Pursuing Undergraduate Research

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chaos

Are you tired of manageable workloads?

Do you have too much free time during summer?

If only there was a solution!

Hi, I’m Michael Meneses, and I’m here to tell you about Undergraduate Research Opportunities, the fast and easy way to add some science to your life! As a Gorman Scholar and proud intern of the Hofmann lab, I want to share my experiences to hopefully convince some of you to give research a shot. Surely there must be some payoff to this whole interning thing, right?

A Sneak Peak

I’m going to say it now: there’s a good chance you have little to no experience in your major. And that’s totally fine. But it definitely brings up a weird and somewhat uncomfortable question: will I even like my major in the future? I spent my whole childhood wanting to be a marine biologist, but every now and then I’d wonder that same question and start to doubt. What if I end up not liking marine research? What will I do then?

Luckily, my time in the Hofmann lab changed that. Yes, research was much harder than I thought it would be. Yes, there’s a lot of reading and mistakes and frustration. Yes, my desk looks like a landfill and I send now more emails than a spambot. BUT, I realized that despite all the stress of the job, I only feel more and more excited about what our next project will be. Maybe you’ll realize just how passionate you are about your major, and an internship will help cement your future. Or maybe you’ll find that your major just isn’t for you, and you’re not looking forward to committing to it. An internship can let you test the waters before you decide to dive in. Which brings me to:

Exploring New Fields

Sticking to a major can be hard. We all know plenty of people who suddenly realized that their major just isn’t working out for them. Maybe their whole life has been dedicated to majoring in this one specific (and probably impacted) field. Or maybe they just don’t have a plan for their future yet. Wherever you fit in within this spectrum, taking advantage of a research opportunity can help you find a new direction for your future, even if that direction points far, far away from research. 

I’ve been gung-ho about studying marine biology my whole life, but I didn’t really have any concrete plans beyond “doing research”. Honestly, I was kind of hoping that things would sort themselves out after college and I’d go with the flow. My time with Gorman and the Hofmann lab have changed that for the better by exposing me to the active and chaotic communities in research and giving me the professional and lab skills needed to carve my own place in it. Taking an internship can spark a new passion in you, or open a new door into a field you thought you knew inside and out. Even if you decide you don’t like this new field or decide not to pursue a research degree, an internship is a great way to explore any wild scientific fantasies you might have.

And More!

I’m only grazing the tip of the iceberg here. I unfortunately don’t have the time or space in this post to tell you all the different ways you can benefit from an internship. Even if I listed off all the ways my internship has helped me, I couldn’t guarantee that they’d all apply to you. Every lab will have their own problems, approaches and procedures, as well as different people suffering through all of them. Each experience during an internship will be unique and could end up taking you in a new, exciting direction you might not find otherwise.

From Med School to Research

I find that it is not uncommon for a first-year Pre-Biology student to say they want to go to med school. It’s the majority. I wondered what other people’s reason for wanting to go to med school was. I didn’t have a concrete reason. I want to help people and truthfully, I thought it was the “correct” path as a biology major.

I didn’t want to close myself off to any other options, but a lot of the decisions I made as a first-year was so I can study medicine. Everyone told me it was “impossible” to get into medical school. I repeated to myself, “keep your hopes up, grades higher.”

I had a rough first year. I devoted my time to my studies and getting good grades without doing much else. However, by my second year, I began doing other extracurriculars, one of which was joining a research lab. I was intrigued by the idea of research, and I ended up enjoying it. I worked in a marine biology and ecology laboratory. Even though I liked the work we were doing, I did not see myself having a career in that field in the future. So I went back to focusing on medicine.

Then I got an email.

Still keeping my options open, the email stated I would be a good candidate for a biomedical research scholarship. This caught my attention. A combination of medicine and research seemed like the right fit for me. After talking to people, considering what I like most and what would be best for me, I decided to apply.

And I got it. Now, I am a proud MARC Scholar.

With the scholarship, I was able to have an intensive summer research experience in a virology and host interaction laboratory. I enjoyed every minute, from the late nights in the lab to interpreting the results of a western blot to getting lunch with some lab members. I fell in love with the work we are doing and with the people. I have finally found something I am truly passionate about.

I now have a better idea of what I want to do in the future, and research will definitely be a part of that. Even though I am happy I was able to come to this decision, it has been a tough couple of years. It took a lot of ups and downs, questioning and debating, and trying things out.

The overall point is this: it’s okay not to know. About anything. It’s okay to explore different things. It’s okay to move around, drop some things, focus on some others. And most importantly, if you don’t know, keep your options open.

When it comes to research, there are so many fields you could go into, some I hadn’t even heard about before. One very important thing: don’t get discouraged if one doesn’t excite you. It might not be the one for you. Try another one, who knows what will happen?

What I have learned as well is that if research is something you are interested in, definitely try to get some experience, whenever you can! There’s one thing liking the research and another thing physically doing the research, being in a lab for hours, and devoting a lot of your time to it.

The truth is also this: research is not easy. Most of the time, it’s failures. But, at the end of the day, it is so rewarding when something does work. Or when you see results that have never been seen before! It is truly fascinating.

If you are saying you want to go to med school as you walk through the doors of your first chemistry course, and you don’t know why but it just seems like the right thing to do, think about all the other careers you could go into. Think about all the options you have. Maybe I’m a little biased, but research is a very good one.

Explore your options, whether that be different careers or within research, you never know where you will end up. Keep your hopes high, options higher.

Using Light To Transform Cells

Hello there, my name is Ricardo Espinosa Lima. I’m a rising sophomore at UCSB and my major is Pre-Biology (Biochemistry). I am also part of the program EUREKA, which introduces freshmen into research during the summer. At first, I was really nervous to join a Biology lab since I had not taken any Biology coursework at UCSB. My knowledge of biology primarily comes from high school and I knew that was not enough to fully understand the intricacies in a research lab. To my fortune, both my mentor and PI were aware of this fact and still gave me the opportunity to join their lab.

My first time in the lab was scary. Everyone else was either a graduate student or a third-year student at UCSB. The difference in experience was tacit but I was still eager to learn more about the project in hand. The larger project involves using light to control cell differentiation of stem cells. What does this mean in simpler terms? The lab seeks to control which type of cell we can create using only one type of cell. Imagine being able to create muscular, bone cells or even neurons… using light! While this is the big picture of the project, my personal one, in a smaller scale, seeks to learn more about a family of proteins that are in charge in transcribing genes so that these cell transformations can happen.

One of the first tasks in lab was to familiarize more with jargon used and learn basic protocols that can get the project started. Even though the protocols take two to three hours to perform, the real magic of biology occurs at night. Most of my lab work the first weeks was to culture bacteria and retrieve their DNA. Many things happened in between which delayed the progress of my project. For example, one lab member changed the temperature of the device we put our bacteria in and basically killed them all. I had to retry the whole protocol the next day and hope this time works (This was my third try). Finally, I could finish one part of the experiment and got a good yield in my DNA extraction (according to my mentor). The worst part of my experiment was waiting a whole week for my primers to arrive. They usually take a couple of days to arrive, but mine took too long to arrive. In the meantime, I fed myself with literature about the proteins I’m researching. My PI asked me to do a mini project in which I look at the signaling pathways of these processes. I’m proud to say he liked my work and now entrusts me with more of these little projects.

Overall, I have had fun in learning more about lab practices more in depth, making friends that help me understand more about these concepts that for me pose a higher level of difficulty and interacting with students of different levels. I have been reading publications like crazy and even my biology textbook for the class that I will be taking next quarter. Work in lab can be difficult, tedious, scary and the experiments might not work most of the time; however, learning in every step and discovering more about the microscopical world we call life is definitely a motivation to stay in the lab. I would like to end this blog with my own personal box where I keep my plasmids and primers that I use in lab. It makes me happy to know that I am part of the team.

We’re Cuckoo for Copepods

The alarm goes off on my phone. I simultaneously acknowledge and try to ignore it. Try. It’s 4 am and too early to be alive, and yet here I am, trying to calculate how many times I can press snooze and still be on time.

Today is sample day.

I eventually dredge myself out of bed and get ready. Now that my brain is booting up, I start to feel excited again. After all, this is the first time I’ve ever done fieldwork for my major, so it doesn’t matter that it’s just a sample collection. My phone buzzes: they’re here. After a final check to be sure I have everything, I hurry outside and get into our sketchy looking lab van.

Location: Point Dume
Date:  July 3, 2019
Party: Sam the man, they call me Logan, and Asher pod catcher.
Objective: collect all the samples, disturb some ecosystems, protect UCSB

After a short drive, we finally reach Point Dume state beach, where we unload our weapons of choice: tupperware and turkey basters. We prowl the edges of the rocky beach, flashing our lights into the various tide pools hidden within the craggy boulders. Our target: Tigriopus californicus, sometimes known as the tiger copepod. Although they’re small, tigs have a remarkable tolerance to conditions that would kill many other creatures, such as low pH, high temperatures, and low levels of oxygen. Furthermore, many scientific papers show that these tolerances vary based on the climate and location of where the tigs live. Our research project aims to find what role, if any, genetics plays in these differences. But before we can get to that, we first need to awaken our inner pokemon fan and catch some tigs.

100% skill and precision.


Back at UCSB, we began the process of labeling our samples and testing the range of tolerances of our tigs. For this experiment, we specifically focus on thermal tolerances to explore how different populations will be able to handle increasing ocean temperatures. To do this, we calculate the lethal temperature 50% (LT50) by putting our tigs through an almost-literal trial by fire. The most accurate way to determine a population’s LT50 is by slowly increasing the temperature of the tig’s environment up to a high temperature, then maintaining that temperature for a while. Luckily, a thermal cycler can do just that, and tigs are small enough that we can comfortably fit 5 of them into a PCR well. We do this through the incredible and highly competitive process known as tig loading.

The set-up is a dream. The prep work is a nightmare.


Thermal Tolerance Testing

12    8-well PCR tube strips
480    T. californicus (if doing a complete 96 well plate)
1    Micropipette, set at 24 microliters
1    Thermal cycler
∞    Amounts of patience

Start by preheating programming your cycler with a temperature gradient of 36-38°C.

Contemplate your life choices as you meticulously fish out 480 tigs using the micropipette as an inefficient vacuum.

Catching multiple tigs at once gives you bonus points.

Panic when you realize you lost your place loading the wells.

Place loaded wells into your cycler for 3 hours total: two to slowly bring the temperature up, then one hour at that temperature.

Remove and serve hot.

We then fully accept our fate as hunchbacks and use a dissecting microscope to look for survivors in each well. By counting the number of fatalities, we can calculate the proportion of survival at each individual temperature. This gives us survivor proportion as a dependant variable with respect to temperature, which can be easily plotted onto a graph using RStudio. The best part about using RStudio is that the different thermal tolerance graphs we plot can be combined with each other into a single graph, giving us an easy-to-read visual comparison between populations.

Pretending that you know how to use R is an important step.

And that’s a wrap! Between the early morning collecting and giving myself nearsighted blindness, I think I’m ready to call it a day. This was definitely one of the more eventful days I’ve had in the lab, but I really enjoyed it. It’s really starting to feel like I’m contributing to the lab and project. Tomorrow will be another busy day setting up cultures for out tigs, and a few days later will be another sampling trip. I can hardly wait!

A Day in the Cleanroom

When you walk by Engineering Science Building, you can always see people in the cleanroom wearing bunnysuits doing magical things. But it has been somewhat mysterious as of what people actually do in there. In this blog, I’ll show you what I have done so far in the cleanroom as an intern.

Storage Bay

After you get gowned and enter the cleanroom, you would first collect your tools and glassware from this bay. Each group has their own assigned area for storing boxes.

Solvent Bench

It is necessary to clean your wafer before you start to process it and the cleaning is done at the solvent bench. At each bench, there is a laminar flow fume hood to prevent exposure to the fumes and vapors from solvents. There are also nitrogen guns for drying purposes. One typical solvent people use to clean the wafer is Acetone.

(Photo credit: UCSB Nanofab)

Spin Coat Bench

At this bench, people can spin photoresist coating on their wafer. The procedures are to put wafer on the spinner chuck, evacuate the spinner to fix the wafer on the chuck, drip photoresist, set the spinning speed and time (there are built-in recipes to choose from), start spinning, vent the spinner once it stops, and take the wafer off. There are hotplates set at different temperatures (105°C, 110°C, 115°C, etc.) to bake the photoresist coating.

(Photo credit: UCSB Nanofab)

Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD)

This equipment is a plasma-enhanced system for precise layer growth. One of the chambers is used for metal growth, and the other is used for dielectric growth. You only need to load your wafer into the load lock chamber and you can operate the equipment via the computer. There are also well-written process recipes for ALD, and you only need to change the number of cycles to run the recipe depending on the film thickness you want.


(Photo Credit: UCSB Nanofab)

Working in the cleanroom is both exciting and challenging. A lot of things could go wrong through the fabrication process, but you can always learn new skills and new perspectives of thinking.