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.

Chemistry- Why do we use protection?

I learned to put on my seat belt every time I step into a car, not because it gets me from point A to point B, but because it eliminates some of the risks of being in moving vehicle and sharing the roads with hundreds of crazy drivers. The same principle applies to house insurance, phone cases, door locks, sunscreen, and protecting groups that are used in chemistry. In the past few months, I have been working to develop a protecting technique for a versatile compound known as maleimide. Like a car, maleimide has the potential to do many great things, such as enhancing the development of organic synthesis imaging technology, biomaterials and drug delivery systems. However, unlike how a car can operate without seat belts, maleimide cannot function without a protecting group because it can be too reactive or toxic for direct use in cells or polymerizations. Our research group aims to design a “seat belt” for maleinide so that it can perform its job without damaging other compounds.

Research requires collaboration, innovation, and a lot of patience; all of which I have learned to value these past couple of months. I hope to be able to contribute to the ever-expanding knowledge of science. So much of science is known, but so much more is not.

“Research is life” isn’t always the way to go

At one of our EUREKA events, we spoke with a panel of grad students about their experiences in academia, and what stood out to me the most was how they all struggled with a research-life balance and “burning out.” I was introduced to this phenomenon this summer, and was actually a bit surprised (and relieved) to hear that they had this problem too.

Full-time research was a significant change from research doing the school year because I didn’t have classes, studying, dance, etc. to divert my attention elsewhere. I snapped back and forth between spending all day at lab and continuing work at home or not working on anything at home and then feeling as though I had wasted all my time. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the internship that I felt as though I found a happy medium, and it was very much a trial and error process, going something like this: “Wow, I feel emotionally exhausted this week; better change some stuff up.” and later “Wow, I feel like I wasted all of my time out of lab; better change some stuff up.” and again “Wow, I feel…” (You get the idea). So probably not the best way to go about finding balance.

Making a clearer work schedule probably would have been helpful, making sure that I spent set amounts of time doing work outside of lab. I found that making plans to actually go somewhere and do something (beyond going to the couch to watch “Game of Thrones”) was helpful. It ensured that I spent some time away from research-related activities while also making me feel like I was keeping busy (although a day of doing nothing was also nice every once in a while).

The trial and error process was pretty rough sailing, but it was perhaps the one of the most valuable experience of this internship. It tested my commitment to research (haven’t we all had the “Am I cut out for this?” moment?) and made me more confident in my ability to accept failure and persist.