How to Stay Sane in an Optics Lab

Santa Barbara.  A city coined the “American Riviera.”  A city whose average temperature throughout the year varies by only 12º F.  A city where it rains only 37 days out of the year and is sunny for 283.  Santa Barbara is pretty great; but I’m stuck in a dark room.
This summer I interned with the Schuller Group characterizing a thin gold film to implement into our Organic Photovoltaic (Solar) Cell research.  Characterizing that thin film involved hours of measurements in an optics lab.  We measured the intensity of a laser reflecting off of the film in complete darkness to minimize background light.  Sitting in a dark room, fumbling over a keyboard to enter specifications, feeling for the mouse, listening to the click of the camera lens after each measurement, hearing the squeal of the pico motor as you pinpoint the laser, and placing one foot carefully in front of the other to cross the room can start to drive you a tad crazy.  You lose track of time.  You get drowsy.  You get hungry.
So here’s some tips to help you stay sane in an optics lab:
  1. Play music
    • Listen to some of your favorite music.  Or, try some new genres or styles.  You have plenty of time and varying the sound will keep things more lively.  Personally, I like to listen to mostly classical and big band jazz, but I do throw in some 80s rock every now and then.  With all these streaming sites, you have access to an incredible library.  Spotify and Pandora provide free access (with commercials) to all sorts of music and will allow you to explore a plethora of artists of the same or similar genres.  YouTube has everything from amateur covers to playlists of your favorite albums.  SoundCloud can help you discover up and coming artists or smaller non-mainstream artists.  If you’re into classical music as I am, UCSB has a subscription to the Naxos music library (, which has over 140,000 tracks of mostly the classical genre, but does have some jazz, world, new age, and pop and rock.
  2. Listen to an audio book
    • Reading simply isn’t possible in an optics lab.  It’s dark and you’re busy using your hands and eyes to take measurements.  There’s a few free ways to get your ears on an audiobook.  LibriVox offers free volunteer read books in the public domain. Audible, by Amazon, offers a free 30-day trial period, but after that it’s $15/month. offers 1 free audiobook after joining.  I haven’t tried using audiobooks much, but my friend, who was performing AFM measurements for several weeks, found himself going through a multiple books per week!
  3. Take sun breaks
    • In addition to taking a lunch break (don’t skip lunch!), you might find it helpful, relaxing, and invigorating to take 10 minutes or so and take a walk outside.  Find a patch of grass, lie down and watch the clouds glide by.  The lab I work at is a mere 3 minute walk to the beach, so that’s always a nice option.  Perching on the bluffs, watching and listening to the waves roll up to shore.  Being in a dark room for extended periods of time can get lonely, disorienting, and cold.  Taking a break to go outside, breathing in some fresh air, feeling the grass beneath your feet or the sand between your toes, maintains your sanity in the dark bleakness of a light sensitive lab.
  4. Have a partner
    1. If possible, having a lab partner makes the experience much greater.  You can talk, share music interests, alternate turns taking the monotonous data, which brightens up the dark room.  In my lab, I’m lucky enough to have a partner.  We have similar music interests: he appreciates classical, enjoys jazz, but also has a wider palette of genres than I, which brings some variety to the table.  We talk about tv shows, science, career plans, social lives, politics and whatever comes to mind.  We grab lunch together and enjoy the trip outside to lunch.  Having a partner will delay the onset of insanity, but not eliminate it, be sure to still get out of lab some time.

A Day at the Lab

What might an undergraduate intern do on a day-to-day basis? Well, it certainly differs by field, and differs still by individual lab and project–so here’s a look at what I do as a mechanical engineer working in Sumita Pennathur’s lab separating particles using microfluidics.

Some activities that I find myself doing often are:

  • making solutions
  • use syringe pumps
  • taking long exposure images
  • analyzing images with Matlab

Making a Solution (How to Use an Eppendorf Pipette)

How to Use an Eppendorf pipette

  1. Set the pipette to the correct volume, attach pipette tip.
  2. Depress the top button to about halfway, insert pipette into substance.
  3. Release the button and take it out of substance.
  4. Insert pipette into desired location and depress the button all the way down.
  5. Discard the pipette tip in a waste bin and shake up your solution.

How to Use Syringe Pumps


  1. Insert infuse syringe and refill syringe
  2. Set diameter of syringe (26.7 mm)
  3. Set infuse rate (mL/hr)
  4. Set refill rate (mL/hr)
  5. Press run

Taking Long Exposure Images (How to Use Andor Solis)


  1. Using bright field, position your subject in the desired location relative to the camera
  2. Make sure that the camera is focused
  3. In the “Setup Acquisition” menu “Setup Camera” tab, change exposure time and number of accumulations (Example: In the “Setup Acquisition” menu “Auto-Save” tab set your file stem and save location
  4. Click “Video” to see your subject in real time
  5. Click “Take Signal” to capture the image

Analyzing Images with Matlab

  1. Have your images organized and labeled well
  2. Create code to run through each image (for loops)
  3. Create code to extract the data you want (in my case, equilibrium distances)
  4. Plot your data10and15logReB
  5. Understand that you will experience errorsErrors


This has been a journey through a day in my lab. Note that labs differ greatly. Although you probably won’t use syringe pumps or Andor Solis, it’s likely that at some point in your lab career you will make solutions and do some form of programming to analyze your data. Regardless, you will learn a lot of new skills in lab that you might not learn in class.

Data: Exciting and Frustrating

The day you finally get data from your research is very exciting. However, obtaining the data is only the first step in the research process. Analyzing it is actually the hardest part, and can be very frustrating at times.

This summer, I am doing research in professor Meiburg’s lab using numerical simulations to model the flow of particles in a dense suspension experiencing shear forces. My part of the project is to write Matlab programs to perform a statistical analysis of the data output by the simulations. I began my work using a random distribution to test my programs, while my mentor, a post-doctoral student, prepared the simulations. At the end of my fourth week in the lab, we finally got the data from the simulation. I was very excited and hopeful that all of our hard work would pay off and we would immediately discover something. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The most challenging part of my work was yet to come: analyzing the data.

Several of the programs I had written that worked perfectly with the random distribution needed to be modified to work with the actual data. When I got those programs to work, I once again got excited. However, results don’t suddenly appear when you run a statistical calculation. My mentor and I spent many painstaking hours analyzing the statistical graphs to determine what they conclude about the data. The general conclusion was that we needed to run the simulation for a longer amount of time to collect more data.

Once we got the new data, I ran the statistical calculations again. As before, the results were not clear. This time, my mentor concluded that we needed to do more calculations to determine if the results from the previous calculations were meaningful. At this point, I began to get frustrated. I had not realized that drawing conclusions about data could be such a long and difficult process. However, I wrote the programs to perform this next set of calculations, and continued to hope that these calculations would reveal some interesting conclusions about the data.

I learned several important lessons from this experience. The research process often takes months, or even years, to draw conclusions and make discoveries. So do not think that you can make a big discovery in a few weeks, as I did. Enjoy the excitement of obtaining data, but do not be too disappointed or frustrated when things do not work or turn out the way you expected. Most importantly, continue working and trying different techniques, and don’t give up.

Picking Outside the Box

Computer science, computer science and more computer science. This was how my first year as a computer engineering major here at UCSB felt like. It was the only subject I took every quarter that dealt with my major. Although the courses were fun and challenging, I was hoping to have a course that dealt with circuits. Therefore, when I was searching for a professor to do research with during the summer of 2016,Professor James Buckwalter’s page caught my eye. He was working with millimeter-wave integrated circuits that would help increase data rates. It might not sound to exciting, but to me, helping increase the speed at which devices receive and transmit data sounded awesome. Additionally, integrated circuits sounded complex and I love a challenge.

After emailing Dr. Buckwalter, and setting up a time to meet up, I had a question bothering me. How was I supposed to help with integrated circuits if I had no previous knowledge of circuits in general? Having the question in the back of my head, I met with Dr. Buckwalter introduced myself and spoke to him about my interest in his research. Dr. Buckwalter then asked me what year I was in and what courses I had taken. After answering his questions, he said what I was most afraid he would say. Politely, explained to me that I had no experience in circuits and therefore it would be hard for me to help them in their research. However, he proposed another project, in which I would scan the radio spectrum to search for underutilized frequencies. After giving me further explanation, I was worried I was not going to like the project, but at the same time I had come in asking to work on something I had no knowledge of. Unconsciously, my mouth opened and agreed to the offer. I was worried, I had little information of what to expect, what I was going to learn, and what exactly I would be doing.

Fast forward into today, I am glad to have accepted Dr. Buckwalter’s offer because radio frequencies and the radio spectrum are much cooler than I expected. Each frequency is unique and therefore travels in its own “lane” carrying information. Determining which lanes are open is my goal for this summer. By doing this, we can then use the lanes that are left unused and make the spectrum more efficient, allowing data rates to increase. As you can see, I am actually doing something similar to what I initially wanted to do, except I am doing it through the radio spectrum.

During the three weeks I have been in the lab, I have learned more information than I expected in areas I did not expect. For example, I learned the two different ways in which phones transmit and receive signals, the path the waves follow when they are received by an antenna, and how the frequencies are extracted from the waves entering the antenna. I find the extraction of frequencies to be the most interesting.

It turns out that there is an equation called the Fourier Series that tells us that any function of time can be estimated by a series of sine and cosine waves with different frequencies. For instance, the square wave below is really just a combination of infinite amount of sine waves.


Figure 1

Figure 1

Having this in mind, when scanning a specific range of the radio spectrum, many different waves with different frequencies are added together along with noise. Now noise are random numbers with a certain variance added or subtracted to the signal. Therefore, once the signal is plotted onto a graph, it looks like Figure 2 and it is practically impossible to tell what frequencies are present in the range scanned.

 Figure 2

Figure 2 

However, when the Fast Fourier Series (FFT), a fast way to calculate the Fourier Series, is implemented to the function, we can visually see what frequencies are in the function by seeing the big spikes in the FFT graph (Figure 3). In the case below only frequency 10(Hz) is present and therefore is showed by two spikes in at 10(Hz) and -10(Hz).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Anyhow, what I am trying to say is that when choosing a research project, be open about it. It doesn’t have to be on something you are an expert on. It doesn’t even have to be related to your major. In my case, it was within my major, but it was new to me. Now, it is not so new and I spend hours working on my project, sometimes skipping meals because I am lost in the world of radio frequencies. Hence, I encourage all to pick a project outside the box, you never know what you will learn about the topic and about yourself.

Don’t Forget that it’s Summer!

After my first year as a physics major, my advisor and professor reminded my class to enjoy the summer— relax, travel, visit family and friends, do things that aren’t physics— this would be our last free summer before grad school.  I’m a physics major in the College of Creative Studies (CCS), which often makes people double-take.  They think: “Creative” sounds like an arts school, you’re a physics major?  While CCS has some phenomenal arts programs, the focus of the school is to promote creation.  Whether that creation be of new knowledge in science, an original piece of music, or a sculpture, the school aims to involve its students in the process of creation as soon as possible.  For physics majors like me, this meant an extra rigorous course load and researching with labs by the end of the second year.  Now that I’m entering my final year as an undergraduate and working my second summer in a lab, I’ve learned a few things.

Don’t forget that this is summer. This is a break in the school year designed to allow you freedom from homework, exams, papers, and daunting schedules (trust me, I know daunting, I’m hoping I’ll get my first opportunity to take less than 20 units this next fall).  Summer break is necessary for avoiding burn out and maintaining your sanity.  So, now you’ve chosen to complete a summer internship and have been awarded that opportunity. What about your break?  What about your sanity?

First, relish the fact that you have no homework, exams, or papers!  Then figure out your work schedule.  Personally, I aim to start working, whether it be in the office, in the lab, in the cleanroom, or at home, around 9:30-10 am.  Then I work


Enjoying my morning skate to campus! (I may not look too happy because I’m trying to get a clear picture and not drop my phone!).

around whatever events are built into the internship and typically leave a little before 5 pm (most of my research group heads out then).  This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the freedom, weather, and relaxation of summer.  Take a walk down to the beach during the lunch break, or, in my case, when you start to go a little crazy after a few hours in the darkness of an optics lab.  Enjoy your morning commute, this is Santa Barbara!  Or in Reagan’s words: “…if not heaven itself, probably has the same zip code” in reference to Rancho del Cielo.

You learn very quickly that research is not fast, not instantaneous, but slow.  You will have time when you’re not sure what to do.  Because of this, you should often have things working in parallel, but as an intern, you’re typically just working on one project.  I use this time to knock out some of the internship side projects, presentations, and workshops.  Freeing myself up at 5 to go practice my trumpet, skateboard, surf, bike, socialize, play games, watch movies, whatever summer avails me.  During your time doing summer research, remember, it’s still summer.