balancing act

Research as an Undergrad: A Balancing Act

It seems like every professor, tutor, and upperclassman tells us undergraduates that the key to success in college is time management. And we undergrads try our best, but between managing research, multiple classes, a social life, and a healthy lifestyle, it gets difficult. This is especially relevant for new students: adjusting to a demanding university lifestyle. One trap that we often fall into is studying last minute and panicking over how to succeed in an exam. Often times, we let our own stress consume us and end up doing worse on the exam than we could have done. Below, I have included some tips of how to prepare for exams amidst a demanding schedule.

Before the Exam

  1. Review from class slides, paying attention to areas that were emphasized in lecture
  2. Be able to identify the objectives that you are supposed to learn from each lecture
  3. Create study groups early on, as these friends can help you throughout the quarter and right before exams

In Preparation For/During the Exam

  1. Throughout your studying, create 1 sheet of paper with hard concepts/review questions that you would like to review right before the exam to refresh your memory. Browse this sheet about an hour before your exam
  2. Set a specific time to stop studying before the exam, and make sure you reach the exam location with at least 5 minutes to spare
  3. Before going into the exam, take a deep a breath and realize that you have done everything you could to study, your exam is simply an opportunity to demonstrate your work in the course
  4. At the beginning of the exam, write down some quick notes of concepts/formulas that you might forget throughout the exam
  5. Preview the test, and see how you can allocate your time, attempting the easiest questions first
  6. Mark questions you are unsure about, and save time at the end of the exam to do a second pass of these questions

After the Exam

  1. Realize you’ve put your best foot forward, and there is no need to keep worrying over the results
  2. Celebrate in some way! Whether it be treating yourself to dessert or getting a massage at CAPS, you deserve it!

The Importance of Research

Our professors make occasional references to the innovative work in the research on campus, but as an undergrad, we barely get a glimpse of what truly goes on in lab. In first-year lab classes, we are introduced to basic laboratory techniques and gain an understanding on lab safety. It is amazing to see how much lab courses mirror experience as an undergraduate researcher.

For example, in my intro bio lab courses, we had multiple lab practicals that tested our pipetting techniques. Getting the technique down seemed simple enough, once you got the hang of it in lab class. It seemed pretty straightforward, and I never gave it much of a second thought. However, in lab, mastering this technique is important to every experiment. Just last week, I was pipetting volumes of 1 microliter, and a quick slip on my finger could have led to us having to redo that part of the experiment. Another example is learning how to use a centrifuge. Without properly balancing the device, the centrifuge could be damaged, or someone could get injured in lab.

For me, there were also aspects of my undergraduate research experience that were somewhat unexpected. Obviously, you can’t learn all the techniques and procedures that you will have to follow in courses, so there is a certain level of on-the-job training, if you will. To me, I felt as if I was playing a game of catch up, working my way up to understand everything my mentor and the other graduate students in our lab was talking about. One big learning gap for me was my lack of prior experience in coding/computer programming. Without any formal experience, my best bet was to take to the internet and start learning MATLAB through online tutorials. In between work on our experiments, I often search up a tutorial or troubleshooting guide, in an ambitious attempt to finish a code that I have been working on for a couple weeks now.

Although you may be the only undergrad in your lab, it helps too keep in mind that you are embarking on a journey that hundreds of students have began before you. As a Gorman scholar, this feeling of self-doubt is further lifted from your shoulders when you talk with undergrads involved in research in other departments, who face similar challenges as you. The CSEP internships are an amazing experience which I’d recommend to any undergraduate. The programs teach you the applications of research, and how you can appreciate the bigger picture of what your project plays a role in accomplishing. An important part of scientific research is that it is incredibly collaborative, as each paper seems to pass the baton onto the next scientist to help solve the larger problem. In the Dey lab, my project involves making improvements to mRNA sequencing technology, and this project can be applied to scientists studying development or localized diseases. Whether or not your undergraduate experience inspires you to pursue a career in research, it is an incredible opportunity that will heighten your appreciation for science as a whole.

In Theory, it’s All in Your Head; In Practice, it’s Seriously True

Don’t worry so much about what you do and don’t know that you get stuck inside your own head. If you spend too much time in there, you’ll end up only being able to see your own gaps; to be honest, not even postdocs and professors know exactly which direction to go in when performing research. Everyone starts out with that Swiss Cheese Syndrome, so there’s no need to be insecure about your limitations. On the first day, you may feel like a wobbly wildebeest calf in a den of watchful lions, desperate to prove you belong (and more importantly, not break anything), but in lab, everyone’s learning together. We’re all in love with science and engineering because we want to fill in those holes. So if they exist? Well, that’s perfectly normal. Don’t let it drag you down.

I can only tell you this because of what happened to me. Man, that was a rough first month. One week to get acclimated, and then – boom! – my mentor needed to visit China for some time. Almost simultaneously, the professor (PI) in charge of my lab was going to Italy, which meant that I suddenly felt alone, reading scientific literature and working on a research project I had barely wrapped my mind around.

Naturally, I got very wrapped up in my project. Oof. Mistake number one, honestly. As a research intern, you shouldn’t forget to explore your surroundings. Whether that’s something as simple as interacting with the other graduate students in your lab and asking about their projects and nascent careers in science (nothing says you can’t have more than one mentor!) or attending one of the seminars out and about on campus, there’s so much you can do to help yourself and find out what you want to do. It can be tempting to just hone in on the material your mentor has provided for you, but you shouldn’t let it consume you. My work has been completely theoretical, which means I’ve spent a lot of time sitting, thinking, and programming. That’s natural, and I’m happy with that, but I always make sure to spend some time outside so I don’t feel like I’m drowning.

Frankly, you’ll never really know what research field will capture your interest. This summer, I’ve been working in a lab in the mechanical engineering department. I’m a math major. When people think of engineering labs, they envision robots being built, or new materials being manufactured. In my case, I was working on testing and developing algorithms. It’s been much more theoretical than anything I’ve ever associated with engineering, but I’ve come to really enjoy it. And that is so much more important than you could imagine. You’re going to be working with people who’ve already dedicated themselves to a sector of science. Most likely, they’ve already discovered their passion. In that environment, it can feel awkward and discouraging if you realize that you don’t have the same connection to the work. In your head, you may even feel that something is wrong with you. Don’t let yourself feel that way. If you feel frustrated, talk to your mentor and PI. They’re here to guide you, you’re not here to serve them. They can open the world to research. You just have to find out where you want to go.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking or preparing to work in a lab in the Computer Science or Electrical Engineering department, or another department with close ties to the technology sector, it can be fairly common for the lab to be fairly empty during the summer, as professors leave for international conferences or meetings and graduate students take off on internships of their own. Make sure to talk with your mentor and devise a plan beforehand!

Back To the Future (Doing research)

Dear Sebastian,

Let me open this letter by stating that you are going to be fine. All your anxiety regarding programming and meeting the expectations set by your PI and mentor were reasonable but not such a big deal, do not forget you are here to learn how to do research and not to do a revolutionary discovery (although strive for the best). Yes, this summer is the world cup and do try your best to watch it! Even though you are sitting in your laptop coding, stream it online! Believe me, that will make some of your days less stressful. Moreover, after doing your research in the lab go and play soccer, do some exercise because god knows is the only way to stay in shape.

After 6 weeks in this amazing program I got a lot to share, so listen up. My first advice is a cliché but never gets old: Ask questions from day 1! Trust me, you are going to get nervous and think that everybody knows the answer but that is not the case, research starts with a supposedly “dumb question” that in fact holds the key to interesting answers. Go to Dillon more often (your mentor, you’ll meet him soon enough) and don’t be intimated by him, everyone in the Streichan Lab is friendly and do want to see you succeed. My second advice would be to appreciate MATLAB, you are going to spend every day getting to know this good software that allows you to analyze data efficiently. Remember that coding is a process of constant failure and that it holds a lot of red messages. Don’t get discourage and always ask why, understand the whole project and why each task helps you with your overall goal this will provide motivation and a clear path to success.

But Sebastian, understand that research is a slow process. Some days you are going to be stuck in a problem for hours (and I mean hours!) and you will think that there is no solution but in fact such situation is easily solved by asking a simple question. Don’t get discourage because of this, if research were easy everyone would do it.  Another tip would be to get to know the other interns! They are amazing people working on incredible stuff, talk to them, ask them questions and share ideas; literally you are with the best and brightest of UCSB so take advantage of that. Oh, don’t forget to put notification on your google calendar! God knows how many events you missed… also listen to the faculty speakers, their words of wisdom are relevant since they want to help you become a great science communicator and make your summer project compelling. Go to all the talks you can, especially, the one with Professor Carolina Arias (this one you missed and apparently it was pretty good)

My last advice, would be to not doubt yourself. I mean you are working on revolutionary stuff, you are learning fluid mechanics, tensor analysis and coding all in one summer (wow! that is hard now that I think about it) but you are smart my friend! Your progress is going to be great and dazzle everybody because you are a Gorman scholar and you were picked because you want to be challenged and science is your passion! So, take it easy and enjoy the process, don’t be afraid of failure since that is your daily diet (I wish I were kidding) remember to take a deep breath now and then and enjoy your summer.

Enjoy your days of rest before the program!


Sebastian (from the future)


A Summer of Learning

When I tell my friends that my research involves anti-cancer drugs, they ask me if I’ve found the cure for cancer yet. Although I usually answer with a smile and tell them I am still working on it, I believe I’ve learned so much from my research that does not directly involve science. My research experience in the MCDB Department at UCSB helped me grow into the student I am today and motivates me in my journey to become a successful research scientist.

Many of my peers warned me about the steep learning curve I would face when starting in a new lab. Since this was my first research experience, I (reluctantly) accepted the challenges I would face as a newcomer in the lab. I expected a gentle introduction to lab work, but to my surprise, I was immersed and involved in the projects immediately.  Within a short timeframe, I acquired the skills needed to raise my own flask of cancer cells and run various assays to test for drug activity.  During this time, I struggled with self-doubt – I had a nagging feeling that I was incapable of completing experiments on my own. However, I quickly realized that I had to ask questions and take notes on everything going on until routine procedures became second nature to me.  Over a year later, I am much more confident in my skills and I’ve even helped newcomers get started in the lab.  This newfound confidence found its way into my academic life as I started taking more difficult upper-division biology courses. Persistence has helped me in the lab and in the classroom.

The lab environment I work in is especially exciting because I work directly with my faculty mentor, Dr. Thrower, along with the five other undergrads in my lab.  Our lab may be small, but we are constantly busy with new experiments and interpretation of results.  Since we do not have graduate students to delegate work among us, we are in constant communication with our faculty mentor and we are directly involved in every aspect of our experiments.  It can be stressful when it feels like no one understands what’s going on in the lab, but we rely on each other for support and guidance every day.

Research has taught me more than just the skills I need in lab.  I’ve learned how to be resourceful, resilient, and to embrace the inevitable uncertainty of starting a new project.  In addition, working in a small lab environment has given me more opportunities and responsibilities than I expected.  As a Gorman scholar, I’ve gotten the chance to share my research with other motivated undergrads in STEM and hear about the fascinating research that goes on around me.  Working full-time in a research lab was something I could not imagine last year, but I am thrilled about this experience.  With less than 3 weeks left in the Gorman program, I’m looking forward to spending my last month of summer relaxing (and out of the lab!) while reflecting on my summer research experience.