a huge problem in my life, and so I vowed to spend significantly less time on the computer as soon as I came to my Santa Barbara. New city, new mentality. And so far I’d say it’s been a huge success!

One of the best things I did for myself the first day of my internship was introduce myself to as many people as possible. I’m currently roommates with another intern from a different program, and that first day I had a decision to attend the welcome meeting that was specifically for my roommate’s program, or to stay in and rest after a long day. Choosing to be more open and meet the rest of his program completely opened me up to a whole new circle of students just like myself. All the other interns have been so amazingly intelligent, social and eager to learn. We’re all in very similar programs and it’s been such a pleasure to connect and grow with the rest of them.

In addition, after my typical 8 hour workdays at UCSB I’ve found cutting back on computer usage completely unclogged my schedule. I’ve been able to go to the gym after work as it’s so convenient and the gym itself is absolutely massive. In the evenings I find myself hanging out with my peers, whether it’s making a good meal, playing pool, or just talking while sipping a good drink. And on the weekends I’m more active than I thought I’d ever be; I’ve been hiking three times and been to four different beaches in three weeks (Arroyo Burro Beach was the best by far!) as well as tried some delicious restaurants on State Street. It’s truly been a blessing to be able to make meaningful contributions in cutting-edge research in one of the most beautiful cities on the West Coast. This internship so far has really helped me develop into a more social, active and independent individual.