The AIM Experience

I remember the first day of the internship: as I walked into Professor John Bower’s lab for the laser safety training, I wondered when I’d get to run all of the advanced machinery and lasers I had heard about.

It began with reading journals, books, and scientific papers for about a week or two. Coming in around 10 AM, reading till 4 PM, and then heading home each day. As I began reading the papers, I realized how complex the level of the material was compared to what we learned in classroom lectures and acknowledged the fact that I needed to be able to understand the equipment I would be spending the summer working with. MMI’s… Couplers… PDK’s… These words were all foreign to me. Though the reading seemed long and tedious, it helped build an understanding of how to read and interpret such a different style of writing.

Once I finally got into the lab, I learned about some of the various different applications of light and optics in a lab setting. From developing and implementing an algorithm in order to control automated test setup to determining measurements in epitaxially grown quantum dot lasers, I gained knowledge and hands on experience that I would never have been able to receive from only a classroom lecture environment.

Now nearing the end of my AIM Photonics summer internship experience, I can say with a 100% guarantee that I was able to establish successful results in a professional laboratory setting by interacting and working proficiently with my colleagues and mentor. The weekly activities organized through the program really emphasized the key aspects of what goes into research outside of the traditional laboratory setting. Gaining so much advice about graduate school from older students and making connections with various professors and mentors were just the beginning of the kind of valuable information I obtained from this program. I would definitely recommend this program to all physics and engineering undergraduate students regardless of their career and academic paths. One thing I would definitely not give up on is being deeply involved in the future of photonics by developing new techniques and set-ups using optical fibers.

It was truly an amazing and unique experience to feel that I was contributing to such an important field, and I value the chance I was given to be a part of something bigger. This opportunity has opened a doorway for me to the research life, and all I can say is give it your all because whether or not you find a career in research, the experience will broaden your mind and uncover a whole new spectrum of engineering that you may never even have thought existed.

More than Cell Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how our lab experiences have differed, her being in chemistry and me, in biology. The physical things we have done have been vastly different (I can’t imagine running a reaction for 24 hours), but I found that the things that have happened to us have been very similar. I mentioned to her that I was frustrated because I had done a reaction, following all of the steps my mentor took, standing beside him, using the same tools, and still somehow, I ended up with much less product than he did. I thought that I was just inept and clumsy and figured I had made some sort of error along the way, but much to my surprise my friend said something very similar had happened to her. It wasn’t that I was happy that she messed up too, but in a place full of such intelligent people who seem to know what they are doing all the time, it was kind of comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one having hiccups.

I have also started to notice little things about myself that I’ve picked after working in a lab for almost 2 months. Cell culturing is very sensitive and it’s important to be as sterile as possible when doing it. Gloves, spray everything with ethanol, use a new pipette every time, don’t have the plate uncovered for too long, don’t wave your hand over the open plate, and put the cells back in the incubator as soon as you can, all while being as careful as possible and NOT clumsy (very hard for me). The first few weeks, my mentor had a fixed view on my technique and would have to keep reminding me of all of these rules. When I managed to contaminate cells with bacteria, I realized I had to step up my game. With many hours of practice doing this, I have gotten much better at culturing cells swiftly and carefully, so much I may overdo it with the ethanol sometimes. I have also, incidentally, started applying these techniques to my life outside of lab, like putting the lid of the butter immediately back on when cooking, or throwing away new disposable plates after I even slightly make them touch something that’s not food. I will continue to perfect my technique and see what other weird things I pick up.

Dealing with Research Frustrations

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

Research is exciting because you can learn something new that no one else has ever known of before. And with this new knowledge, you can spread it to a community of others who are eager to learn new information. But since sometimes you don’t exactly know what you’re looking for, research can be just as frustrating as well. During my internship over the summer, I realized how frustrating research can be sometimes when experiments do not go as planned and days of work in the lab are wasted. But during the same time, I also learned how to deal with these frustrations in various ways.

I’m currently investigating protein-surface interactions in Plaxco’s research group. The bulk of my time in the lab is dedicated to engineering and producing our own proteins needed for our experiments. Since we’re acquiring our own proteins, we must capture and purify these proteins that are purposely overexpressed in bacteria cultures we grow. This process requires many steps and spans over multiple days. And within this process, many variables – both human and experimental – can affect the outcome of this procedure. Of course, not everything in research can go as planned. Failing to acquire our proteins have led to frustration, self-doubt, and a sense of wasted time.

Luckily, I have spare time outside of lab that I can dedicate for dealing with these frustrations. Whenever I leave lab feeling as though lab work did not go as well as I hoped, I sit outside reflecting on my frustrations. There isn’t really much you can do if research plans fall through. Usually, you diagnose what went wrong and hopefully fix a mistake in your experimental procedures. Otherwise, you have to start from square one. Yes, it feels like I’m beating myself up at some points. But this moment of self-reflection allows me to approach mistakes in a logical way.

For the rest of the day, I’d like to take my mind off of research and blow off some steam by exercising. I recently picked up cycling as a hobby. I’d ride with my friends to downtown Santa Barbara and back and we’d usually hang out a bit afterward in Isla Vista. This exercise helps me release stress and also helps me socialize at the same time. If I do not go on a bike ride, I’d go to the gym to lift some weights. Physical activities help take my mind off of research for a brief moment while also benefiting my overall health. In a way, I’m turning something negative from research into a net positive for my well-being.

I felt lost and frustrated a lot of times while working in lab especially at the start of my research internship. I’ve come to accept these emotions because I realized recently that these feelings are normal in a research environment. For instance, an experimental procedure my mentor has been developing for the past three years has only started showing promising results this summer. I could only imagine how many times he has faced feelings of doubt and failure to reach success. This process, however, makes research so much for valuable and fulfilling than one would expect. The hard work and studiousness needed for a job where results are hard to see at first make success a lot more worth it in the end.

Are Professors Really People Too or Just Three Lizards in a Trench-coat?

As a student it is not infrequent to be advised to remember that “professors are people too” and they want you to approach them when you need assistance.  Although I certainly understood this intellectually, for someone shy as me, emotionally this advice was difficult to put in motion.  During my freshman year, I was always nervous to approach them to ask for homework help, or talk about research, or really anything, in a way I had never felt around my high school teachers.

It’s not hard to see what makes professors intimidating. They’re experts in their fields, with years’ worth of experience and knowledge. In class the professors are lecturing in front of a hall full of students they don’t know, and to students who don’t know them. It can be the recipe for nothing but an impersonal experience. I was terrified that if I messed up or misspoke the professor would think I wasn’t worth their time. However, it didn’t take long for that perception to change.

I think that doing research and working under the guidance of postdocs and professors was the only way I was going to overcome those fears. It is difficult to be too intimidated by the people you discuss movies and exchange funny stories with over lunch. Slowly, but surely I grew more comfortable around my coworkers. Coworkers! – How weird it is to work in the same place as people who are normally your mentors, teachers, a part of a different world.

Now that I’m not quite so fear-filled at the very thought of interacting with them, the grad students, post-docs, and professors I’ve worked with this summer have taught me so much, merely by sharing their experiences. I’ve learned about the process of getting published and all its intricacies and difficulties. I’ve learned about why coding is important and how much we can learn from other disciplines. I’ve also learned about how important it is to stay focused on the big picture and not get lost in the little details.

Now, that is a lot to learn in one summer, let alone cover in one post, so I’ll focus on the last point. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details you deal with daily when you’ve been working on a project all summer. You get focused on the problem that you are currently working on and forget the end-goal, the purpose of the project overall. This can be dangerous. It makes it difficult to stay mentally engaged in the project and it makes it easy to go down the wrong path.

First you need to actually understand the big picture in order to remember it. When I first started I just had vague idea and set about accomplishing my goal one step at a time. That quickly went downhill as I consistently got stuck on problems with no idea how to move forward, and spent time on the wrong things with no good understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. Going back and reading papers and talking to my mentors helped solidify what they were looking for from my project.

I’ve found the best way to keep the big picture in mind is to talk to people who know nothing about my research. From the advice of my mentors and the reactions of friends and the people I meet at my internship events, I’ve realized that people aren’t all that interested in the simulations I work on daily. They’re not interested in hearing about the bug I solved today in my code. They want to hear the cool stuff about stars exploding and black holes. The things that can excite really anyone about space. What you tell them may only be 5% of what you actually spend time on, but it often illustrates the overarching goals of your research.

Overall, I’ve found that there is a lot to be learned from those with more experience. You’ll find many who are willing to teach you, not just about the subject you’re researching, but all the other knowledge they gained in getting where they are today.

Pros and Cons of Working as an Undergrad Researcher

In summers past, I’ve spent my time working  more “traditional” teenage jobs, such as a camp counselor or fast food employee. This summer, however, marks my first internship in a lab, and the day to day role of undergrad researcher has presented its own unique set of perks and drawbacks, such as:

#1: Not having a set schedule

Want to get off work before 1 PM so you can go to the beach? Or sleep in late every day? One of the best parts of working in a lab is the flexibility of my schedule. As long as my work gets done and I go to weekly meetings, I can choose what times I want to come in. However, this only works in my favor if the work actually gets done. Unlike a normal job, there is no set “clock out” time for me. I can go into lab early with the intent of having my afternoon free, but if the experiment needs to be redone, or someone else is using a piece of equipment I need, it looks like I’ll be staying late. I never really know what time I’ll end up leaving lab, and making plans with friends can get quite tricky, as there’s no guarantee if I’ll be able to make “dinner at 6”. While the lack of a set schedule can be frustrating, I believe it’s worth the flexibility and knowing you can leave as soon as your work is done, rather than waiting around until your shift is over.

#2: There’s always something to do

This brings me to my next point; there’s never any waiting around because there’s always something to do. Samples in the thermocycler for 3 hours? I can clean slides for the microscope, work on my powerpoint presentation for EUREKA!, or even start setting up the next part of my experiment. Sometimes, if there really isn’t much work to do, I’ll even go to the gym on campus while I wait for my samples to anneal and come back to lab when they’re ready. The flexibility of working in a lab allows me to utilize my time a lot more effectively, whether it’s getting my lab work done or other to do’s. However, there never seems to be an end the projects I can be doing. There’s always more data to analyze, more experiments to get ahead on, and more slides to clean. It can be hard to justify taking a full break for lunch knowing there’s something else that needs to be done or judge when it’s time to leave the lab for the day; there’s always more progress to be made. I find, however, I prefer being constantly busy and on my feet than sitting around staring at the clock, waiting until I can go home.

#3: You never stop learning

I might not be taking classes this summer, but I’m definitely learning just as much through my internship. I’m finally getting the hang of the various techniques we use in my lab, such as running an agarose gel or using the microscope. I’m also learning more about the science behind what we do, whether my PI is explaining a procedure to me or I’m reading a paper for our journal club. Yet, I still feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. In my past jobs, there was set start and end to my training, but that doesn’t feel like the case in the lab. There’s always a new protocol to learn, an unknown reason why an experiment failed, a new question to ask. The more I learn about the background behind the research I’m doing, the more it dawns on me how little of the science I understand and how much more I have to learn from my STEM courses at UCSB. The feeling is overwhelming, but at the same time exciting, and I’m looking forward to the many years of learning from both formal schooling and research I have ahead of me.