Using Light To Transform Cells

Hello there, my name is Ricardo Espinosa Lima. I’m a rising sophomore at UCSB and my major is Pre-Biology (Biochemistry). I am also part of the program EUREKA, which introduces freshmen into research during the summer. At first, I was really nervous to join a Biology lab since I had not taken any Biology coursework at UCSB. My knowledge of biology primarily comes from high school and I knew that was not enough to fully understand the intricacies in a research lab. To my fortune, both my mentor and PI were aware of this fact and still gave me the opportunity to join their lab.

My first time in the lab was scary. Everyone else was either a graduate student or a third-year student at UCSB. The difference in experience was tacit but I was still eager to learn more about the project in hand. The larger project involves using light to control cell differentiation of stem cells. What does this mean in simpler terms? The lab seeks to control which type of cell we can create using only one type of cell. Imagine being able to create muscular, bone cells or even neurons… using light! While this is the big picture of the project, my personal one, in a smaller scale, seeks to learn more about a family of proteins that are in charge in transcribing genes so that these cell transformations can happen.

One of the first tasks in lab was to familiarize more with jargon used and learn basic protocols that can get the project started. Even though the protocols take two to three hours to perform, the real magic of biology occurs at night. Most of my lab work the first weeks was to culture bacteria and retrieve their DNA. Many things happened in between which delayed the progress of my project. For example, one lab member changed the temperature of the device we put our bacteria in and basically killed them all. I had to retry the whole protocol the next day and hope this time works (This was my third try). Finally, I could finish one part of the experiment and got a good yield in my DNA extraction (according to my mentor). The worst part of my experiment was waiting a whole week for my primers to arrive. They usually take a couple of days to arrive, but mine took too long to arrive. In the meantime, I fed myself with literature about the proteins I’m researching. My PI asked me to do a mini project in which I look at the signaling pathways of these processes. I’m proud to say he liked my work and now entrusts me with more of these little projects.

Overall, I have had fun in learning more about lab practices more in depth, making friends that help me understand more about these concepts that for me pose a higher level of difficulty and interacting with students of different levels. I have been reading publications like crazy and even my biology textbook for the class that I will be taking next quarter. Work in lab can be difficult, tedious, scary and the experiments might not work most of the time; however, learning in every step and discovering more about the microscopical world we call life is definitely a motivation to stay in the lab. I would like to end this blog with my own personal box where I keep my plasmids and primers that I use in lab. It makes me happy to know that I am part of the team.

From an Innocent Girl, to Undergraduate Actuarial Researcher

A year ago, I finished my high school degree in the United States, and was able to go back to China, the place I lived for 15 years. I visited my grandparents who raised me up and took care of my for my entire life in China, but I was shock by how much was changed to their health condition. People I care about the most is getting older and older, and suffering from different chronic deseases. I was sorrowful, and wanted to do something. That was the first time I truely realized my value of existing is to bring something valuable to the world, and to people.

I was lucky, because I got a chance that summer to explore this thing called research. I was selected to attend a 2 week research summer program: SIMS. That was my very first peak to the world of research. I was asked to rank a list of research projects as my favor to work with, when I saw one about investing cancer tumor cells, I put that on my top one without any doubt.

Two weeks passed really fast with an extremely packed schedule. I tasted my first fruit from the research experience: we truely got a data that can be a tiny contribution to approach cancer cure. I realized that research is such a fastinating thing that can really be a way for me to help people and the world. So I started to dig in more to learn about different research fields. I want to find the right one for me.

As an actuarial science major student, I didn’t realize there could be so many research topics to help with the world for this type of subjects as well until I met Mr. Duncan in actuarial association at UCSB. Besides being a professor at school, he is a successful actuary working in industry for over 30 years. But he is always passionate about researching and encouraging young researchers. I was totally amazed by how much papers and books he has published, and how respectful he is in actuarial field. At that moment, I realized I can do research and help people as well with math and statistics, these tools I am more comfortable with.

This summer, I am honored to work with Mr. Duncan on a research project about developing a predictive model on hospital readmission rate. While health care is often unaffordable for us normal people, especially those without health care insurance. With our model, we want to predict the hospital readmission rate for different types of patients, so that hospitals can provide enough care and attention ahead, so that hopefully to reduce the hospital readmission rate, and also, reduce the costs to go to hospital for patients. To make health care affordable is a big goal, but every little effort is worth trying and can approach to the goal closer and closer. I am sure that is true for all fields of research.

I have a great goal, that is to change the way people live, and help make our life and the world better. Innovation and research is the best way to real that goal. It might be a brand new area for those who never get in touch with research, but as you work hard, and find more opportunities, your research skills get better and better, and eventually, everyone can do their parts to help with the world.


How my Research Perceptions Changed

When I first envisioned research, I thought of a white coat scientist in a laboratory setting. I would never have guessed the EUREKA program would expose me to so many different fields of research. Research projects range from analyzing biochemical processes to coding computer programs and working with participants to examining complex mathematical functions. Although the term “research” can be associated to the cliche white coat lab setting and specific areas of study, the beauty of research is that it can be applied interdisciplinarily with the same goal of advancing knowledge and bettering society. Aside from that, I perceived research as a lone activity. With the experience I’ve gained so far in my lab, I’ve realized that I am constantly communicating with lab members about data analysis and various machinery. Research is a cohesive, team-effort and even includes communicating with people outside the lab such as official personnel and other faculty advisors. In fact, communication and connections are one of the most crucial factors leading to success in a research project.

On the other hand, I completely expected to be surrounded by intelligent and inspiring people such as my project’s faculty advisor, post doctoral, graduate students, and research assistants. Each colleague is an opportunity to learn something completely new and deepen my understanding of the project at hand. Additionally, I knew that research rewards hard work and continuous effort. Whether you are running a participant, analyzing data, or keeping up with the literature, you are responsible to have the initiative to do those things. By doing such tasks efficiently, you gain more information and skills directly tied into the betterment of your future. On top of that, expressing your interests and initiative to the lab members allows them to find ways to make your experience as beneficial as possible.

All the experiences I have gained from research were beyond what I imagined for myself and it’s a journey that every researcher takes. Research takes you down a road you never expect, and from there you decide what you can do with those skills. Ultimately, everyone’s research experience will be different and your perception of research will change over time in hopes to gain a better grasp of being a more valuable researcher.

Female Alcohol Use Disorders are on the rise—and we don’t know how to treat them

Over the past ten years, alcohol use disorders (AUDs) have increased significantly—particularly among females. Although AUDs are predominantly male, the prognosis is much worse for females. They are much more susceptible to the negative consequences of drinking, such as liver disease and breast cancer.

This rapid increase brought forth an inconvenient truth.

Almost all of the studies that tested the safety of drug treatment for AUDs were conducted primarily on males. So, how are we supposed to treat these females with drugs that are not proven to be effective​ or​ safe? And how on earth do we not have that data?

Until 2016, almost all biomedical research was conducted mostly on male mice. Researchers use mice as models for humans, because their mammalian brain are similar to ours. A long time ago, however, scientists concluded that female mice were too hormonal to produce clean data. They have a 5 day cycle—like a mini human menstrual cycle—which results in hormonal variations that influence their reactions in various behavioral tests.

These hormonal fluctuations, however, are not limited to females.

Recent findings proved that when male mice are housed in groups with other males —which they are for almost all studies—their testosterone levels sky-rocket. These variable hormone levels also influence behavior, but have never been regarded as an issue or blockade to reliable data.

Have sexist biases have gotten in the way of objective science? Scientists completely disregarded females because they were hyper-hormonal and messy, without giving male hormones a second thought.

Recognizing this issue, the NIH issued a mandate in 2016, stating that they will only fund preclinical studies if they include female subjects.

This summer, I am working on a project that examines sex differences on the effect of adolescent binge-drinking. In order to develop an effective pharmacological treatment for female AUDs, we must first understand the neurobiology of their addiction.

There are years of research to catch up on, but we are headed in the right direction. Hopefully, we gain some insight into the nature of female AUDs, and begin the process of safely treating them.

Black Holes and Blackboards: What Theory Research Looks Like

Using math to understand how the universe works has always excited me beyond measure. Before coming to UCSB, however, I had absolutely no idea what research in theoretical astrophysics actually looks like. Would my days consist of aimlessly scribbling equations? Would I spend my time reading stacks of dense papers? Would my hair somehow turn white and disheveled like Doc Brown’s from Back to the Future? As it turns out, some of these are closer to the truth than others. Here is what I actually do as a theoretical astrophysicist studying simulations of black hole accretion disks in Professor Omer Blaes’s Accretion Group.

In “The Lab”

Being a theorist means that my “lab” is pretty much anywhere that grants access to a laptop and plenty of hot coffee. In other words, I essentially wake up already “in the lab”. My day typically begins with a review of the work I did the night before, which means flipping through my notebook and going through whatever code I wrote the previous day. If I have the time, I also make my way through some of the recent literature and write down any technical questions for my advisor.

Next Step: Collaboration

The lack of physical lab space means that in order for me and my advisor to collaborate, we have to specifically set aside time to spend in front of the blackboard discussing the physics and working through problems and questions. These meetings are usually the second portion of my typical research day, and they are possibly the most important.

Our meetings usually have the following progression:

  1. Discuss plots and figures generated from the code since our last discussion
  2. Further develop the context of these problems and explore next steps
  3. Decide what trends we want to investigate more deeply
  4. Address any questions I have about the project/literature

During the meeting, I am always sure to jot equations or vocabulary that I want to explore on my own when I revisit the literature later.

Coding and Calculation

“The Lab”

This aspect of my research is both the most challenging and the most rewarding. After meeting with my advisor, I usually take time to reflect on the ideas we discussed and write details in my notebook. I may even consult the literature again to fill in any gaps in my knowledge or to revisit a concept we discussed. Additionally, I spend time deriving any relevant equations to get a deeper feel for the mathematics, and I begin to work on the code.

The main function of these codes is to calculate and graph solutions to the derived equations. This is the real “meat and potatoes” of my research: deriving equations and then finding the proper way to visualize their solutions so that they reveal the relationships we want to investigate. I then document the method I used to generate these graphs, and I make a note of any issues or difficulties I encounter along the way.


Although most people immediately associate research with working in a lab, research in theory heavily reflects all of the methodology and collaboration one expects to find in an experimental setting. This unique dynamic is actually one of the things that draws me to theoretical physics: the semisweet balance of independence and collaboration. Although the days vary greatly – sometimes with much more time spent meeting with colleagues, and others spent buried in the literature – I learn more about the universe every single day. That is ultimately what I think makes research so great.