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.

Views, views, views

When one thinks of “lab”, most often times, a chem lab or bio lab with pipettes and flasks pops up in one’s mind. However, as an electrical engineering undergrad, entering a new lab is always surprising because of how different different EE (electrical engineering) labs could be. You could have labs focusing in photonics, chip design, or transistor material, so each would look and feel different because of the vast variety of fields within EE.

View #1: The hopper, kitchen appliances, and some plants

As I opened the doors to the robotics lab, I was already in awe of the unique style and feel of the lab. Almost every desk was uplifted by a stage that my faculty adviser, Dr. Byl, had added in a while back. On the right, there were an array of kitchen appliances, and scattered around were nice relaxing plants. The lab not only felt cozy and at home, but also meant business at the same time. I look to my left, and I see a huge contraption that looked like a part of a Transformer robot from the movies. I found out that it was actually known as a hopper, which the lab used to study how a robot can balance and move at the same time, similar to a pogo stick.

My desk was located on the left side of the lab, and it has three great views. On my right, behind the railing of the stage, the hopper lies dormant until the lab decides to work with it again to study one-legged locomotion. The lab has a lot of open space in the middle which eliminates the claustrophobic feel a typical compact office or lab would have. There are a few plants within the lab which contribute to a nice open work environment.

View #2: My computer and research work

The next view from my lab chair is my computer. This is where I get my research project work done, and it’s seriously hard work. Robotics involves a lot more math and programming that I anticipated, but it gets fun once you learn how to do the fundamentals. Although it can be difficult to spend hours here learning how to code some simulations or getting down the concept of reverse kinematics, the cool healthy atmosphere of the lab helps me push forward regardless of how difficult the obstacle.

 

What I admire greatest is the last view I have from my desk, which is the ocean that borders our school here at UCSB. I always take a moment from time to time to look away from my work and take in the view from the fourth floor of Harold Frank Hall. The ocean is always a beautiful blue, and the palm trees flowing with leaves of green. The window is big enough to let in the light of the vast blue sky and fills the lab with photons from the Sun. Looking out, it helps me solve some difficulties I am having with my work and clears my mind so that I can finish the job in a smooth manner. I am extremely fortunate to be here at UCSB studying in this lab because the environment I work in bolsters the efficiency and fun of the research I am doing.

View #3: The ocean and sky from my desk

 

Am I running gels or are the gels running me?

Previous to my current experiences in the wet lab, I had envisioned the gel electrophoresis to only be a smaller part of the big picture of the paper I was reading. But after a month of lab, I would argue otherwise. The gel electrophoresis is a method used to visualize DNA based on molecular weight. Molecules with higher molecular weight travel more slowly through agarose gel than low molecular weight counterparts. The movement of DNA through the gel is powered by an electric current.

With flaviviridae (the family of viruses that are frequently carried by mosquitoes), the genome is often small enough to easily edit. This makes them an ideal candidate for a host of creative projects attempting to document their cytopathic effect. The cytopathic effect (CPE) is the resulting structural changes in a host cell brought on by a viral infection. So, we can alter the viral genome and observe the effect of induced “breakages” on CPE. But how do we even prove we made the gene editing change? In steps the gel electrophoresis.

The first step to gene editing is to isolate a gene is to clone the sequence you wish to edit on a plasmid. To determine if the plasmid we wish to replicate is pure, you run a gel to determine its purity. Then, after you’ve transformed your plasmid into your bacteria, cloned it, and reharvested it, you digest it with restriction enzymes. Then, to make sure your plasmid was cut, you then run another gel to confirm it was cut by your restriction enzymes.

Running a gel is also an important step in PCR (short for polymerase chain reaction) quality control. A PCR is a method used to clone a segment of DNA. By running a gel with your PCR product and control, you can figure out how good your primers are, if there was any contamination, and whether your PCR actually worked. But that’s not all. After running a PCR, your product often contains impurities such as primers and DNA polymerases. To purify your product, you can load the crude product into a gel. Only the DNA will move through the gel. Then you can just cut out your band, dissolve the surrounding gel, and obtain a purified DNA product.

So next time you see a gel while reading a paper, take some time to figure it out instead of moving on to the more interesting figures. After all, it’s been the backbone of modern molecular biology since 1950 and will only become more important as gene editing becomes more widespread.

 

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 (http://www.library.ucsb.edu/research/db/250), 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.  Audiobooks.com 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.