A Necessary but not Sufficient Lab Lesson

For the past year and a half, I have had a tremendous opportunity to study the dynamics of mitochondrial DNA mutation inheritance and clearing, in a developmental biology lab at UCSB. When I started, my professor explained to me, “as a young scientist, you will have countless failures, however, eventually when you are successful, the result will be worth the effort.” I began with a drug selection condition project comparing two strains of C. elegans’ growth rates and sensitivity to various antibiotics. After ten repeated trials in order to replicate one promising lead, months of confusion, frustration and great uncertainty, the results we found about drug selection in the two strains were inconclusive. We decided to stop the experiment indefinitely – the experiment had failed.

Following that project, I’ve worked on crosses and a genetic engineering project in hopes to someday help piece together answers about mitochondrial DNA inheritance. As a Beckman scholar, I have presented at national conferences, won poster awards and improved my understanding of science – a challenging and stimulating exploration for answers. In my “second home,” I’ve been fortunate to develop meaningful relationships with dedicated postdocs, graduate students and researchers who work in science’s steady pace, to unleash novel ideas about cell fate acquisition, apoptosis and mtDNA transmission. The research experience has been an extremely didactic one that has instilled in me the maturity to carefully think through problems, and persistence to achieve a goal. I’ve failed numerous times – my gels sometimes showed surprising restriction fragment sizes, and my transformations were not effective with certain types of cells, I also experienced times when the tiny C. elegans simply did not behave as I desired. However, through such failures I was challenged to think deeply about creative solutions, strengthen my fluency with the concepts, and research through the dynamic, convoluted network of mtDNA and nematode genetics. I succeeded in my growth as a critical thinker, young scientist and mentally strong student.

So, the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from science is that of failure. And this failure, arguably, is the obscure success of a lab journey because it challenged me to learn and grow. Before I immerse myself into the lifestyle of a physician, I have lived the similar one of a science problem solver, where solutions are often slow, uncertain and not straightforward paths. And I understand that the limitations of medicine are just as frustrating at times as those of basic biological sciences – treatments may fail just like experiments; when a treatment succeeds, another problem may result, just like unanticipated side results in experiments. However, through the research struggles, I have persisted to grow into an even stronger scholar. I can appreciative of the important implication even the smallest nematode lives have towards larger, human life and am curious and ready to learn these implications through studying medicine in the future.

Literature Research

One invaluable tool to researchers is the ability to find relevant information in the literature.  This is especially useful if you are an undergrad researcher just starting out in a lab, as it will supplement your background information on your topic.

However, finding scientific papers is slightly different from a traditional google search.  To begin with, as most of the scientific literature that you will be trying to access will cost money (~$35/article), it is important to conduct your research from an on-campus internet connection (UCSB wireless web, res-net, campus computer, etc).  The university has a subscription to many of these online journals, and you will be able to download the article for free if you access it from a campus connection (or through the library’s VPN, if you want to get fancy).

Now that you can access these articles, how can you find them?  The most convenient way is through google scholar.  If you have a google account, you can also save the articles that come up in your searches in your library in order to conveniently reference them later.  Another method is to use SciFinder, however you will need to contact the Library Research Office in order to set up an account.  SciFinder is a more advanced version of google scholar, and is useful if you are looking to investigate a specific topic or research group more in depth.  However, if you are just starting out google scholar is the most user-friendly way to jump right in.

Finally, now that you are able to find and access these papers, it is important to catalogue your findings in order to easily reference them later.  One tool to do this is EndNote, but you can also use the above mentioned features of google scholar, or a simple excel spreadsheet to list the paper titles, authors, dates, and a short summary of the relevant information in the paper (as it pertains to your topic).  This will allow you to create your own, more specific library to reference for your own work.

That’s it!  Literature searching might sound daunting at first, but just dive right in, save a PDF copy of all the papers you read, and in no time you’ll be a pro!


Keep Calm and Continue to Learn

With “Pomp and Circumstance” on replay, and masses of students wearing Hogwarts style black gowns and orchid leis around their necks, graduation season marks the ceremonious finale of a challenging, yet exciting four years of our lives. Last month I graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences, B.S., and welcomed the new adventures that emerge with becoming a Gaucho alumnus. I am no longer an undergraduate student worried about doing well on undergraduate exams, meeting paper deadlines, or choosing courses for my major. Instead, I am now writing extensively to meet application deadlines, striving to do well on future interviews and finishing up my research commitment at UCSB. Although the tasks of “the real world” are different than those associated with coursework and student life, there remains a fundamental similarity in all these activities – one that we are so fortunate to experience everyday: We continue to learn

In lab this summer I’ve been reminded of this similarity. I may have graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences, but I am still learning new lab techniques, concepts and troubleshooting methods in order to maximize my experience, and contribute in a small way before I leave. The very concepts acquired through classroom learning are now the stepping-stones from which more specific and deep knowledge can be gained. For example, in one class, I learned about GFP as a protein visualization tool, and in lab, I recently learned how to use the powerful Nikon fluorescence microscope to observe GFP signals in early embryos of C. elegans.  I also applied concepts from an invertebrate zoology lab when I learned how to dissect adult worms using the same needles that doctors use to give injections. So, now, as a direct result of the classroom learning in undergraduate courses, I am able to apply the basic concepts learned to explore more specific and deep ideas, and to critically analyze fundamental questions and results. In this way, I’ve realized, learning must be coupled with action to make progress.

As I grow as a young scientist and future physician, I’m excited to continue this cycle of learning, and to use the new knowledge for a larger purpose to alleviate pain in patients. The sense of fulfillment and personal satisfaction that comes with applying a newly learned concept to advancing science, in a small way, or to medicine has also encouraged me to welcome this learning. Although my four years of classes, new experiences and personal evolution has officially concluded last month with my own Hermoine Granger black robe, and UCSB decorated cap, I will always keep learning for the progressive action that it can create.

Science Communication at URCA: experience and education

Before I begin discussing science, I would like to acknowledge the unexpected, tragic shootings of Isla Vista:

Five days ago, our IV and UCSB community experienced an unthinkable act of violence and tragedy. The outcome was disturbing, as many of our friends and students were traumatized, and the deaths shook people both locally and nationally. I was touched by the memorial ceremony yesterday by the turnout, heartfelt speeches, songs and strength of the families and community. Without addressing the root cause, the problem that induced such violence, we cannot progress as a society, but instead remain in a static pattern of shootings, violence and tragedy. So, although I’m very appreciative of the UCSB family and IV community responses, and touched by the support, memorials, comfort we’ve found through each other, I really hope that this can be our wake-up call which plants a seed of sanity in our society for gun reform and mental health. I imagine the beautiful souls lost through this terrible act will be remembered as the pioneers whose events will stimulate enhancements in safety, public health and security. I hope we can come to realize, as a Nation, the “irresponsible, craven politics” so that “not one more” such terrible action will occur.

This quarter I attended a presentation by Chemistry Prof Read de Alaniz describing the funding challenge facing science in the US. I was surprised to learn that 43% of the National budget (federal tax dollars) is allocated towards Defense and International and social security, according to the center on budget and policy priorities. Following Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP, safety-net programs and interest, only 18% is allocated within an “All other category”, 2% of which is distributed to Science and Medical research. Additionally, the NIH, a major source of funding for many basic science, biology and medical related research lab projects, invests 30.1 Billion dollars for medical research, and awards 80% of this in grants towards individual projects at university labs Nationwide. Although this may appear like a high amount, the competition and large numbers of grants ultimately dilute down the funding useful for a given research project. Due to increase in competitiveness and selectivity of grant acquisition in recent years, a few patterns are emerging that are arguably declining the rate of scientific progress in America. First, less undergraduates may be applying to graduate school because of the lack of money, and second, less graduate students may decide to pursue a career in academia because of a similar concern. Finally, current professors running research labs, may find themselves writing more grants, and applying more frequently and possibly not experience grant renewal like previous years.  These changes have the potential to slow our rate scientific progress and medical advancements, unless we realize the importance of science communication and explain the need for better funding.

So, we ultimately learned that science communication – explaining the project goals and applications to a general public, or even a specific audience, creates awareness of the importance of science to society, and can thus change our funding situation. And our student researcher population was recently able to participate in an annual symposium held by the URCA program, and present posters and practice communicating effectively to a people from a variety of backgrounds. The 2014 URCA Symposium held on May 20th, displayed hundreds of student researcher poster presentations, including many from biology. I enjoyed creating the poster, which allowed me to synthesize several months of research projects, and also interacting with other students, faculty members and interested people who came by. I learned to modify the presentation in terms of length and depth based on the backgrounds of the viewers, and enjoyed hearing the thoughtful questions of some enthusiastic viewers. Additionally, interacting with other student researchers and seeing their posters was interesting and enriching, as I was exposed to other fields like psychology, linguistics and engineering research projects. This poster session allowed me and other students to practice science communication, an important skill that, through practice, can serve to effectively educate others on the importance of both goal directed, or curiosity based scientific discovery.

How to maximise your extracurriculars and time

Everyone likes extracurricular activities.  They are a big part of college life, and help to properly round out your education.  However, they are often large time commitments.  Having been part of way too many programs at one time myself, I thought I might offer some of the strategies I used in order to pull it all off.  But first, a brief glimpse into my life spring quarter, 2013.

4:37 am – Wake up, get dressed, jump on my bike and head over to the Recreation Center for practice.

5:15 am – Meet up with my teammates and get into a van for the ride up to Lake Cachuma, about a 30 minute drive up into the Santa Ynez mountains.

6:20 am – Out on the water for another gruelling practice; today is 5000m of the great Cachuma pairs race

9:00 am – Finally back on campus, with just enough time to run to quantum mechanics before the lecture starts.

10:00 am – Back to the erg (indoor rowing machine) room for second practice.

12:00 pm – Home; time for lunch, a quick shower, and then it’s off to class / teaching lab / research lab

6:00 pm – Finish up the last few experiments for the day, and bike back home again, getting started on dinner and homework as soon as I get back.

7:00 pm – The resident I work with at the hospital lets me know that tonight is going to be a great shadowing night, so I head over to the local hospital to meet up with him.

8:00 pm – Cases start rolling in and I follow my resident around the hospital, trying to take note of the procedures he is carrying out, all whilst listening to an impromptu lecture by an x-ray tech on the correct way to read an x-ray scan.  As the night continues on, my resident and I go from room to room, constantly checking up on patients and occasionally heading over to the OR to observe a procedure.

1:00 am – The hospital is starting to quiet down a little.  I look at my watch and realise that it’s already 1am, and after quickly thanking the resident for an extremely informative evening, I head back home.

1:30 am – and back to bed.


So, with days  stretching into the 20+ hour mark, how is it possible to actually remain functional?  Well for one, you don’t have to sleep 8 hours every night.  After getting used to it, it is very possible to get by on around 5 hours a night, just take lots of naps!  A short, 20 minute nap every time you find yourself getting too tried to focus is enough to get through the next 90 minutes of work or study.

Another key to maximising your schedule is getting things done earlier in the day, rather than later.  By starting at 4:30 in the morning, I was able to squeeze a large chunk of my day into the hours before 9am, when class typically starts.  Because of this, I can fill the hours 9-5 with class, work, and research, while only have to fit  another 2 hours of practice in wherever I have time.

This idea builds into another important component of maximising your time: scheduling.  If you want to do more than you ever though possible in a day, you really have to schedule your time well.  Sit down and write out a loose schedule for the week on sundays, then as the week goes on adjust and update that schedule with more concrete details, to make sure that you don’t fall behind and use all the time that you have effectively.  But make sure to allow for some room for error, and be realistic with what you think you REALLY can do in an allotted time slot.  Start small, and just build up as you get more comfortable with an intense daily routine.  Soon enough you will know the limits of what is possible to pull off in a single quarter, and hopefully be better able to exceed them in the next quarter.

So if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I wish I had time to do ____”, you definitely can!  With enough planning and commitment, it is possible to do just about everything that you would want to in college.  And when going to a school like UCSB, there is so much to do here that it would be a shame not to take advantage of some of the really fun opportunities UCSB offers outside of the classroom.