Making Research Personal

There is one crucial component of being a member of the McNair Scholars Program: you must conduct research! I was very excited to become an undergraduate researcher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to explore. My love for language made me want to investigate everything and anything, but realistically I had to find a specific topic- and fast. With only eight weeks to develop and execute an original project, the clock was ticking.

My mentor provided me with classroom video recordings for her own research to use as data for my project. Not knowing what linguistic goldmines the data would hold, I watched all the recordings and noted segments that interested me. One interaction in particular immediately caught my attention. Two Latina high school students shared their experiences of being labeled because of their language use. What really struck home for me was a classroom discussion in which they revealed that they had been labeled as “sounding pocha” by their own families. Pocha is a negative term that is used to describe Mexicans who are born and raised in the U.S. who speak American Spanish. I was immediately able to relate to these two girls because I too have been called pocha by various family members. From that moment, I knew I wanted to explore language-related experiences of Latinas. I wasn’t doing this research just to fulfill a McNair requirement; I was doing this research for me: I wanted answers.

After going through systematically going through the data, I identified four ideologies, or cultural beliefs, about language that Latina youth face in their daily lives. The first ideology I came across was the idea of the superiority of the standard. In this belief, Standard English (English that we learn in the classroom) is believed to be “better” than other varieties of English, such as African American English and Chicano/a English. The second belief I identified was that for any social group, such as Mexican Americans, there is a specific linguistic variety that is essential to its identity, such as Mexican Spanish. Third, if someone doesn’t use the same linguistic variety as particular group, they are considered to be inauthentic. The final ideology, I came across was the idea that English is the dominant language and all other languages are beneath it.

These beliefs are problematic because they create linguistic insecurities; that is speakers don’t feel proud of or confident in language. I have been able to relate to all of these ideas at one point or another in my life and so I know first-hand the negative repercussions of these ways of thinking. On the bright side, just as I was able to relate to the two girls in the data because of our similar experiences, youth can relate to each other and form bonds to help deal with and fight these ideas. I am fighting them through my research; my research isn’t just information: it’s power.

Equipment failure – not always a bad thing!

The research I am currently working on recently took a very interesting turn due to a unexpected turn of events. During the summer, my #1 piece of equipment broke down.  Unfortunately this means that my main project is at a standstill until the can be repaired.  However, this rather sad turn of events meant that I was able to switch projects for the time being and work more closely with my graduate student mentor on some new materials science. The focus of the research at the moment is to make smart jello – but out of DNA.  The most exciting part of this research, besides its promising applications as a drug delivery method, is that this project requires learning a whole new set of techniques and procedures that are new to both my mentor and I.

During fall quarter my mentor and I spent two weeks figuring out how to correctly ‘cook’ our pieces of DNA in order to get them to form into gel structures, and at least a month testing different ways in which to observe and test the gels.  Several failed ideas and broken devices later, we eventually found the best way with which to observe our gels.  While this was somewhat frustrating, it was a very rewarding experience, as I was able to participate quite a lot in the design and troubleshooting process.  Finally solving our testing problem also meant that we were one step closer to being able to start collecting a lot of data on our gels, which was a relief given that we were unable to produce any really great data (aside from a lot of preliminary results) until we found the right way to test the system.

The trials still haven’t ended yet though.  The methods my graduate student and I came up with to test our gels are still very difficult, and we have a lot of practice to do before we truly master them.  Even though the failure of a critical piece of equipment can be crushing, it is not always such a bad thing.  Though all the work I had completed during the summer had to be put on hold right when it was at the most exciting point, there was another great opportunity to learn about a new system available and I’m very happy that I had the chance to take part in this research, and look forward to continuing work on the gels until the equipment is fixed.

Balancing Research with a very Busy Senior Year

Summer is awesome. The weather is great, no classes or tests to worry about, and all week to focus on research!  Alas, Fall quarter is not quite so carefree.  With classes starting up again, it is difficult to find the time to balance undergraduate research and coursework, along with other extracurriculars.  For me, this quarter has been a particularly challenging one.  With 19 units of coursework, research, graduate/medical school admissions, and fall rowing season all at the same time it was difficult to find just a few minutes a day to relax.  But over the course of the quarter I found that there are many ways to manage all of these activities without compromising the quality of your work.  Here’s a couple of things I found useful when trying to manage a very busy quarter:

  • First, you have to plan ahead.  At the beginning of the quarter, try to print out a copy of your schedule and fill it in with where you plan to do all of your extracurricular activities.  Better yet, try to do this prior to setting your schedule for the following quarter.  A great online tool to do this for UCSB students is http://ninjacourses.com/, which pulls data from GOLD and generates all the possible combinations of schedules you could have based on the classes you want to take.
  • Be Flexible.  Often, even though your schedule may seem to be set in stone, there will be times when you need to make changes.  Be it a medical emergency, a club event that requires travel, a research conference, or even a special experiment that requires uninterrupted attention: be prepared to make changes and don’t freak out about it!  The more time you spend worrying about missing a certain section of your schedule, the less time you have to make up for it.  There is always time to get things done, you just have to look for it in interesting places.
  • Wake up early.  During my freshman year, many of my dorm-mates were most excited about not having to get up early to make it to school by 8am.  While this is a dream come true for almost everyone, it also saps a lot of your extra study time.  During my time at UCSB I’ve tried both pulling the classic college all nighter and just trying to get up early in the morning, and the latter method wins every time.
  • Make time for yourself.  With all the stress of trying to balance all your schoolwork and extracurricular activities, it is important to make a little time for yourself to spend not thinking about school or work and just relax.  This should hopefully keep you from stressing out too much during the week, which when weighed against the time you spent doing nothing school related will actually work out in your favor.

Hopefully some of these tips might help out anyone having a tough time trying to balance their workload this quarter!

Things to do while your lab is broken

Summer has been over for quite a while now and gone are the days when an undergrad could do research without having to worry about classes. Around the end of the summer, our chemical beam epitaxy chamber started to have some problems and every fix that the lab tried gave rise to more problems.

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s a pretty common occurrence to have malfunctions in a research lab that take a long time to fix. So in the meantime, what can one do to pass the time during which the mind used to be constantly stimulated?

Well, this quarter has been quite the journey to find out! Here’s a list of things I did to pass the time when I wasn’t doing research. I think they can serve as some good suggestions.

Go to a conference!

The 2013 SACNAS National Conference was an amazing experience filled with mind-boggling research presentations, fun, networking, and of course, FOOD! Dilpreet and Chris did a pretty awesome job of describing the conference, so I’ll spare you the repetition and sum up the experience in a picture of me as a decked out “Sacnista”

Get involved in your professional organization!

As you may or may not know, I’m in the process of switching majors from chemical to electrical engineering (yeah, getting into research can really change your perspective on things). Part of this switch involved getting into a new professional organization. Once an officer of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, I made the jump to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). I didn’t expect a professional organization to be “fun”, but IEEE definitely proved me wrong! I thought it would be a really serious organization, but it turns out it’s just a group of fun-loving nerds who like to build things. I couldn’t ask for anything better! In October I participated in IEEEXtreme, a 24-hour programming challenge where teams of three people sit in a room and solve various challenges. I was pretty delirious by the end of it, but it was completely worth the food, learning, fun, and new friends!

Check out the rest of CSEP!

So what do you do with that block of time you had set out for research but during which you didn’t end up going to the lab? I decided to kill two birds with one stone and was able to alleviate my financial burden along with my boredom by getting a job with the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP)! I didn’t realize until I started working for them how much they actually do. Because of the new job, I was able to stay informed about outreach events like Family Ultimate Science Exploration (FUSE) nights, which take place at middle schools where students like us get to run science demonstrations for junior high students and their families.

Here’s a picture of a little girl letting me play with a speaker she built out of a paper fry tray and some magnets!

It’s been a fun and busy (REALLY busy) quarter, but I’m dying to get back into the lab!

Here’s to a research-filled year! Happy holidays!

A Brief Guide to Finding Your First Research Lab

Congratulations! You have gone through polishing your application essay, asking professors for recommendations, undergoing the interview process, and have finally received the long-awaited offer letter. You may think that you have gone through the hard parts of seeking a research position; however, finding a research lab could just be equally challenging as applying for an internship. Listing down general interested areas, contacting professors, and making final commitment could all be intimidating. Therefore, I decided to base on my own experience to write a quick guide that I wish existed last year to help you find the most suitable lab for you.

 

     1. Identify a few personally interested areas

Without clear goals and directions, we would just be clueless flies that chase after lights for no reason. In my opinion, for your first research project, your personal interest in it should be the first priority. This research experience might be a critical experience that you base your decision on when deciding whether or not you are going to pursue a graduate degree. A more compelling project would much more likely make the experience enjoyable. And as a direct result you might be able to make greater progress in your project. Therefore, you want to identify a few interesting areas and set them as the general directions when finding potential research labs. The general areas could be as broad as green energy, or as specific as quantum metrology, as long as you are interested in the subject.

 

     2. Look into the research webpages of your department and a few institutes on campus

Assume that you are in a major that you are passionate about, it is always a good idea to start with your own department. For instance, I wanted to work on projects that involved optics or superconducting devices. I went on the condensed matter experimental physics research webpage and identified a few labs by searching for these key words.

I also recommend looking into webpages of CNSI, Institute for Energy Efficiency, and MRL. They are all very active research institutes and many novel and interesting research projects can be found here.

 

     3. Contact professors to set up appointments

Contacting professors could seem daunting. However, I found that professors generally are delighted when students show interests in their research. I sent emails to professors written in a general format:

I first briefly introduced myself the internship program that I was doing. It is important to mention that your program provides funding for you, as it is perhaps the best selling point for yourself at this stage of your career. Then I proceeded to talk about how their research interested me and how their lab would be an ideal place for me to explore certain subjects further.Finally, I closed the email by asking if the professor would like to meet in person to discuss any possible research project. Since you already have funding with you, from my own experience, many professors would agree to schedule appointments with you.

The bottom line is: try to contact all the professors that you would like to work with. If they think you are not suitable for their lab due to limited experience and knowledge, they would just email you back and tell you that you are not the best candidate for their research projects. It is always better to hear a polite rejection than wondering what could have been different if you had gotten in touch with the other lab when you are working on a project that you are less passionate about. Also note that professors are extremely busy. Please do not be too worried if the professors don’t reply within one week.

 

     4. Give thorough thoughts before committing

After you have met with all the professors, reexamine what each lab offers and what the projects could lead you to. It is important to pick a project that truly interests you and would allow you to gain the most relevant skills and knowledge to your own field.  Professors would not want someone that is not truly passionate about the project working in their lab. With that being said, don’t rush through your decision and talk to your program advisor or academic advisor when you are having trouble deciding which lab to commit to.

 

If you have been provided funding, you have proven that you are an intelligent hard worker that people are willing to invest federal grant in. So, why not pick a project that you would happily put in 100% of your effort into and gain the most from the experience? Remember that finding a lab is just as important as any aspect of the internship application process. I wish you luck to finding a project that you are truly excited about!