Dealing with Research Frustrations

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein

Research is exciting because you can learn something new that no one else has ever known of before. And with this new knowledge, you can spread it to a community of others who are eager to learn new information. But since sometimes you don’t exactly know what you’re looking for, research can be just as frustrating as well. During my internship over the summer, I realized how frustrating research can be sometimes when experiments do not go as planned and days of work in the lab are wasted. But during the same time, I also learned how to deal with these frustrations in various ways.

I’m currently investigating protein-surface interactions in Plaxco’s research group. The bulk of my time in the lab is dedicated to engineering and producing our own proteins needed for our experiments. Since we’re acquiring our own proteins, we must capture and purify these proteins that are purposely overexpressed in bacteria cultures we grow. This process requires many steps and spans over multiple days. And within this process, many variables – both human and experimental – can affect the outcome of this procedure. Of course, not everything in research can go as planned. Failing to acquire our proteins have led to frustration, self-doubt, and a sense of wasted time.

Luckily, I have spare time outside of lab that I can dedicate for dealing with these frustrations. Whenever I leave lab feeling as though lab work did not go as well as I hoped, I sit outside reflecting on my frustrations. There isn’t really much you can do if research plans fall through. Usually, you diagnose what went wrong and hopefully fix a mistake in your experimental procedures. Otherwise, you have to start from square one. Yes, it feels like I’m beating myself up at some points. But this moment of self-reflection allows me to approach mistakes in a logical way.

For the rest of the day, I’d like to take my mind off of research and blow off some steam by exercising. I recently picked up cycling as a hobby. I’d ride with my friends to downtown Santa Barbara and back and we’d usually hang out a bit afterward in Isla Vista. This exercise helps me release stress and also helps me socialize at the same time. If I do not go on a bike ride, I’d go to the gym to lift some weights. Physical activities help take my mind off of research for a brief moment while also benefiting my overall health. In a way, I’m turning something negative from research into a net positive for my well-being.

I felt lost and frustrated a lot of times while working in lab especially at the start of my research internship. I’ve come to accept these emotions because I realized recently that these feelings are normal in a research environment. For instance, an experimental procedure my mentor has been developing for the past three years has only started showing promising results this summer. I could only imagine how many times he has faced feelings of doubt and failure to reach success. This process, however, makes research so much for valuable and fulfilling than one would expect. The hard work and studiousness needed for a job where results are hard to see at first make success a lot more worth it in the end.

Update at 6 weeks in the lab.

Throughout the Gorman Scholars program, I have learned a lot of things. There are two that stand out from the rest.

#1. The program has made me realize how much I want to pursue graduate school. Before I was a little unsure about going to graduate school because I barely knew anything about it. But this program has helped me see it for what it is and the graduate student panel was really helpful. It really helped me start thinking and actually planning for graduate school.

#2. The program has made me realize how much I like the lab setting. I have been struggling to pick between a hospital setting or a lab setting for my future career and now that I have been in a lab for about 6 weeks, the decision between the two has become very easy. I like how quiet and flexible it is in the lab. I am a person that does not do very well in an environment that is busy and filled with people. I hope to continue in this lab onto next year because I have been really enjoying it. For next summer, I really want to travel abroad and do a research internship in another country.

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Now that it has been six weeks in the lab, my last post seems a little funny to read. I could tell from my writing that I was struggling in the lab and this is still the case but it has gotten so much better. I am becoming more and more independent. I have been starting to get the hang of things pretty quickly while three weeks ago, it took me a long time. Before, when I came into the lab, I used to see it as something I had to do… but recently I felt myself wanting to come in… I was genuinely excited to go in and do stuff. I hope this genuine interest keeps leading me in this research lab.

Why am I so dumb?

Why am I so dumb?

This thought was ringing in my head repeatedly throughout all of first week of research… and I have to say it was draining and it made me not even want to do anything. I felt like I was so lost, useless, and unfit to be in a lab. I could not even follow simple directions that were written on paper or even do simple math calculations because that thought had consumed and drained my mind that I actually started acting like it. I think it was also fear and nerves that got to me. I was afraid of messing up that I messed up even more.

I still feel like this from time to time but not as much. But I always tell myself that this is typical of starting anything new. I am going to mess up and mess up again but I know I will be better at it the third time around. It’s important to keep this in mind if you are going to be in a lab soon. For me, it just takes a little bit of time to get used to everything and now at the end of the third week… I feel much better adjusted and feel like I am truly contributing to the progression of the research.

I have been working in Dr.Thomas Weimbs’ lab studying polycystic kidney disease using rats and mice as animal models. They are so cute! But I have learned that working with these animals is not a joke, it is actually a lot of responsibility. These animals’ lives are being sacrificed and that means you definitely do not want to mess up the experiment because their lives will have just been wasted. And believe me when I say they are really cute! And sometimes a little aggressive… In the lab, we try to make sure that everything is done in a way that inflicts the least amount of pain for these animals. But I still feel bad. Really bad for them. It definitely requires a lot of courage to work with these animals but the one thing I am glad about is gaining the experience and learning from it.

Throughout my three weeks in the lab, I have compiled a little list of tips that would have been very helpful to me if I was thinking about going into a research lab.

#1. Previous courses:

I have taken Bio lab and the introductory Bio courses but I never retained the information because I was just studying it for the finals. But this is a bad mindset. Learn the material to understand it fully, not just for the test. A lot of the stuff from those courses will need to be recalled in the lab but I found myself not being able to recall anything… which is just embarrassing and reflects badly on me.

#2. Note-Taking:

I have realized how important it is to be able to take neat and effective notes in the lab. My note taking skills are lacking but I want to improve upon them. Research is a very meticulous process and there are many details and data that need to be noted.

#3. Being proactive:

You will spend a lot of time at your postdoc’s side, learning from them, doing what they tell you, and sometimes they can not always be there to guide you… and in the lab there is a lot of downtime sometimes so it is up to you how you spend that time. You have to be proactive in finding productive things to do during those times. It is good to read papers on your research topic so you can become more familiar with it or even go over protocols.

Life as an Intern: Industry vs Academia

Why research?

I believe acquiring research experience is an invaluable opportunity for undergraduates to understand exactly why we must study across a broad spectrum of different disciplines just to graduate. Different research and internship opportunities have helped me realized that undergraduate studies are designed to transition students from effective test takers to effective learners.

Like most students, I spend a fair share of my college life taking notes off of lecture slides and reading textbooks from cover-to-cover just to pass a couple exams for my classes every quarter. I can’t call myself the strongest test taker in the world, but I have acclimated to the fast-pace academic lifestyle of a school following a quarter system. Rather than actually learning though, I sometimes felt I was just memorizing instead of understanding course material to pass my midterms and finals.

I sought different internship opportunities because I enjoyed applying what I learned in class to actual hands-on work in instructional labs. I was fortunately given opportunities to intern in both industrial and academic environments to get a sense of what a career in research may be like. In the following sections, I will compare my life as an intern in both academic and industrial environments with various criteria. Hopefully, some of my experiences will resonate with you and even inspire you to pursue your own positions within labs.

Environment

I started interning for a private contract research organization, Volochem, that synthesized organic molecules to life scientists in the Bay Area during my late high school and early college career. Few places can compare to the Bay Area in terms of different things to do and see outside of work. However, the commute to my workplace was the caveat to this experience. I took many Ubers, rode public buses and subways, and crossed the bay every morning and evening just to commute to and from work each day. Travel time to work would usually total over two hours each day and would sometimes leave me exhausted.

In contrast, my commute to my current research lab at UCSB is just a ten-minute bike ride from my current home. Although Isla Vista – which is a one square mile community of UCSB college students – comes nowhere close to the diversity of the Bay Area in terms of different cultures and activities to experience, the vicinity of our campus and a bustling college atmosphere definitely makes up for it. Living on a beach is also one very small perk that we definitely do not brag about to our friends at home.

Actual Work       

I’m currently researching protein folding and its interaction with artificial surfaces in Plaxco’s research group at UCSB through the Gorman Scholars Internship offered by CSEP. Through my internship, I work underneath a post-doc “super mentor” that advises me through a research project that I’m currently working on. Other than following protocols for protein expression and purification, I realized research involves having a flexible and dynamic approach to obtaining data. Since we’re exploring numerous unknowns in a highly specialized field, we sometimes must think on our feet because we can never predict the outcome of experiments we design.

In an industrial lab setting, I always had a checklist of things to do every day. I knew how each work day of the week would start and how many tasks I should accomplish each day. From chemical inventory management to performing simple reactions, everything I did was already done before. Therefore, I knew exactly how to perform all my tasks and in the event that something goes wrong, I could easily troubleshoot and fix my problems.

Learning Curve

My only exposure to anything STEM related at that time of my internship with Volochem was my AP chemistry class. So of course, I was very nervous and even scared to step foot into a synthetic chemistry lab. Thankfully, my boss and the on-site chemists at this lab were very helpful in mentoring me during my internship. There are many highly specialized instruments with highly specific functions needed in this lab that I have never been exposed to. My peers gave me terrific guidance and eased my nerves very quickly when it came to working with them.

My mentor and lab mates in Plaxco’s research group are equally helpful in terms of pointing me in the right direction. Adjusting to a new lab environment was a very pleasant experience. It seems that in laboratory environments, people are willing to answer questions and build upon each other’s ideas. Group discussions are frequent which really helps in understanding complex theories for our experiments.

Impact

I have acquired more career-specific skills through my internships than sitting in a classroom listening to lectures. Hardly anything from lecture halls can compare to the number of practical skills I acquired by working inside a lab, both industrial and academia. However, working in labs helped me understand the importance of college. The diverse classes I have taken here which ranges through a myriad of subjects have enabled me to critically think through many different scopes. My critical analytical skills developed by my current undergraduate studies have transferred well into a dynamic approach to problems that arise in research. I am thankful the opportunities given to me have helped me develop this approach to tackling problems and I hope readers of this post have experienced or will experience something similar to this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beginning of a Journey

My first day of lab seemed to be the most surreal moment I experienced. Being a student that has been looking for research over the course of a year I finally felt that I had accomplished my goal. I wanted to be as productive as possible in lab in order to show my PI that I was really motivated for my project. I guess you could call it enthusiasm but I saw it as my first real opportunity to succeed in my career as a chemical engineer.

After having a brief meeting with my PI about my project, I never anticipated that the next thing we would do is walk to the lab together, only to find the most mysterious machine I have ever seen. It looked like fire hydrant but of course I was not about to say that to my PI. It did not click to my brain until I realized that this machine would be my best friend for the rest of my summer. Sometimes in life you do not pick your best friends, and I never thought that my best friend would be a fire hydrant. Nevertheless, I was ready to learn something new.

The so called fire hydrant is actually a chamber where I create plasmas, which is a beam created from cascading electrons. There was an intensive information overload and I have yet to grasp the whole concept of plasmas and plasma deposition but for now I am satisfied with understanding as much as possible from my PI.

The first couple days of lab involved assisting my PI to properly calibrate the device used for plasma deposition. We needed to calibrate things like flowrate, voltage, and current and the measurements that I needed to do for these calibrations were the most rewarding measurements I have ever done. I actually told that to my PI and he expressed surprise to my reaction of the grunt work that I was doing.

The best thing about my PI is that I am never worried about sounding unintellectual. Often times during lab my PI cracks light-hearted jokes that lessens the tension in the atmosphere and it makes me realize that the environment that I am working in is meant to be a nurturing one. I guess the worry of not being smart stems from classes where hard work is represented only through a letter grade. Of course devotion and growth are not reflected in grades and the only person that can understand my hard work is only myself. Classes are not just for grades, but it is nice to do research where I have no grade at all. I has already been two weeks and I feel that I have learned a lot of useful skills than any class could teach me. My PI taught me to drill holes, apply tape to screws, and create airtight containers. As he taught these tasks to me, he always ensured to stress the reasoning behind each thing that we did together. I would say that I am on the right track.