In Theory, it’s All in Your Head; In Practice, it’s Seriously True

Don’t worry so much about what you do and don’t know that you get stuck inside your own head. If you spend too much time in there, you’ll end up only being able to see your own gaps; to be honest, not even postdocs and professors know exactly which direction to go in when performing research. Everyone starts out with that Swiss Cheese Syndrome, so there’s no need to be insecure about your limitations. On the first day, you may feel like a wobbly wildebeest calf in a den of watchful lions, desperate to prove you belong (and more importantly, not break anything), but in lab, everyone’s learning together. We’re all in love with science and engineering because we want to fill in those holes. So if they exist? Well, that’s perfectly normal. Don’t let it drag you down.

I can only tell you this because of what happened to me. Man, that was a rough first month. One week to get acclimated, and then – boom! – my mentor needed to visit China for some time. Almost simultaneously, the professor (PI) in charge of my lab was going to Italy, which meant that I suddenly felt alone, reading scientific literature and working on a research project I had barely wrapped my mind around.

Naturally, I got very wrapped up in my project. Oof. Mistake number one, honestly. As a research intern, you shouldn’t forget to explore your surroundings. Whether that’s something as simple as interacting with the other graduate students in your lab and asking about their projects and nascent careers in science (nothing says you can’t have more than one mentor!) or attending one of the seminars out and about on campus, there’s so much you can do to help yourself and find out what you want to do. It can be tempting to just hone in on the material your mentor has provided for you, but you shouldn’t let it consume you. My work has been completely theoretical, which means I’ve spent a lot of time sitting, thinking, and programming. That’s natural, and I’m happy with that, but I always make sure to spend some time outside so I don’t feel like I’m drowning.

Frankly, you’ll never really know what research field will capture your interest. This summer, I’ve been working in a lab in the mechanical engineering department. I’m a math major. When people think of engineering labs, they envision robots being built, or new materials being manufactured. In my case, I was working on testing and developing algorithms. It’s been much more theoretical than anything I’ve ever associated with engineering, but I’ve come to really enjoy it. And that is so much more important than you could imagine. You’re going to be working with people who’ve already dedicated themselves to a sector of science. Most likely, they’ve already discovered their passion. In that environment, it can feel awkward and discouraging if you realize that you don’t have the same connection to the work. In your head, you may even feel that something is wrong with you. Don’t let yourself feel that way. If you feel frustrated, talk to your mentor and PI. They’re here to guide you, you’re not here to serve them. They can open the world to research. You just have to find out where you want to go.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking or preparing to work in a lab in the Computer Science or Electrical Engineering department, or another department with close ties to the technology sector, it can be fairly common for the lab to be fairly empty during the summer, as professors leave for international conferences or meetings and graduate students take off on internships of their own. Make sure to talk with your mentor and devise a plan beforehand!

A Travel Guide Through Science Research and Across the World

“Undergrads with destination to grad school, please have your email ready”

If someone had told me during my senior year of high school that I would be doing research on neuroscience, ecology, molecular biology, and environmental studies I would not have believed them. If someone had told me that I would work with bacteria, fruit flies, and even with elephants I would think they were joking.

However, I experienced all of this during my undergrad career, and although I lived through them, I still cannot believe that I got them all thanks to emails.

My Journey through Science

I started my journey in science without really knowing what my final stop was. I only knew that if I was going to be in a research university, I was going to do research. My first stop was at Dr. Keller’s lab in the Bren School doing Environmental Studies research. Here, I overcame the fear of “traveling alone”—aka the fear of being in a lab. This first experience encouraged me to apply for other labs; after all I wanted to learn from many other branches of science. I traveled then to a molecular biology lab where I stayed for a whole summer studying prokaryotic interactions. Then, I LITERALLY traveled to Kenya, Africa to conduct Ecology research in Dr. Hillary Young’s lab. When I came back I then embarked to neuroscience research in Craig Montell’s lab, where I’m currently working with fruit flies to determine the biochemical mechanisms of the circadian rhythm. While this is a stop in my journey, I plan to continue my journey to graduate school and to learn more about human biology.

I Don’t Have The Resources to Travel, How Do I Afford a Ticket?

Your email is your travel ticket! In the real world, people travel via planes, hitchhiking, or backpacking. I see doing research as an undergrad the same way; you can get into a lab thanks to your excellent GPA (plane), because you know someone (hitchhiking), or because you contacted a professor (backpacking). I did the latter via email and I would not have it otherwise. I got all of my research positions thanks to emailing professors and grad students whose research interested me. Even when I thought that I would not get in a lab, I always emailed professors expressing my interest on their research. This is how I got my trip to Africa funded- Just by emailing a grad student. So, even if you don’t have the resources to travel (Don’t have a good GPA, or don’t think you have the experience) DO NOT hesitate to email your professors or lab members. They might be able to help you and offer you a spot in their labs as their mentees.

 Is doing research as scary as your first flight?

Yes, it is. I come from a low-income neighborhood with underfunded and understaffed schools. Working in a lab never really crossed my mind as I had never been exposed to research nor a lab. Thus, the day before my first day in the Keller lab, I was anxious and nervous. What if I would ruin my advisers work by spilling something? What if I didn’t understand something he said? Or even worse, what if I didn’t understand his whole project!? All of these questions crossed my mind. But when I got to the lab, the excitement of learning new things, the lab equipment, and the idea of contributing to the scientific community helped me overcome my fears. It felt the same way I felt when I boarded my flight to Kenya (This international flight was actually my first flight). At first, I was scared. I asked myself what if I couldn’t take the pressure change? What if the plane crashed? But, soon all of these fears disappeared when the feeling of excitement of the accelerating plane and the beautiful scenery from the airplane window took over me.

If you ever doubt yourself or think you are not good enough for a lab, just remember that most probably those fears will be overpowered by the excitement of learning new things and contributing to the science.

Lessons

My journey wasn’t the smoothest. Like all backpackers, I sometimes got tired, got my hands dirty, or felt some level of uncertainty. But also, like all backpackers, I found the beautiful science scenery that not everyone gets to see and picked up lessons along the way that I’ll always keep with me. Working in different fields, helped me implement lab techniques and research approaches to my new projects allowing me to improve as a researcher. Life, as in science, is not about the destiny, but the journey. As an incoming senior, I don’t know if my next or final stop is grad school, but I certainly have enjoyed the journey and all of the lessons it has taught me.

 

From the Classroom to the Lab: It’s Not the Same!

My goal with this post is to share my experience with organic chemistry class and organic chemistry instructional lab, and how those experiences completely differed when I got to do organic chemistry in a research lab.

There are prerequisite class series that you must take to move on with your major. For me, one of them was organic chemistry. Taking organic chemistry was not the most exciting part of my second year. I didn’t have anything against the subject– I actually thought it was quite interesting– but amidst the other classes I was taking, extracurriculars, and my personal life it became mostly a chore of a class. I breezed through the series with not much thought about it, thinking I’d never be doing organic chemistry again.

Instructional lab was a little different but had the same result. It was a lot more interesting than the class for sure. You get the opportunity to apply some of the theory and see it happen in real life. I really enjoyed many of the labs that employed making stuff from everyday life. However, what I didn’t like was the time commitment required to do well in the class. Consecutive prelabs and lab reports would pile up and combine with midterms and homework from other classes and would all lead to long nights on days before lab.

Overall, both lab and class were stressful experiences that left a small sour taste for organic chemistry; by the end of the series, I was relieved I’d never have to see the subject again. But because this is life and nothing ever goes the way you think, here I am this summer doing research that involves lots of organic synthesis. the plot twist is that I’m thoroughly enjoying it. How did this happen? The answer lies in the all-time cliché, “Research is not the same as class!”. I’d heard this phrase countless times at student panels, at professional development workshops, and at talks by many faculty but I’d never paid much attention to it. The truth is that it doesn’t have much meaning until you experience it yourself.

Over the summer, my project is to synthesize six different sequences of a protein-like polymer that could be used to prevent biomineralization in the body. When I started the project, my mentor gave me an overview of the reactions I’d be working with. As she explained the reaction mechanisms and the reasoning for the reagents and the conditions, it all made sense! I was able to follow and understand, and even question why some things would be one way and not the other. As the summer progressed, things got even better. I saw myself writing “prelabs” for the experiments I would do. I started writing the motivation for my reactions, the background from the literature, the goals for my experiments, the reaction mechanisms, the general steps, even the table of reagents (complete with drawn structures!). And instead of it being a chore, it was something I enjoyed.

All in all, the things that caused so many restless nights of work and study now have meaning. So this is my take-away message: Do not get discouraged by how well you do in a class or by how much you dislike the instruction, instead, allow yourself to learn as best as you can and remember that the world of research is full of surprises, and you may find yourself enjoying a subject that you thought you “hated”.

Proof that I really do enjoy what I’m doing!

 

Back To the Future (Doing research)

Dear Sebastian,

Let me open this letter by stating that you are going to be fine. All your anxiety regarding programming and meeting the expectations set by your PI and mentor were reasonable but not such a big deal, do not forget you are here to learn how to do research and not to do a revolutionary discovery (although strive for the best). Yes, this summer is the world cup and do try your best to watch it! Even though you are sitting in your laptop coding, stream it online! Believe me, that will make some of your days less stressful. Moreover, after doing your research in the lab go and play soccer, do some exercise because god knows is the only way to stay in shape.

After 6 weeks in this amazing program I got a lot to share, so listen up. My first advice is a cliché but never gets old: Ask questions from day 1! Trust me, you are going to get nervous and think that everybody knows the answer but that is not the case, research starts with a supposedly “dumb question” that in fact holds the key to interesting answers. Go to Dillon more often (your mentor, you’ll meet him soon enough) and don’t be intimated by him, everyone in the Streichan Lab is friendly and do want to see you succeed. My second advice would be to appreciate MATLAB, you are going to spend every day getting to know this good software that allows you to analyze data efficiently. Remember that coding is a process of constant failure and that it holds a lot of red messages. Don’t get discourage and always ask why, understand the whole project and why each task helps you with your overall goal this will provide motivation and a clear path to success.

But Sebastian, understand that research is a slow process. Some days you are going to be stuck in a problem for hours (and I mean hours!) and you will think that there is no solution but in fact such situation is easily solved by asking a simple question. Don’t get discourage because of this, if research were easy everyone would do it.  Another tip would be to get to know the other interns! They are amazing people working on incredible stuff, talk to them, ask them questions and share ideas; literally you are with the best and brightest of UCSB so take advantage of that. Oh, don’t forget to put notification on your google calendar! God knows how many events you missed… also listen to the faculty speakers, their words of wisdom are relevant since they want to help you become a great science communicator and make your summer project compelling. Go to all the talks you can, especially, the one with Professor Carolina Arias (this one you missed and apparently it was pretty good)

My last advice, would be to not doubt yourself. I mean you are working on revolutionary stuff, you are learning fluid mechanics, tensor analysis and coding all in one summer (wow! that is hard now that I think about it) but you are smart my friend! Your progress is going to be great and dazzle everybody because you are a Gorman scholar and you were picked because you want to be challenged and science is your passion! So, take it easy and enjoy the process, don’t be afraid of failure since that is your daily diet (I wish I were kidding) remember to take a deep breath now and then and enjoy your summer.

Enjoy your days of rest before the program!

Best,

Sebastian (from the future)

 

A lab meeting is less of an audition, and more of a casual conversation

When entering the world of research for the first time, there are aspects that might seem scary at first, and interacting and working in your first lab meeting is no exception. As I share my story, hopefully it can leave you more confident to handle your meeting with poise.

During a seemingly regular Sunday noon, I had sent a nerve-wracking email to a faculty advisor that I had wished to work with at the time (and blessed to continue working with today). About an hour later, he sent a response that would send me bursting out of my chair, while numbing my body at the same time due to the fear that was building up in my body. At the time I was both excited, yet nervous of the potential embarrassment that I might showcase during the meeting.

Fast forward to the next day, and after hours of not being able to sleep, practicing my slurred speech, and trying to calm my hand’s involuntary shaking, I was right at the front door of the lab trailer and decided to knock with mild hesitation. After a second or so, I was greeted by this kind and amazing lady who I would soon realize to be a senior scientist in the lab. She would greet me and ask who I was, and in response, my lips would rumble, barely uttering my name. Recognizing my name, she told me that the lab was expecting me and showed me to the meeting.

There it was: A room full of postdocs, graduate students, a few undergrads, and of course, the faculty advisory himself, all sat around this huge oval table filled with laptops and data from their own respective projects. As I overheard each person talk about their own complex work, my brain would sink, doubting myself for a second, and questioning whether I deserve to be in this room in the first place.  I was afraid to make a fool of myself by uttering some information that would have conveyed my lack of expertise in their research, let alone physics itself.

As the meeting started, I was told to introduce myself. From this moment on, I will give a couple pieces of advice that come from my experience after introducing myself:

  1. These scientists are not what they seem on paper and on the big screen: Throughout the course of the meeting, these scientists– and especially the faculty advisor– would constantly make jokes that were very funny and, of course, very science-y. I thought it was hilarious and a bit caught off guard as I thought these scientists to be very stern and always serious, but it was always informal and very chill. It was also very funny to note that that senior scientist had “warned” me that they would be making jokes all the time as that is just personality of the atmosphere during their lab meetings. Of course, not all labs are like this, but the point here is that these researchers are very human and not the robots that they are stereotyped to be.
  2. It is ok to not know, and it is also ok to not explain using the most complex vocabulary: When going into this meeting the one question that I am certain all lab meetings will ask on the first day is, “is there anything specific that you would like to do in our research?” I am also certain that they will not ask you that until the end of the meeting. The reason why I say this is because they understand that you are not an expert in what they are doing, nor are you obligated to be an expert on the first day. They try to ask you in the end because they want you to listen to what they are doing and get comfortable with their research. Also, they would encourage to explain who you are and what you want as simply as possible. As I said, they are human too, not a walking dictionary, and they also want to understand how you will work in their team as well and talking to them in a complicated way might leave a bad imprint on how you work with others.

 As I left the meeting, many of the stigmas that would make these researchers intimating had been torn down, and I would look forward to the next meeting that would come. They welcomed me with open arms, as I am sure will also happen to you in your first meeting. Like I said, not all labs are the same, But I hope this story will give you a positive outlook in your experience. you may be anxious at first, but at the end, know that it is all worth it.