As I’ve been working in my lab – making new bacterial culture media/buffers, running DNA extractions of bacteriophages, and compiling qPCR data for analysis – I realized that the tasks in lab are very similar to what we do on a daily basis. Whether you are already working as an undergraduate researcher, or if you are hoping to get started, here are some research skills and techniques you could develop outside of the lab as part of your daily routine!
About to enter my third-year working in the Chen Group!
As a college student, cooking is one of the biggest tasks on my daily ‘to-do’ list. Even though eating at local food stores saves time and effort, I enjoy cooking. Cooking is an awesome opportunity for you to develop your research skills!
Cooking recipe for spicy chicken breast
Protocols to make PBS buffer, LB, TB, 2xYT, and SB bacterial culture medium
The way I run experiments in my lab is extremely similar to the way I cook at home. For example, the first time I cooked chicken breasts, I gathered all the ingredients and tools and followed the recipe carefully – exactly the same as following the protocol for extracting viral DNA from my bacteriophage samples. I did not succeed at either on the very first try, but I didn’t give up. It took a couple of failures to make the experiment work – just like it took a few tries for me to get the chicken breast recipe right. The point is, if you continue to practice, you will eventually become an expert at the specific techniques needed for your experiments/cooking.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t start studying unless my desk is clean. Staying neat and organized is a key point in research. As you go through your undergraduate research journey, you may forget to label tubes, or misplace or mix up your samples if you don’t pay enough attention to organization. It’s much easier to avoid these problems if you start clean on a daily basis. Your work space at home reflects the degree of organization you will have in the lab!
My workspace at home – a binder for research papers, a clipboard with documents for data analysis
My workspace in lab – buffers, tubes with samples, autoclaved pipet tips, and an ice bucket specific for my experiments to reduce contamination
Put on the desk only what you need for that specific task – if you are studying for Organic Chemistry,
A sample entry in my lab notebook on RT-PCR (experiment done on 5/9/2015)
then you shouldn’t be on your phone! Make sure to label things on your bench and stay organized. For example: since I work with microbes, my samples are extremely sensitive to contamination. To avoid contamination, I autoclave my reagents, tubes, and pipet tips.
It is also very important to get in the habit of annotating and recording your experiments because you never know what will happen in your experiments, even if you think you did everything right. You might need to repeat the experiment a couple months later, when you have forgotten the exact details of the experiment. This is why it is important to practice taking thorough notes in your introductory laboratory courses. In the same way during your daily routine, you could easily develop note-taking skills by making ‘to-do’ lists of your day.
Additional tips: 1) Google Calendar to organize events, lab work, school, etc. 2) Zotero and/or Mendeley to manage and share research papers
If you are an undergraduate student, you almost always will be working with a graduate student or a postdoctoral mentor. Besides the time you will be spending on experiments with your lab mentor, it is also very important to develop a personal relationship with them. It is so crucial to develop good relationships with your TAs and your professors because who knows what will happen in the future? Next thing you know – you might be spending most of your day running experiments with the TA that taught you about the basics of chemistry lab techniques. Fun fact: my graduate student lab mentor was actually my General Chemistry (Chem 1AL) Lab TA during my very first quarter in college!
Lunch break with my Principal Investigator, Professor Irene Chen (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)
At CSEP’s dinner with faculty with Professor Joel Rothman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology)
If you are hoping to pursue graduate studies, and even a career in academia, what better way is there for you to learn about the research path than talking directly to your Principal Investigator (PI) or professors in your college? As an undergraduate, professors might seem intimidating, but many of them are actually very encouraging. I had the opportunity to ask Professor Joel Rothman in the UCSB Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology about his awesome journey to becoming a faculty member at UCSB. I was surprised that he became an expert in the wine making before he became a professor. I also got the chance to go to lunch with my PI, Professor Irene Chen, and to talk about how she began researching about the Origin of Life. It was fascinating and encouraging to hear their stories because they were once an undergraduate researcher like me!
- Going on walks & enjoying life
One of the biggest advantages we have as UCSB students is that our school is on the beach, literally. It is important to take some time off doing your homework or designing your next experiment, and go on a walk at the beaches nearby. On my walk, I think about life, and how beautifully it was designed for us to enjoy… and where life first began (Origin of Life – main research topic of the Chen Group). For me, the most creative ideas pop up in my mind when I am de-stressing and appreciating the good things that were provided for me!
Taking a walk and enjoying the astonishing view of the sunset at Sands Beach, Isla Vista