My summer experience

This summer so far has been a valuable learning experience in which I finally obtained some clarity on my future.

As an engineering student entering my fourth year, the concept of planning my next step after college is now starting to hit me hard. I have loved my 3 years of engineering classes up to this point. Although challenging, I never had any doubt once I took my first engineering class that this is what I wanted to do. However, I have taken courses covering such a wide breadth of engineering fields such that my specific career path has appeared very fuzzy in my mind.

This was my first time doing summer research, under AIM Photonics, and the cliché of “better late than never” has certainly held true thus far. Both the panels and especially the two dinners have greatly assisted in the processes of planning out my next chapter in my career. These events have given me some key lessons on how to be successful, including the main takeaways of the importance of communication, networking, and simply being easy to work with. From the industry dinner I learned that a master’s degree or higher is not a requirement if you want to be a leader in a company, which was a huge question that I had been itching to find the answer to.

At the very same dinner, I experienced the power of networking as I met one of the CAPSTONE project leaders from FLIR, and had a lengthy discussion that got me deeply interested in that project and the opportunities that it can bring me. Furthermore, my specific research project which is focused mainly on design has helped give me a glimpse into what I can expect if I enter an industry position.

I still have a few months to help clear up my vision for the next few years, but this summer has helped me tremendously in doing so.

Before you do research

Not many students really think about researching as an undergraduate because graduate school is something of a mysterious land that they have yet to even imagine exploring. However, it’s something I have considered pursuing since matriculating into UCSB but the thought itself is very scary. That is why undergraduate research is a step in the right direction because it allows for you to experience a small portion of what could be if you do decide to head toward this direction. But before you start research, I want to talk about a misconception I had previously about research.

Not all research experiences are the same. I came in thinking that I would immediately be in the lab designing and testing circuits and working side by side with my mentor; instead, I had papers upon papers to read. The big mistake I made there was thinking that research was going to be easy. The material that doctoral students had to understand and digest cannot be understood in a few weeks by undergrads. The reality of the situation was that I needed a strong physics base knowledge in electromagnetic fields to start comprehending the design parameters of my project. But like I said before, not all research experiences are the same. There are research projects where the majority of the job is spent testing samples because the project is nearing completion or the bulk of the work lies in repetitive tasks. These usually require less technical knowledge but more lab skill. For example, a friend of mine was looking at plants under a microscope to sort them for a professor. The research value gained from that was mainly the networking and exposure to the lab atmosphere. Each experience is valuable in its own respect and you have to make the best of it.

Learning from an Internship

Aim Photonics is my first internship where I do real research; I was surprised of the abilities and qualities that someone needs to have in order to explore new fields and discover new ways to make life easier by building new devices. I believe that is very difficult to do research because the people who are doing research are working in something that nobody worked before. Sometimes there are not a lot of reference or papers similar to what they are doing; therefore, there is a lot of fails every day in the labs. I am having a very good time working in my research cleaning and preparing silicon surfaces to grow III-V epitaxy with my mentor Dan Pennachio; I am learning a lot from him because he always helps me and explains things in a way that I can understand. Also, all the members of the Palmstrom’s group helps me by giving their opinion about my research and suggest me things to do to improve results.  Palmstrom’s lab is super interesting because is hard to believe that such technology can exist. I am performing several methods to clean the surface of the silicon and I am using several equipment to analyze how good the procedure is. Using these devices makes me to feel lucky because I am using apparatus of millions of dollars that not everybody can have the opportunity to use. Also, all members of the Palmstrom’s group motivated me to continue my education and I started to think that maybe I would like to become a research scientist.

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.