My (first) Disastrous Night

One of the most important parts of research is making mistakes. This can be terrifying because from the time that we’re young we’re taught that mistakes are a bad thing, so when I messed up almost every part of my first solo reaction, I thought I was done for. I figured that if my mentor didn’t kick me out of lab for the day he would yell at me or be incredibly angry. But none of that happened and I learned a lot. So I’m going to tell my story of my colossal mess up because it’s pretty funny and to show other perfectionists like me that mistakes are okay.

The day started off normal, my mentor was helping me finish working up a reaction that I had set up the previous day and then I started helping him work on his reaction. He asked me to use a machine called a rotovap to evaporate the solvent so that he could see if he made the right thing. I grabbed a flask and started doing what he asked but when he came back in and told me that I grabbed a flask that was wet with water (his reaction was water sensitive). He wasn’t so happy with me after that but he scolded me and got over it. Later, after we finished with everything, he told me that he was going to the office to work on his stuff and he wanted me to work up another reaction that I had done on my own. This was the beginning of a long night.
The first thing I had to do was a simple filtration just so that I could filter away anything I didn’t want (keep in mind this was something I had been doing for months). I grabbed the wrong size funnel and ended up clogging it so what should have been a 2-minute filtration took around an hour. He came in and told me this and essentially said “oh well, start on the next part.” The next part of my work up was washing my solution with salt water and a certain solvent, pretty easy. Well it should have been. I used way too much salt water so it ended up taking me multiple hours and about 6 different Erlenmeyer flasks for one simple wash. But I finally did it and then I had to evaporate the solvent just like I did earlier in the day. I ended up spilling the solvent all over the machine and my mentor had to come in, take it apart, and thoroughly clean it for me.
By the time I was done it was almost 11:30 at night (I started at 6). I jokingly told my mentor that he should find another student and he looked at me, laughed, and said “you’re full of it if you think you’re the only undergrad to ever mess up. This is minor.”
We both left the lab laughing about the day.

Life as an Intern: Industry vs Academia

Why research?

I believe acquiring research experience is an invaluable opportunity for undergraduates to understand exactly why we must study across a broad spectrum of different disciplines just to graduate. Different research and internship opportunities have helped me realized that undergraduate studies are designed to transition students from effective test takers to effective learners.

Like most students, I spend a fair share of my college life taking notes off of lecture slides and reading textbooks from cover-to-cover just to pass a couple exams for my classes every quarter. I can’t call myself the strongest test taker in the world, but I have acclimated to the fast-pace academic lifestyle of a school following a quarter system. Rather than actually learning though, I sometimes felt I was just memorizing instead of understanding course material to pass my midterms and finals.

I sought different internship opportunities because I enjoyed applying what I learned in class to actual hands-on work in instructional labs. I was fortunately given opportunities to intern in both industrial and academic environments to get a sense of what a career in research may be like. In the following sections, I will compare my life as an intern in both academic and industrial environments with various criteria. Hopefully, some of my experiences will resonate with you and even inspire you to pursue your own positions within labs.

Environment

I started interning for a private contract research organization, Volochem, that synthesized organic molecules to life scientists in the Bay Area during my late high school and early college career. Few places can compare to the Bay Area in terms of different things to do and see outside of work. However, the commute to my workplace was the caveat to this experience. I took many Ubers, rode public buses and subways, and crossed the bay every morning and evening just to commute to and from work each day. Travel time to work would usually total over two hours each day and would sometimes leave me exhausted.

In contrast, my commute to my current research lab at UCSB is just a ten-minute bike ride from my current home. Although Isla Vista – which is a one square mile community of UCSB college students – comes nowhere close to the diversity of the Bay Area in terms of different cultures and activities to experience, the vicinity of our campus and a bustling college atmosphere definitely makes up for it. Living on a beach is also one very small perk that we definitely do not brag about to our friends at home.

Actual Work       

I’m currently researching protein folding and its interaction with artificial surfaces in Plaxco’s research group at UCSB through the Gorman Scholars Internship offered by CSEP. Through my internship, I work underneath a post-doc “super mentor” that advises me through a research project that I’m currently working on. Other than following protocols for protein expression and purification, I realized research involves having a flexible and dynamic approach to obtaining data. Since we’re exploring numerous unknowns in a highly specialized field, we sometimes must think on our feet because we can never predict the outcome of experiments we design.

In an industrial lab setting, I always had a checklist of things to do every day. I knew how each work day of the week would start and how many tasks I should accomplish each day. From chemical inventory management to performing simple reactions, everything I did was already done before. Therefore, I knew exactly how to perform all my tasks and in the event that something goes wrong, I could easily troubleshoot and fix my problems.

Learning Curve

My only exposure to anything STEM related at that time of my internship with Volochem was my AP chemistry class. So of course, I was very nervous and even scared to step foot into a synthetic chemistry lab. Thankfully, my boss and the on-site chemists at this lab were very helpful in mentoring me during my internship. There are many highly specialized instruments with highly specific functions needed in this lab that I have never been exposed to. My peers gave me terrific guidance and eased my nerves very quickly when it came to working with them.

My mentor and lab mates in Plaxco’s research group are equally helpful in terms of pointing me in the right direction. Adjusting to a new lab environment was a very pleasant experience. It seems that in laboratory environments, people are willing to answer questions and build upon each other’s ideas. Group discussions are frequent which really helps in understanding complex theories for our experiments.

Impact

I have acquired more career-specific skills through my internships than sitting in a classroom listening to lectures. Hardly anything from lecture halls can compare to the number of practical skills I acquired by working inside a lab, both industrial and academia. However, working in labs helped me understand the importance of college. The diverse classes I have taken here which ranges through a myriad of subjects have enabled me to critically think through many different scopes. My critical analytical skills developed by my current undergraduate studies have transferred well into a dynamic approach to problems that arise in research. I am thankful the opportunities given to me have helped me develop this approach to tackling problems and I hope readers of this post have experienced or will experience something similar to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beginning of a Journey

My first day of lab seemed to be the most surreal moment I experienced. Being a student that has been looking for research over the course of a year I finally felt that I had accomplished my goal. I wanted to be as productive as possible in lab in order to show my PI that I was really motivated for my project. I guess you could call it enthusiasm but I saw it as my first real opportunity to succeed in my career as a chemical engineer.

After having a brief meeting with my PI about my project, I never anticipated that the next thing we would do is walk to the lab together, only to find the most mysterious machine I have ever seen. It looked like fire hydrant but of course I was not about to say that to my PI. It did not click to my brain until I realized that this machine would be my best friend for the rest of my summer. Sometimes in life you do not pick your best friends, and I never thought that my best friend would be a fire hydrant. Nevertheless, I was ready to learn something new.

The so called fire hydrant is actually a chamber where I create plasmas, which is a beam created from cascading electrons. There was an intensive information overload and I have yet to grasp the whole concept of plasmas and plasma deposition but for now I am satisfied with understanding as much as possible from my PI.

The first couple days of lab involved assisting my PI to properly calibrate the device used for plasma deposition. We needed to calibrate things like flowrate, voltage, and current and the measurements that I needed to do for these calibrations were the most rewarding measurements I have ever done. I actually told that to my PI and he expressed surprise to my reaction of the grunt work that I was doing.

The best thing about my PI is that I am never worried about sounding unintellectual. Often times during lab my PI cracks light-hearted jokes that lessens the tension in the atmosphere and it makes me realize that the environment that I am working in is meant to be a nurturing one. I guess the worry of not being smart stems from classes where hard work is represented only through a letter grade. Of course devotion and growth are not reflected in grades and the only person that can understand my hard work is only myself. Classes are not just for grades, but it is nice to do research where I have no grade at all. I has already been two weeks and I feel that I have learned a lot of useful skills than any class could teach me. My PI taught me to drill holes, apply tape to screws, and create airtight containers. As he taught these tasks to me, he always ensured to stress the reasoning behind each thing that we did together. I would say that I am on the right track.

First Interests

I knew I wanted to participate in research because I wanted to apply the science I learned in a textbook to a practical use. I have always been a hands-on person, and I knew that by practicing science, I would have a more fulfilling time during my college career. I decided to pursue this interest during the summer before my freshman year. I decided to apply to the CSEP program known as SIMS, the Summer Institute for Mathematics and Science. During this program, I was given a small and brief opportunity to observe and feel what undergraduate research is like. Afterward, I knew that I wanted to continue my undergraduate research experience but I was unsure as to where to begin. I eventually heard about the College of Creative Studies at UCSB. The College of Creative Studies offered their students mentorship under a UCSB faculty member to help and encourage them to enter and flourish in undergraduate research during their college career. After some mentorship from CCS faculty, I decided to look into a research fellowship to further aid me in my search of an undergraduate research lab. After I got accepted into the Early Undergraduate Research and Knowledge Acquisition program, EUREKA, I received additional aid in finding a research lab. Eventually, I found a spot in the Weimb’s lab under the mentorship of Dr. Torres. Now that I have been working in the research lab for several weeks, I hope that I continue to further develop my research and lab skills. During the EUREKA program, I hope to further develop my professional and networking skills. In addition to this, I also hope to become more adept in conducting presentations in a clear, concise, and easy to understand manner. I hope that eventually, I can be a contributing member in the field of science.

Did I Break My Ankle or Did My Ankle Break Me: What an Aspiring Physician Learned as a Patient

“The greatest mistake in the treatment of diseases is that there are physicians for the body and physicians for the soul, although the two cannot be separated” -Plato

As my face scraped against the remembered tar of Ocean Road, I simultaneously scolded and chuckled at myself for thinking I would be able to complete the trek to the invariably clingy and overprotective Davidson Library. Regardless of my love for longboarding, it seemed as if I was on the ground more than I was on the board. I sat up to look at my friend on her bike, no doubt laughing at the clumsiness that distinguished my character, but surprisingly saw a look of horror plastered across her face. My eyes followed her gaze to a foot that was uncanny, almost disgusting in its unfamiliarity. The length of my right shin now ended in a set of five toes that were twisted 90 degrees in the wrong direction, east instead of north.

“Well, there go my summer plans.”

Thirty hours in a hospital bed, some insipid hospital meals, a few hours of drug induced comatoseness, a never ending stream of mental breakdowns, 3 fractures, 1 severely torn ligament, 9 screws and a plate in my foot later, I got a taste of freedom.

And now here I am, 8 weeks post-surgery, 19 years old and relearning how to walk on two feet.

As an aspiring physician, this experience offered stirring insight on the doctor-patient relationship I had previously failed to consider. When visualizing my future as a doctor, I imagined myself drowning in textbooks and paperwork, pulling boundless hour shifts, and cutting open bodies to perform life-saving procedures. I seldom considered the exhaustive state of vulnerability my patients would be facing. Lying on an emergency room bed with a contorted ankle and pain piercing every nerve in my body, I was surprised at how much trust I was placing in a man I had not met until a few minutes ago to knock me unconsciousness and snap my foot back into its place.

During my thirty hour stay at Cottage Hospital, one emergency room doctor, one orthopedic surgeon, one anesthesiologist, one physical therapist, and three amiable nurses all told me the same thing: in order to be a great doctor you have to be a patient first, a lesson I hope my peers take away from this article instead of having to learn the hard way.

Relating to a patient’s fear is not easy. Whether it is a terrified parent bringing in their toddler crying of a stomach ache or a naïve high schooler who blew off their hand trying to light a firework, the job of a doctor extends much further than curing the patient’s injuries. A doctor must create a connection with the patient and their families, doing their best to assuage the pummeling stresses of treatment, recovery, hospital bills, short and long term consequences, necessary medication, insurance compliance, physical therapy, the list is truly never ending. Losing control of one’s own body is a sensation mentally and physically taxing, and it is a great physician’s duty to take a few moments to relay trust in the patient who is being forced to trust them.

And I guess that envelopes the lessons I have learned this summer. Despite a lack of a summer job, a rescinded acceptance into a research lab, a forced cancellation of summer courses, and five weeks mostly spent on chess.com or binge reading Game of Thrones, I realized life is as simple as a broken foot. The nature of existence is defined by resilient circumstances beyond our control that will continue to penetrate our bubbles of comfort until the day we die, and all we can do is adapt. This broken foot has taught me to accept the things we cannot control, and try our best to control the things we are able to accept.