How to Stay Sane in an Optics Lab

Santa Barbara.  A city coined the “American Riviera.”  A city whose average temperature throughout the year varies by only 12º F.  A city where it rains only 37 days out of the year and is sunny for 283.  Santa Barbara is pretty great; but I’m stuck in a dark room.
This summer I interned with the Schuller Group characterizing a thin gold film to implement into our Organic Photovoltaic (Solar) Cell research.  Characterizing that thin film involved hours of measurements in an optics lab.  We measured the intensity of a laser reflecting off of the film in complete darkness to minimize background light.  Sitting in a dark room, fumbling over a keyboard to enter specifications, feeling for the mouse, listening to the click of the camera lens after each measurement, hearing the squeal of the pico motor as you pinpoint the laser, and placing one foot carefully in front of the other to cross the room can start to drive you a tad crazy.  You lose track of time.  You get drowsy.  You get hungry.
So here’s some tips to help you stay sane in an optics lab:
  1. Play music
    • Listen to some of your favorite music.  Or, try some new genres or styles.  You have plenty of time and varying the sound will keep things more lively.  Personally, I like to listen to mostly classical and big band jazz, but I do throw in some 80s rock every now and then.  With all these streaming sites, you have access to an incredible library.  Spotify and Pandora provide free access (with commercials) to all sorts of music and will allow you to explore a plethora of artists of the same or similar genres.  YouTube has everything from amateur covers to playlists of your favorite albums.  SoundCloud can help you discover up and coming artists or smaller non-mainstream artists.  If you’re into classical music as I am, UCSB has a subscription to the Naxos music library (http://www.library.ucsb.edu/research/db/250), which has over 140,000 tracks of mostly the classical genre, but does have some jazz, world, new age, and pop and rock.
  2. Listen to an audio book
    • Reading simply isn’t possible in an optics lab.  It’s dark and you’re busy using your hands and eyes to take measurements.  There’s a few free ways to get your ears on an audiobook.  LibriVox offers free volunteer read books in the public domain. Audible, by Amazon, offers a free 30-day trial period, but after that it’s $15/month.  Audiobooks.com offers 1 free audiobook after joining.  I haven’t tried using audiobooks much, but my friend, who was performing AFM measurements for several weeks, found himself going through a multiple books per week!
  3. Take sun breaks
    • In addition to taking a lunch break (don’t skip lunch!), you might find it helpful, relaxing, and invigorating to take 10 minutes or so and take a walk outside.  Find a patch of grass, lie down and watch the clouds glide by.  The lab I work at is a mere 3 minute walk to the beach, so that’s always a nice option.  Perching on the bluffs, watching and listening to the waves roll up to shore.  Being in a dark room for extended periods of time can get lonely, disorienting, and cold.  Taking a break to go outside, breathing in some fresh air, feeling the grass beneath your feet or the sand between your toes, maintains your sanity in the dark bleakness of a light sensitive lab.
  4. Have a partner
    1. If possible, having a lab partner makes the experience much greater.  You can talk, share music interests, alternate turns taking the monotonous data, which brightens up the dark room.  In my lab, I’m lucky enough to have a partner.  We have similar music interests: he appreciates classical, enjoys jazz, but also has a wider palette of genres than I, which brings some variety to the table.  We talk about tv shows, science, career plans, social lives, politics and whatever comes to mind.  We grab lunch together and enjoy the trip outside to lunch.  Having a partner will delay the onset of insanity, but not eliminate it, be sure to still get out of lab some time.

A Day at the Lab

What might an undergraduate intern do on a day-to-day basis? Well, it certainly differs by field, and differs still by individual lab and project–so here’s a look at what I do as a mechanical engineer working in Sumita Pennathur’s lab separating particles using microfluidics.

Some activities that I find myself doing often are:

  • making solutions
  • use syringe pumps
  • taking long exposure images
  • analyzing images with Matlab

Making a Solution (How to Use an Eppendorf Pipette)

How to Use an Eppendorf pipette

  1. Set the pipette to the correct volume, attach pipette tip.
  2. Depress the top button to about halfway, insert pipette into substance.
  3. Release the button and take it out of substance.
  4. Insert pipette into desired location and depress the button all the way down.
  5. Discard the pipette tip in a waste bin and shake up your solution.

How to Use Syringe Pumps

BothSyringes

  1. Insert infuse syringe and refill syringe
  2. Set diameter of syringe (26.7 mm)
  3. Set infuse rate (mL/hr)
  4. Set refill rate (mL/hr)
  5. Press run

Taking Long Exposure Images (How to Use Andor Solis)

Andor

  1. Using bright field, position your subject in the desired location relative to the camera
  2. Make sure that the camera is focused
  3. In the “Setup Acquisition” menu “Setup Camera” tab, change exposure time and number of accumulations (Example: In the “Setup Acquisition” menu “Auto-Save” tab set your file stem and save location
  4. Click “Video” to see your subject in real time
  5. Click “Take Signal” to capture the image

Analyzing Images with Matlab

  1. Have your images organized and labeled well
  2. Create code to run through each image (for loops)
  3. Create code to extract the data you want (in my case, equilibrium distances)
  4. Plot your data10and15logReB
  5. Understand that you will experience errorsErrors

Recap

This has been a journey through a day in my lab. Note that labs differ greatly. Although you probably won’t use syringe pumps or Andor Solis, it’s likely that at some point in your lab career you will make solutions and do some form of programming to analyze your data. Regardless, you will learn a lot of new skills in lab that you might not learn in class.

A Different Perspective on Research

Before this internship, I honestly had no idea what research meant. The idea of being a researcher didn’t seem exciting. I am the type of person that likes to be hands on. Whether I am working on a project or even studying. Hands on studying to me is achieved by getting up and using whiteboards and organizing study groups. This is one of the reasons I believed that I wasn’t the right type of person to fit into the research field. Thankfully, my mind has opened up to the idea. My perspective on my future has changed in positive and exciting ways.

Research is much more team oriented than I expected. My colleagues and I tend to have similar questions as we use and learn very similar simulation programs to carry out our experiments. In most cases, it isn’t ideal to ask the mentors questions for every minor road block. This is when our small office conversations allowed us to learn from each other. A majority of the time, the learning was reciprocal. Progress achieved independently is so rewarding.

Cutting edge technology comes from universities with these programs. I didn’t know this was true. I believed it was all industry that was responsible for this. This internship has given me a new found inspiration to pursue research. I will pursue a undergraduate research program in hydrogen technology thanks this experience at my new school because of this internship.

The End of a Run

Wow! As this summer program comes to an end, I am exhausted…

Not the overwhelmingly sleep-deprived exhaustion. But instead, the kind of exhaustion that shows that you have accomplished something—like being out of breath after running.

At the end of a run, you know that you have earned not only the tiredness and soreness, but also the strength that ensues. So as I gear up to sprint the last couple of weeks of the MARC summer program, I know that I will be even more exhausted than I am now. But I also know that there is a great reward waiting for me on the other side of the finish line. I have struggled in workshops to improve my writing and presenting and labored in lab to develop my technique and skills. But there is satisfaction in knowing that you have challenged yourself, struggling through new obstacles and emerging stronger and wiser than before. There is fulfillment that comes with presenting work that you have invested time in and believe in. And there is gratification that comes with knowing you have worked on research that has helped not only your growth, but could also potentially benefit many others.

However, as I run my course, I am not alone. I have met second years that hold so much promise, my fellow third years that have offered encouragement as we run similar courses, and fourth years that are looking ahead to bright futures. As we run along side one another, my peers have seen me struggle when my stride faltered but have only given me positive support to continue. They have provided me with laughs to distract from my labored breathing telling me to slow. To sum it up, they have been pretty awesome!

So if you are looking at the CSEP programs and wondering if all the hard work is worth it… it is. The opportunities that these programs give you are so unique, and only a small group of undergrads gets to experience them each year. From workshops on conferences and graduate school to dinners with experienced scientists from academia and industry, there is always something new to learn, and there is always someone new to meet. So, if you are like me, you may be exhausted, but the soreness just means that you are getting stronger.

Developing Undergraduate Research Skills Outside of a Laboratory

As I’ve been working in my lab – making new bacterial culture media/buffers, running DNA extractions of bacteriophages, and compiling qPCR data for analysis – I realized that the tasks in lab are very similar to what we do on a daily basis. Whether you are already working as an undergraduate researcher, or if you are hoping to get started, here are some research skills and techniques you could develop outside of the lab as part of your daily routine!

Colin is currently about to enter his third-year working in the Chen Lab

About to enter my third-year working in the Chen Group!

 

  • Cooking

As a college student, cooking is one of the biggest tasks on my daily ‘to-do’ list. Even though eating at local food stores saves time and effort, I enjoy cooking. Cooking is an awesome opportunity for you to develop your research skills!

Cooking recipe for spicy chicken breasts –

Cooking recipe for spicy chicken breast

Protocols to make PBS buffer, LB, TB, 2xYT, and SB bacterial culture medium

Protocols to make PBS buffer, LB, TB, 2xYT, and SB bacterial culture medium

The way I run experiments in my lab is extremely similar to the way I cook at home. For example, the first time I cooked chicken breasts, I gathered all the ingredients and tools and followed the recipe carefully – exactly the same as following the protocol for extracting viral DNA from my bacteriophage samples. I did not succeed at either on the very first try, but I didn’t give up. It took a couple of failures to make the experiment work – just like it took a few tries for me to get the chicken breast recipe right. The point is, if you continue to practice, you will eventually become an expert at the specific techniques needed for your experiments/cooking.

  • Staying organized

I don’t know about you, but I can’t start studying unless my desk is clean. Staying neat and organized is a key point in research. As you go through your undergraduate research journey, you may forget to label tubes, or misplace or mix up your samples if you don’t pay enough attention to organization. It’s much easier to avoid these problems if you start clean on a daily basis. Your work space at home reflects the degree of organization you will have in the lab!

My desk at home

My workspace at home – a binder for research papers, a clipboard with documents for data analysis

My workspace in lab

My workspace in lab – buffers, tubes with samples, autoclaved pipet tips, and an ice bucket specific for my experiments to reduce contamination

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put on the desk only what you need for that specific task – if you are studying for Organic Chemistry,

A sample entry in my lab notebook on RT-PCR (experiment done on 5/9/2015)

A sample entry in my lab notebook on RT-PCR (experiment done on 5/9/2015)

then you shouldn’t be on your phone! Make sure to label things on your bench and stay organized. For example: since I work with microbes, my samples are extremely sensitive to contamination. To avoid contamination, I autoclave my reagents, tubes, and pipet tips.

It is also very important to get in the habit of annotating and recording your experiments because you never know what will happen in your experiments, even if you think you did everything right. You might need to repeat the experiment a couple months later, when you have forgotten the exact details of the experiment. This is why it is important to practice taking thorough notes in your introductory laboratory courses. In the same way during your daily routine, you could easily develop note-taking skills by making ‘to-do’ lists of your day.

Additional tips: 1) Google Calendar to organize events, lab work, school, etc. 2) Zotero and/or Mendeley to manage and share research papers

 

  • Building relationships

If you are an undergraduate student, you almost always will be working with a graduate student or a postdoctoral mentor. Besides the time you will be spending on experiments with your lab mentor, it is also very important to develop a personal relationship with them. It is so crucial to develop good relationships with your TAs and your professors because who knows what will happen in the future? Next thing you know – you might be spending most of your day running experiments with the TA that taught you about the basics of chemistry lab techniques. Fun fact: my graduate student lab mentor was actually my General Chemistry (Chem 1AL) Lab TA during my very first quarter in college!

Grabbing lunch with my Principal Investigator, Professor Irene Chen (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

Lunch break with my Principal Investigator, Professor Irene Chen (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

Me at CSEP's dinner with faculty with Professor Joel Rothman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology)

At CSEP’s dinner with faculty with Professor Joel Rothman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology)

If you are hoping to pursue graduate studies, and even a career in academia, what better way is there for you to learn about the research path than talking directly to your Principal Investigator (PI) or professors in your college? As an undergraduate, professors might seem intimidating, but many of them are actually very encouraging. I had the opportunity to ask Professor Joel Rothman in the UCSB Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology about his awesome journey to becoming a faculty member at UCSB. I was surprised that he became an expert in the wine making before he became a professor. I also got the chance to go to lunch with my PI, Professor Irene Chen, and to talk about how she began researching about the Origin of Life. It was fascinating and encouraging to hear their stories because they were once an undergraduate researcher like me!

  • Going on walks & enjoying life

One of the biggest advantages we have as UCSB students is that our school is on the beach, literally. It is important to take some time off doing your homework or designing your next experiment, and go on a walk at the beaches nearby. On my walk, I think about life, and how beautifully it was designed for us to enjoy… and where life first began (Origin of Life – main research topic of the Chen Group). For me, the most creative ideas pop up in my mind when I am de-stressing and appreciating the good things that were provided for me!

Taking a walk and enjoying the astonishing view of sunset at Sands Beach, Isla Vista

Taking a walk and enjoying the astonishing view of the sunset at Sands Beach, Isla Vista