Experiment, try something new: but most importantly learn when to move on

The wide variety of majors available at UC Santa Barbara gives every student a chance to study whatever it is they are most interested in. This study can be applied by performing research and other activities that enhance the learning process. It is important, however, that students are able to balance experimenting and learning when to move on.

Being a second year Computer Engineering student, I knew that my interests for a variety of fields were in development. When I talked to my digital design professor about his research, I found out that he does research on improved drug delivery systems. In other words, his team was trying to target cancer cells and attack them directly instead of destroying other healthy cells in the process of treating the bad ones. This, to me, seemed like an incredible opportunity. A chance to apply my Electrical Engineering and Computer Science background to something more than computers. But I also learned the variety of research that goes in under his lab, and this really motivated me to be involved as I saw myself being able to explore different opportunities.

So, when I first started my Gorman Scholar internship, I started by researching how proteins interact with osmolytes under different conditions. I first learned how to use programs such as VMD, which is used to build the protein structure, and NAMD which performs the simulations. After working on these programs and reading research papers I found myself not being very productive. Knowing myself, I knew this was because my interest in the subject has dulled. After spending two weeks, I decided that it was more beneficial and more appropriate for my future to work on different project. That is when I first learned about the Two-Photon Microscopy that my lab works to build in collaboration with other departments.

This device will be unique in such that they want to enhance it with a wireless technology that is able to conduct real life experiments. And my part will be to help write a code that is able to process and reconstruct an image from the data flowing from the device. So, for the past week I have been experimenting with CUDA programming. This is an NVidia technology that uses the computer’s graphics card instead of the CPU to execute the code. It has been really interesting and an interactive process, and I hope to accomplish something by the end of these next 5 weeks.

I had kept thinking that I wasted time, and that I didn’t learn anything. But I was wrong. By spending time doing something I didn’t like I was able to learn something about myself. I was also able to make a constructive decision at a critical time which I felt took a lot out of me to do. Either way, my advice for anyone reading this post, pretty much the only thing I recommend you take out of this is to Experiment, try something new, but know when to move on and that will come with practice.

A Sense of Fresh Air

The stress of school is a heavy, dense sort of fog that follows me and several of my UCSB peers from one point of campus to another with each progression of any given quarter. Ultimately, this creates an atmosphere that is easy to suffocate in. Just recently, a mass email was sent to every undergraduate Chemistry/Biochemisty major and minor that attend UCSB, and likely several faculty members. The purpose of this email was a Major Progress Check to an individual in the department who had earned a GPA under 2.0 for the year. The email “highlighted the benefits of maintaining a 2.0 GPA”, basically a reminder of being dismissed from the major if the GPA is not brought up, the email told an entire community about our fellow Chemistry Major’s struggles. For me, this situation filled my lungs with that dense fog and I felt embarrassed, upset, in utter amazement of such carelessness. I also felt a significant sense of hope for my peer, still believing in this stranger’s academic career. Following this email there was another, apologizing and asking the hundreds of people to please delete an inappropriate mistake made by one academic advisor. This mistake reminded me of the skill and fuel of opportunity and how in academia, the ranks are clear and opportunity must be gathered the same way one might gather pieces of a puzzle, with patience and intent. It took me a while to understand that your opportunities do not have to derive from your GPA, but can be from any place of passion, background, and individuality. There was a time here at UCSB where I received this same email and following this grief, I raised my GPA, and told myself that I would never let a number keep me from the experiencing of technique and the artform of working in a lab.

Applying for a program was my way of putting puzzle pieces together towards an opportunity like the Gorman Scholars program. A program that allows me to explore my own research project and to completely immerse myself in a research setting specifically in a Polymer Chemistry lab. Going into this, I was prepared to be surrounded in that dense fog but surprisingly I feel a sense of fresh air. The experiments, notes, papers, presentation, these factors that come together to ultimately provide me tools towards becoming skillful and creative, all without worrying about grades or GPA’s. The purpose of my work has many delightful intricacies and I can diverge down the various rabbit holes in which my project leads me into, all without having to center around dull topics that a class setting provides from day 1 in the syllabus to day 45 during that impossible final. Research is not a class. Presentations are not exams. Lab work is not school work. I think it is important for all students to remind themselves that the opportunity is there for you to grab. Even if you are barely scraping by for whatever reason, an opportunity will be open for you to gather the tools you DO have to go get that opportunity. So far, I have had a very positive research experience, with a great mentor and steady pace in the lab. Although I do not care to work in academia, I do want a career where I can have a creative voice in my research and continue to collect skills in which I can help optimize the world around me as a Chemist.


Is social media hurting your research performance?

In today’s society, the majority of our communication is done via social media. Calling, and of course writing letters are fading away, so you might start wondering if social media is controlling our lives. People say social media can be good and bad, but when do we know which is which? Do we realize it’s bad when we get distracted and run a gel electrophoresis for too long or we have 10 minutes to submit a research proposal? Well, I believe social media is just a tool, we can use it to look up how to write a good research blog post on YouTube or we can spend hours looking at snapchat stories for fun; as you can see, it depends on how we use it.

I personally love social media; I believe it’s a gateway that can help us to remove our mind-set from research and frustration that each failed experiment brings. But everything has a limit. So to my original question, social media is good until we overuse it. For example, Facebook is one of the most famous and used social media platforms in the world, and if you ask any UCSB student they would tell you that checking Facebook is in their daily tasks; students can sell their stuff, from selling girl scout cookies to textbooks. It’s a form of communication between all students at UCSB. So as you can see we can’t just say social media is bad and we should delete all of them to dedicate our time/focus on research. This is why time management is the key, since working excessively in the lab is actually not ideal. So let me ask you: do you really want to learn how to manage your time, or simply just delete all your social media in order to save time?

I believe social media can change a person’s life, just like what it did to me. I always wanted to influence people to reach their goal or optimal level in their educational journey, but I needed a platform so I could have a chance to talk to people around the world. YouTube was exactly the piece of the puzzle I was looking for, so I created a YouTube channel (ErfMed). Of course my first three videos are still embarrassing to me, but as soon as I saw my views escalating from 100 to 1000, I knew I can reach my initial goal. After seeing people that I have never met in my life commenting on my posts and seeing that they appreciate my advice, there was no better feeling.

We all might have crossed this question “What do you really want in this life?” well, I want to stand for something big and if I can be a person that can change a person’s life and for them looking up to me as their leader, what better thing can I even ask for.

It’s always amazing to walk around UCSB campus and see highschool students looking at you awkwardly, before they come up to you and say “Excuse me, are you that youtube guy?”, and I always laugh, because I did not think I would be recognized in such a big school. But hey they don’t say “small world” for no reason. Anyways, I can talk about my youtube channel for days, but the main point that I am trying to cross here is that social media can be used in so many different ways; and I believe all of us can use social media wisely. So please, I encourage you to check out my social media to join my journey:

Youtube: Erfmed
Instagram: ​https://www.instagram.com/erfmed/?hl=en


A Lesson Left on the Back Burner

“Don’t get frustrated if you can’t follow my movements,” my mentor says for what seems like the 25th time today, “with practice, you will pick up techniques as well as develop your own.”

I watch him maneuver his hand around a capped test tube, removing the metal lid with his first finger and sterilizing the opening with his second finger curled around the body of the tube before carefully removing however many microliters we need to continue the experiment, then placing the lid back on the test tube. Just a few swift, effective movements.

“Okay,” he says while passing the pipette to me, “your turn.”

I should add that by “sterilizing,” I mean passing the opening of the test tube under the blue flame of a Bunsen burner. All of that without burning himself in less than 30 seconds. How could I possibly follow?

Regardless of the “how,” I know I have to figure it out. I take the pipette with a deep breath. Exhale. He chuckles and says, “take your time, Diego,” inciting a laugh of my own. But I listen to him, and take my time.

With shaky hands, I try to mimic his movements. With shaky hands, I fail to do so. He shows me another way to sterilize the tube and ensure that it doesn’t become contaminated. I keep trying to mimic the movement, and each time I have to use the alternate route, it feels like failure. Day one and the feeling is already there.

For a little while, I forgot about the perfectionist who lives inside of me. I forgot about the person who wrote down every single number after the decimal point that the calculator spit out to make sure my answers were accurate. I forgot about the person who rewrote the same sentence 100 times before deciding it was “okay.” I forgot about the person who never thought anything was good enough if it wasn’t good the first time.

“Very good, Diego!” Carlos says.
“Good?” I say, “I couldn’t do the trick.”
“That’s okay.” He answers, “With practice, you will get it down. I know you can.”

Practice. I remember the perfectionist.

Then I process the last thing he said. Belief. In my abilities.

I’ve known Carlos for about two months now. When I was searching for a lab to work in for the summer, I immediately emailed Professor Diego Acosta-Alvear. The summer before my first year, I spent a lot of my free time sifting through pages of research opportunities and research labs. I found information about the MARC U*STAR program and worked towards it during my first two years. I read about Diego’s lab as a first year and was immediately intrigued by his work. It only made sense that, after receiving a position as a MARC scholar, I went straight to Diego. The first week, I was thrust into the world of RNAs and cell stress responses as he explained his work to me. The second week, I was introduced to the lab.

“Talk to people and figure out what you like best. Remember, this is your summer. Take advantage of your newfound resource,” advised Diego.

As I went around the lab and learned about everybody’s project, one person stood out to me. Carlos. Everybody in the lab had their unique strengths, and Carlos was no exception. He introduced his work to me and I immediately recognized its importance. It was in both the way he delivered his idea, and the way he involved the bigger picture. As I watched him in lab, I realized how much I enjoyed the way he taught others. I witnessed his kindness towards his lab mates and his genuine care about their wellbeing. After a couple of weeks, I asked him if I could join his research team and I started working with him during the last three weeks of spring quarter, mostly shadowing and occasionally doing the work myself.

It has been three weeks of the MARC program, hours of research have given me countless opportunities to practice what I call “THE trick” on the Bunsen burner, as well as many other techniques. I’m no professional, but lately, I’ve been thinking about my growth and feeling proud of my abilities.

Carlos asks me, “how do you feel in the lab?” I confidently respond, “Really good, actually. I love the work, the people, the failure and the success.”

The perfectionist is still there, but it’s a lot quieter now. It’s easy to forget that you are a student and that you are still learning. Don’t let forgetting that become your fallout. It’s an important lesson. Now, when I feel like a failure, I just remember the words of my mentor: “Take your time. Practice. You can do it.”

Urchins, Urchins, and More Urchins!

Most people are unfamiliar with the importance of sea urchins to marine ecosystems. known to many as “uni”, these little spiky balls are more than just a tasty seafood dish. Sea urchins are a keystone species, meaning that too many of them and their habitat becomes barren, too few and their predators lose an important food source.
This summer I am doing research in Dr. Gretchen Hofmann’s lab located in the Marine Science Institute. The Hofmann lab aims to study the physiology and performance of marine organisms in response to both present-day environmental conditions and to expected conditions in the future. My specific research project focuses on examining the effects of varying pH and temperature conditions on the early development of the Painted urchin, Lytechinus pictus. Before we get into the nitty gritty details let me give you a little background. Climate change is happening and it’s occurring at a pace faster than we have anticipated. Our ecosystems are dramatically changing and many different species are having to adapt in order to survive. As the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide, a series of chemical reactions take place. Consequently the ocean becomes more acidic and the supply of carbonate, a chemical compound that is crucial to the development of many organisms, is diminished. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is also causing temperatures to rise and heat waves to occur at temperatures that are alarming. Many marine organisms including sea urchins are sensitive to these environmental changes and are forced to adapt to these conditions.

My research project will require me to work closely with L. pictus as I explore and manipulate their reproductive process and development. By spawning these urchins in the lab, I play a role much like a puppet master. I pick out my male and female urchins and I determine when the urchin eggs are fertilized. I then place the embryos in manipulated growing environments set up to mimic future predicted climate conditions. While observing the offspring develop into larvae, I can observe whether their environmental conditions had any impact on their growth and if they experience physiological changes that impact their performance. Physiological performance is an important topic to research as we do not know what climate change has in store for these marine organisms.

My research does not limit me to just a lab setting but I also will get to experience being out in the field taking samples. This aspect of my research is very exciting to me because research in the lab and out on the field are so different from one another. In the lab, I get to experience new equipment and observe amazing transformations under a microscope. In the field, I get to see nature and see first-hand the environment I am researching. These experiences I have had in the lab and out in the field have strengthened my passion for marine research. It is only the beginning of the summer but I have had such a great experience thus far and I cannot wait for what is to come.