Advice to the Stressed Undergrad

I’m sure you’re all thinking at this point, “wow, summer turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.” I know that I am, because I thought I would have a lot more time to balance work and life in the midst of my summer research program. Consequently, you probably feel the stress from the upcoming due dates, final presentations, and rapidly approaching academic year. And just to add to the pressure, you still need to eat and sleep (hopefully well), and socialize. You may find yourself beginning to just go through the motions of your summer without actually taking in moments and enjoying it since there is so much to do. Here, I give a bit of advice to help you with some of these struggles.

Plan your meals

Making your own (healthy) food is probably one of the most difficult tasks to do when you first start the summer on your own. Oftentimes, it will seem impossible to make a new lunch every day before you go into lab, since making food is so time consuming. It is very easy to fall into the trap of eating out all the time. Not only is this unhealthy, it is extremely expensive and you will drain your summer stipend within a few weeks. Instead, you should focus on doing meal prep. Do some research on how long certain foods last in the fridge once opened. Then, choose foods that last a while and make a meal out of it. You can make this meal in bulk on a Sunday and it will last you for the week. This way, you don’t have to chop up that celery seven times a week, or wash that same dish fifty times. Even better, you can prep something healthy and change it up from week to week.

Become Immersed

You may feel that you should’ve published some groundbreaking result that created a paradigm shift in your field by the end of your undergraduate career. I’m exaggerating of course, but I’m sure you feel pressure to get good results in lab to prove your competence. I can assure you that you shouldn’t feel this way at all. Instead, you should let go of all your stresses and become immersed in your research. What exactly do I mean by “immersed?” I mean to appreciate the research for what it is, and allow the knowledge and exploration to take you through a journey free of the fear of not publishing, getting results, etc. Once you become immersed, you will begin to take initiative, show true interest, and hunger to answer questions through your experiments. Your principal investigator and lab mates will appreciate your devotion to lab through immersion more than anything— even if you aren’t pulling stellar results—because it shows you have the tools to be a great researcher.

Balancing research, school, and life can seem like an impossible task. However, it is not. It just requires motivation, perseverance, and sometimes a bit of guidance. The advice I have to offer for may not solve all of your problems, but it should serve as a good starting point.

Chemistry- Why do we use protection?

I learned to put on my seat belt every time I step into a car, not because it gets me from point A to point B, but because it eliminates some of the risks of being in moving vehicle and sharing the roads with hundreds of crazy drivers. The same principle applies to house insurance, phone cases, door locks, sunscreen, and protecting groups that are used in chemistry. In the past few months, I have been working to develop a protecting technique for a versatile compound known as maleimide. Like a car, maleimide has the potential to do many great things, such as enhancing the development of organic synthesis imaging technology, biomaterials and drug delivery systems. However, unlike how a car can operate without seat belts, maleimide cannot function without a protecting group because it can be too reactive or toxic for direct use in cells or polymerizations. Our research group aims to design a “seat belt” for maleinide so that it can perform its job without damaging other compounds.

Research requires collaboration, innovation, and a lot of patience; all of which I have learned to value these past couple of months. I hope to be able to contribute to the ever-expanding knowledge of science. So much of science is known, but so much more is not.

Communication as an Art Form

Performing research is only one aspect of being a scientist. Science is a communal discipline built upon sharing knowledge. As such, a scientist must be able to communicate his or her work. Unfortunately, a large portion of the scientific community has only been educated on the technical side of its discipline. I came to this conclusion after reading countless research papers this summer. The goal of technical writing is to convey information. A writer should focus on making his or her statements clear and concise with minimal jargon. A large component of the MARC program is practicing communication. Attending the MARC program has allowed me to hon my communication skills by giving PowerPoint presentations and attending writing courses. As I write this blog I am reminded of Craig Cotich’s writing courses. He has turned writing into an art form. I personally enjoyed his discussion on writing for emphasis and coherence. Did you know the end of the sentence is the position of emphasis? Really important words should be moved to the right of a sentence. Did you know sentences should not stand alone but complement each other? Writers should end a sentence with content they will begin the next sentence with. These examples are only a few small reminders of the writing techniques that I have learned and will employ in future publications. When I publish a paper, an intern just starting his or her research career will take comfort in being able to understand what I convey.

PowerPoints! I have become very accustomed to giving PowerPoint presentations. One disclaimer if you are planning on an internship through CSEP: you will get an ample amount of criticism, and that’s a good thing. Part of the experience is learning how to take criticism. Don’t take criticism as an insult. In fact, take criticism with gratitude and willingness. The critiques are going to make your presentation stronger and clearer. At each presentation, I bring a notebook to write down each critique and any comments that will help me improve my presentation. As I write this blog, I am also drafting my final PowerPoint presentation and I am reminded of Scott Shell’s engineering a successful talk presentation. Did you know people only retain about 5% of what is lectured to them? This is why slide design and presentation is so important. Slides should maximize the information to ink ration by using diagrams, graphs, and pictures. Even with perfect slides and lecturing to go with it, your audience will only retain 20% of the content if they are focused. To optimize the audience’s retention Dr. Shell provided us with tips such as demonstrations and having the audience participate. These techniques can increase retention up to 75%. We even got into “professional” tips. For example, if you have seen Steve Jobs give a presentation, he used slides with black backgrounds. He was able to pull it off because of how captivating he was. I am not Steve Jobs. I use white for my slides’ background so that I fill the room with light to keep the audience awake. Maybe if I become as captivating and iconic as Steve Jobs, I can use dark backgrounds. Until then, I’ll stick to white.

An internship through CSEP is a great learning experience in all aspects. The aspect I elaborated on in this blog was communication through writing and presenting, however there are many more such as elevator pitches and posters presentations. Aside from developing communication skills, the research is the largest aspect of the program and I could write another blog on only the research. If you are thinking about an internship through CSEP, I highly recommend it. Good luck, I have to go work on my slides and research abstract now. On your MARC, get set, go!

The Secret Life of Worms

I never knew that worms could be so intricate. You’d think that a worm would be so simple, just eating until its life is complete but surely I have been very surprised by how much there is to know about them. I never thought I would be so fond of something so small. When I see a whole bunch of little squiggly lines on a plate, I know that my worms are at the peak of their growth. You see, the plate is where the worms live and lines of bacteria drawn on the plate are their food source. When they run out of food, they lay all of their eggs. They instinctively do this in order to keep their species going-perfect example of survival of the fittest.

They are stubborn little animals I might add. I’m currently trying to perfect the technique of synchronization. Synchronization is the process of treating a set of worms with bleach and sodiumhydroxide. Bleach dissolves every stage of worm except for the embryos (as long as the embryos aren’t left in bleach for too long). The purpose of this is to obtain a synchronized population of worms, each worm being in the exact same developmental stage as those around it. However, despite treating the worms with bleach for long enough time periods for them to dissolve, I still find quite a few worms that have survived this.

On a good day, if I focus hard enough, I can see the slight movement of the worms with my naked eye. All the other days I spend my time looking at them through a microscope. Although completing my research project this summer is a great priority for me, my greatest goal is to see an embryo develop into a small, active worm. I haven’t been able to witness this yet. If I might be quite honest, this might be a larger task than I anticipated. This would require me to stare at a specific embryo for about ten hours and have a little bit of luck.

“Can You Repeat That?”

“Can you repeat that?” is what I’ve been asking my mentor for the past three weeks. It is amazing how much I don’t know. This realization has come to me after beginning to work in a genetics lab within the chemical engineering department this summer. On multiple occasions, my chemical engineering professors have claimed chemical engineers are highly suited for nearly any position in stem because of our extremely versatile and rigorous curriculum. While I still believe this claim has merit, I think it is up for review with me as the case study. There is one aspect from the curriculum that I adhere to every day as an intern. That is: know it now, and know it alone. Prior to joining Professor Dey’s lab, I had basic knowledge of genetic processes acquired from obtaining an associate’s degree in biology. This knowledge served to stimulate my interests in the field, however it was far from sufficient to allow me intricate understanding of the methods used by professor Dey and his lab. I had a lot to learn, and I still do. For the past three weeks, I have worked on learning genetic processes, cellular processes, two new programming languages, DNA sequencing techniques, Dr. Dey’s novel technique for detecting double stranded DNA breaks (stay tuned for publications), DNA repair mechanisms, and much much more.

Starting out is the hardest part. The first week was the roughest because I needed to build a foundation of knowledge on which to build upon. Research is acquiring knowledge that has not yet been discovered. This aspect of research makes it quite exciting, but also difficult when starting out. It is difficult because previous knowledge in the field must be completely mastered so that previous knowledge can be applied to acquire new knowledge. This means countless hours reading papers published by scientists currently and previously in the field. I am new to regularly reading scientific papers and I have been previously spoiled by clearly written and edited textbooks. Every week I read at least three papers and provide summaries and insights that would help our research. While reading a paper, it is important to write down unknown words and obtain knowledge on them. The first paper I completed took me a few days. This is because every sentence had concepts and terminology I was unfamiliar with. It was a game of google searches and asking for help from my mentor.

These past few weeks I have learned how important networking is. The term networking seems like an artificial term which is why I think of networking as the human connection. It’s important to have the favor of people so they are willing to help. For example, I am in a new lab that is just starting out. We have limited funds and our lab is not set up yet. The graduate student, with the office next to ours, is working in a field similar to ours. He comes into our office regularly to store his food in the fridge and we would talk to him. One conversation we mentioned culturing cells in a pay per hour lab on campus. This graduate student has a cell culture station in his lab that is rarely used and he offered to let us use it, free of charge. This connection will allow my lab to conserve its resources and maybe offer collaboration between labs.

My research experience has just begun and I have a long way to go. If I can offer any advice to incoming researchers, it would be to humble yourself to learning. Starting out is rough and daunting, but perseverance rewards personal elevation and passion. An undergraduate curriculum is a passive experience; however, research requires one to take action. On your MARC, get set, go!