It’s Okay to Not Feel Okay

If there’s one thing I can say about this summer, it’s that I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned a lot about chemistry (working in a chemistry lab and all) but surprisingly, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for my future, career skills, and, probably the most important of all, general life lessons. Of course, every time you go to a new workplace and work with new people you learn different things about life but one of the most important lessons I learned was actually from one of the Eureka seminars.

This seminar was titled “Grad School A to Z” so I thought it would be a boring talk about how to be a good student and how perfect everyone needed to be. I was surprised when the grad students we were talking to started talking about something called impostor syndrome and how they really struggled with grad school because they felt like they didn’t belong. Now I know I’m only an undergrad and they were talking about how much harder grad school was so I probably shouldn’t have taken too much comfort in their words, but I did. I’m someone who always likes to know what I’m doing, I don’t ask for help unless I absolutely need to even when it comes to homework problems. So I guess it’s no surprise that when my grades fell a bit spring quarter and I started working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met (both graduates, doctorates, and undergrads) I felt really overwhelmed and quite frankly, not good enough. The entire summer I felt like I always had to be the very best version of myself. That’s not a bad thing, striving to be the best that you can be is good, but I feel like I’ve been hiding parts of myself that weren’t good enough and unfortunately, that’s been a lot.

As fantastic as the summer’s been it’s also been the most stressful summer that I’ve ever had and it’s all because of this underlying feeling of not being good enough. When I went to that meeting and heard them talking about feeling that way it made me feel a lot better. No one is perfect and while I have a lot that I need to improve, I’m not alone. Those people happened to be talking about grad school but it applies to undergrads too. School is hard, life is hard. If it’s easy then maybe you aren’t pushing yourself enough. Now I’m not normally this cheesy but I spent a lot of my summer feeling overwhelmed and alone and terrified. For anyone doing a summer program like Eureka just know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed, I promise you aren’t alone

More than Cell Culture

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about how our lab experiences have differed, her being in chemistry and me, in biology. The physical things we have done have been vastly different (I can’t imagine running a reaction for 24 hours), but I found that the things that have happened to us have been very similar. I mentioned to her that I was frustrated because I had done a reaction, following all of the steps my mentor took, standing beside him, using the same tools, and still somehow, I ended up with much less product than he did. I thought that I was just inept and clumsy and figured I had made some sort of error along the way, but much to my surprise my friend said something very similar had happened to her. It wasn’t that I was happy that she messed up too, but in a place full of such intelligent people who seem to know what they are doing all the time, it was kind of comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one having hiccups.

I have also started to notice little things about myself that I’ve picked after working in a lab for almost 2 months. Cell culturing is very sensitive and it’s important to be as sterile as possible when doing it. Gloves, spray everything with ethanol, use a new pipette every time, don’t have the plate uncovered for too long, don’t wave your hand over the open plate, and put the cells back in the incubator as soon as you can, all while being as careful as possible and NOT clumsy (very hard for me). The first few weeks, my mentor had a fixed view on my technique and would have to keep reminding me of all of these rules. When I managed to contaminate cells with bacteria, I realized I had to step up my game. With many hours of practice doing this, I have gotten much better at culturing cells swiftly and carefully, so much I may overdo it with the ethanol sometimes. I have also, incidentally, started applying these techniques to my life outside of lab, like putting the lid of the butter immediately back on when cooking, or throwing away new disposable plates after I even slightly make them touch something that’s not food. I will continue to perfect my technique and see what other weird things I pick up.

Are Professors Really People Too or Just Three Lizards in a Trench-coat?

As a student it is not infrequent to be advised to remember that “professors are people too” and they want you to approach them when you need assistance.  Although I certainly understood this intellectually, for someone shy as me, emotionally this advice was difficult to put in motion.  During my freshman year, I was always nervous to approach them to ask for homework help, or talk about research, or really anything, in a way I had never felt around my high school teachers.

It’s not hard to see what makes professors intimidating. They’re experts in their fields, with years’ worth of experience and knowledge. In class the professors are lecturing in front of a hall full of students they don’t know, and to students who don’t know them. It can be the recipe for nothing but an impersonal experience. I was terrified that if I messed up or misspoke the professor would think I wasn’t worth their time. However, it didn’t take long for that perception to change.

I think that doing research and working under the guidance of postdocs and professors was the only way I was going to overcome those fears. It is difficult to be too intimidated by the people you discuss movies and exchange funny stories with over lunch. Slowly, but surely I grew more comfortable around my coworkers. Coworkers! – How weird it is to work in the same place as people who are normally your mentors, teachers, a part of a different world.

Now that I’m not quite so fear-filled at the very thought of interacting with them, the grad students, post-docs, and professors I’ve worked with this summer have taught me so much, merely by sharing their experiences. I’ve learned about the process of getting published and all its intricacies and difficulties. I’ve learned about why coding is important and how much we can learn from other disciplines. I’ve also learned about how important it is to stay focused on the big picture and not get lost in the little details.

Now, that is a lot to learn in one summer, let alone cover in one post, so I’ll focus on the last point. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details you deal with daily when you’ve been working on a project all summer. You get focused on the problem that you are currently working on and forget the end-goal, the purpose of the project overall. This can be dangerous. It makes it difficult to stay mentally engaged in the project and it makes it easy to go down the wrong path.

First you need to actually understand the big picture in order to remember it. When I first started I just had vague idea and set about accomplishing my goal one step at a time. That quickly went downhill as I consistently got stuck on problems with no idea how to move forward, and spent time on the wrong things with no good understanding of what I was trying to accomplish. Going back and reading papers and talking to my mentors helped solidify what they were looking for from my project.

I’ve found the best way to keep the big picture in mind is to talk to people who know nothing about my research. From the advice of my mentors and the reactions of friends and the people I meet at my internship events, I’ve realized that people aren’t all that interested in the simulations I work on daily. They’re not interested in hearing about the bug I solved today in my code. They want to hear the cool stuff about stars exploding and black holes. The things that can excite really anyone about space. What you tell them may only be 5% of what you actually spend time on, but it often illustrates the overarching goals of your research.

Overall, I’ve found that there is a lot to be learned from those with more experience. You’ll find many who are willing to teach you, not just about the subject you’re researching, but all the other knowledge they gained in getting where they are today.

Pros and Cons of Working as an Undergrad Researcher

In summers past, I’ve spent my time working  more “traditional” teenage jobs, such as a camp counselor or fast food employee. This summer, however, marks my first internship in a lab, and the day to day role of undergrad researcher has presented its own unique set of perks and drawbacks, such as:

#1: Not having a set schedule

Want to get off work before 1 PM so you can go to the beach? Or sleep in late every day? One of the best parts of working in a lab is the flexibility of my schedule. As long as my work gets done and I go to weekly meetings, I can choose what times I want to come in. However, this only works in my favor if the work actually gets done. Unlike a normal job, there is no set “clock out” time for me. I can go into lab early with the intent of having my afternoon free, but if the experiment needs to be redone, or someone else is using a piece of equipment I need, it looks like I’ll be staying late. I never really know what time I’ll end up leaving lab, and making plans with friends can get quite tricky, as there’s no guarantee if I’ll be able to make “dinner at 6”. While the lack of a set schedule can be frustrating, I believe it’s worth the flexibility and knowing you can leave as soon as your work is done, rather than waiting around until your shift is over.

#2: There’s always something to do

This brings me to my next point; there’s never any waiting around because there’s always something to do. Samples in the thermocycler for 3 hours? I can clean slides for the microscope, work on my powerpoint presentation for EUREKA!, or even start setting up the next part of my experiment. Sometimes, if there really isn’t much work to do, I’ll even go to the gym on campus while I wait for my samples to anneal and come back to lab when they’re ready. The flexibility of working in a lab allows me to utilize my time a lot more effectively, whether it’s getting my lab work done or other to do’s. However, there never seems to be an end the projects I can be doing. There’s always more data to analyze, more experiments to get ahead on, and more slides to clean. It can be hard to justify taking a full break for lunch knowing there’s something else that needs to be done or judge when it’s time to leave the lab for the day; there’s always more progress to be made. I find, however, I prefer being constantly busy and on my feet than sitting around staring at the clock, waiting until I can go home.

#3: You never stop learning

I might not be taking classes this summer, but I’m definitely learning just as much through my internship. I’m finally getting the hang of the various techniques we use in my lab, such as running an agarose gel or using the microscope. I’m also learning more about the science behind what we do, whether my PI is explaining a procedure to me or I’m reading a paper for our journal club. Yet, I still feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. In my past jobs, there was set start and end to my training, but that doesn’t feel like the case in the lab. There’s always a new protocol to learn, an unknown reason why an experiment failed, a new question to ask. The more I learn about the background behind the research I’m doing, the more it dawns on me how little of the science I understand and how much more I have to learn from my STEM courses at UCSB. The feeling is overwhelming, but at the same time exciting, and I’m looking forward to the many years of learning from both formal schooling and research I have ahead of me.

“Research is life” isn’t always the way to go

At one of our EUREKA events, we spoke with a panel of grad students about their experiences in academia, and what stood out to me the most was how they all struggled with a research-life balance and “burning out.” I was introduced to this phenomenon this summer, and was actually a bit surprised (and relieved) to hear that they had this problem too.

Full-time research was a significant change from research doing the school year because I didn’t have classes, studying, dance, etc. to divert my attention elsewhere. I snapped back and forth between spending all day at lab and continuing work at home or not working on anything at home and then feeling as though I had wasted all my time. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the internship that I felt as though I found a happy medium, and it was very much a trial and error process, going something like this: “Wow, I feel emotionally exhausted this week; better change some stuff up.” and later “Wow, I feel like I wasted all of my time out of lab; better change some stuff up.” and again “Wow, I feel…” (You get the idea). So probably not the best way to go about finding balance.

Making a clearer work schedule probably would have been helpful, making sure that I spent set amounts of time doing work outside of lab. I found that making plans to actually go somewhere and do something (beyond going to the couch to watch “Game of Thrones”) was helpful. It ensured that I spent some time away from research-related activities while also making me feel like I was keeping busy (although a day of doing nothing was also nice every once in a while).

The trial and error process was pretty rough sailing, but it was perhaps the one of the most valuable experience of this internship. It tested my commitment to research (haven’t we all had the “Am I cut out for this?” moment?) and made me more confident in my ability to accept failure and persist.