From Med School to Research

I find that it is not uncommon for a first-year Pre-Biology student to say they want to go to med school. It’s the majority. I wondered what other people’s reason for wanting to go to med school was. I didn’t have a concrete reason. I want to help people and truthfully, I thought it was the “correct” path as a biology major.

I didn’t want to close myself off to any other options, but a lot of the decisions I made as a first-year was so I can study medicine. Everyone told me it was “impossible” to get into medical school. I repeated to myself, “keep your hopes up, grades higher.”

I had a rough first year. I devoted my time to my studies and getting good grades without doing much else. However, by my second year, I began doing other extracurriculars, one of which was joining a research lab. I was intrigued by the idea of research, and I ended up enjoying it. I worked in a marine biology and ecology laboratory. Even though I liked the work we were doing, I did not see myself having a career in that field in the future. So I went back to focusing on medicine.

Then I got an email.

Still keeping my options open, the email stated I would be a good candidate for a biomedical research scholarship. This caught my attention. A combination of medicine and research seemed like the right fit for me. After talking to people, considering what I like most and what would be best for me, I decided to apply.

And I got it. Now, I am a proud MARC Scholar.

With the scholarship, I was able to have an intensive summer research experience in a virology and host interaction laboratory. I enjoyed every minute, from the late nights in the lab to interpreting the results of a western blot to getting lunch with some lab members. I fell in love with the work we are doing and with the people. I have finally found something I am truly passionate about.

I now have a better idea of what I want to do in the future, and research will definitely be a part of that. Even though I am happy I was able to come to this decision, it has been a tough couple of years. It took a lot of ups and downs, questioning and debating, and trying things out.

The overall point is this: it’s okay not to know. About anything. It’s okay to explore different things. It’s okay to move around, drop some things, focus on some others. And most importantly, if you don’t know, keep your options open.

When it comes to research, there are so many fields you could go into, some I hadn’t even heard about before. One very important thing: don’t get discouraged if one doesn’t excite you. It might not be the one for you. Try another one, who knows what will happen?

What I have learned as well is that if research is something you are interested in, definitely try to get some experience, whenever you can! There’s one thing liking the research and another thing physically doing the research, being in a lab for hours, and devoting a lot of your time to it.

The truth is also this: research is not easy. Most of the time, it’s failures. But, at the end of the day, it is so rewarding when something does work. Or when you see results that have never been seen before! It is truly fascinating.

If you are saying you want to go to med school as you walk through the doors of your first chemistry course, and you don’t know why but it just seems like the right thing to do, think about all the other careers you could go into. Think about all the options you have. Maybe I’m a little biased, but research is a very good one.

Explore your options, whether that be different careers or within research, you never know where you will end up. Keep your hopes high, options higher.

When your research results glow

E. coli glowing: Agar plate of E. coli, some with the red fluorescent protein gene

Staring at our plate, my lab partner and I couldn’t help but smile, tears and sweat dripping down our faces.

We had actually done it.

Our teacher had told us this would be a long, hard journey, and that some of us would not be successful. After this week-long quest, we obtained the red fluorescent treasure at the end. We were successful.

Everyone surrounded our plate and us, staring at it in awe as well.

My lab partner looked at me and said, “Our E. coli are literally glowing red! We did it!”

I first realized my passion for microbiology and research when performing a week-long experiment in my A.P. Biology course as a junior in high school. We conducted a bacterial transformation using recombinant DNA technology to insert our gene of interest– a red fluorescent protein gene– in a bacterium, Escherichia coli. As seen in the picture above, this gene allowed the bacteria to, well, glow red! It was a long process that, if not you did not follow the procedure exactly as stated and if you were not paying attention to detail, you would not get the end result.

This short but sweet experiment is a small scale example of what research is like. The process to get to an end result might be long and daunting, but once you get the result, it is like eating that cake after a week of being on a “diet.” I am painting the process as being unenjoyable, but on the contrary, it is full of exciting moments as well and each step encourages you to keep going. Even on setbacks, you learn from them and find new ways to tackle what you were working on.

As I mentioned earlier, my passion for research really started when doing this experiment. I had done other experiments, such as what factors affect the rate of photosynthesis in leaves and understanding the physiology of roly-poly bugs, but none really caught my attention as the bacterial transformation experiment. There are many branches of research that people can go into. You can be in a lab with a microscope, 60 feet underwater in the middle of the Pacific, or in the valley with hiking boots and a large bottle of water. I prefer to be with a microscope and pipette, looking at organisms that are much smaller than I am and understanding their importance and complexity.

Phytoplankton: Different species of phytoplankton collected at the Sea Center

Since there is such a diverse range of research topics, you may not know what you want to go into or what you enjoy most. It is important to try different research areas first. I knew I enjoyed microbiology, but that is still a broad category. I first combined my interest in the ocean with the smallest creatures that live in it: phytoplankton. I was in a laboratory that researched how climate-induced changes affect the physiological and community composition of phytoplankton.

Even though I enjoyed studying phytoplankton, I was drawn more towards the biomedical side of research. I downsized in the organisms I was studying to viruses, which are even smaller and less complex than phytoplankton but have huge impacts on individual people and communities at large.

In general, research allows you to explore your interests while also teaching you patience, new skills, and how to follow a procedure, because trust me, you’ll need to pay attention to all the details in order for your end result to glow as our E. coli did.


A Lesson Left on the Back Burner

“Don’t get frustrated if you can’t follow my movements,” my mentor says for what seems like the 25th time today, “with practice, you will pick up techniques as well as develop your own.”

I watch him maneuver his hand around a capped test tube, removing the metal lid with his first finger and sterilizing the opening with his second finger curled around the body of the tube before carefully removing however many microliters we need to continue the experiment, then placing the lid back on the test tube. Just a few swift, effective movements.

“Okay,” he says while passing the pipette to me, “your turn.”

I should add that by “sterilizing,” I mean passing the opening of the test tube under the blue flame of a Bunsen burner. All of that without burning himself in less than 30 seconds. How could I possibly follow?

Regardless of the “how,” I know I have to figure it out. I take the pipette with a deep breath. Exhale. He chuckles and says, “take your time, Diego,” inciting a laugh of my own. But I listen to him, and take my time.

With shaky hands, I try to mimic his movements. With shaky hands, I fail to do so. He shows me another way to sterilize the tube and ensure that it doesn’t become contaminated. I keep trying to mimic the movement, and each time I have to use the alternate route, it feels like failure. Day one and the feeling is already there.

For a little while, I forgot about the perfectionist who lives inside of me. I forgot about the person who wrote down every single number after the decimal point that the calculator spit out to make sure my answers were accurate. I forgot about the person who rewrote the same sentence 100 times before deciding it was “okay.” I forgot about the person who never thought anything was good enough if it wasn’t good the first time.

“Very good, Diego!” Carlos says.
“Good?” I say, “I couldn’t do the trick.”
“That’s okay.” He answers, “With practice, you will get it down. I know you can.”

Practice. I remember the perfectionist.

Then I process the last thing he said. Belief. In my abilities.

I’ve known Carlos for about two months now. When I was searching for a lab to work in for the summer, I immediately emailed Professor Diego Acosta-Alvear. The summer before my first year, I spent a lot of my free time sifting through pages of research opportunities and research labs. I found information about the MARC U*STAR program and worked towards it during my first two years. I read about Diego’s lab as a first year and was immediately intrigued by his work. It only made sense that, after receiving a position as a MARC scholar, I went straight to Diego. The first week, I was thrust into the world of RNAs and cell stress responses as he explained his work to me. The second week, I was introduced to the lab.

“Talk to people and figure out what you like best. Remember, this is your summer. Take advantage of your newfound resource,” advised Diego.

As I went around the lab and learned about everybody’s project, one person stood out to me. Carlos. Everybody in the lab had their unique strengths, and Carlos was no exception. He introduced his work to me and I immediately recognized its importance. It was in both the way he delivered his idea, and the way he involved the bigger picture. As I watched him in lab, I realized how much I enjoyed the way he taught others. I witnessed his kindness towards his lab mates and his genuine care about their wellbeing. After a couple of weeks, I asked him if I could join his research team and I started working with him during the last three weeks of spring quarter, mostly shadowing and occasionally doing the work myself.

It has been three weeks of the MARC program, hours of research have given me countless opportunities to practice what I call “THE trick” on the Bunsen burner, as well as many other techniques. I’m no professional, but lately, I’ve been thinking about my growth and feeling proud of my abilities.

Carlos asks me, “how do you feel in the lab?” I confidently respond, “Really good, actually. I love the work, the people, the failure and the success.”

The perfectionist is still there, but it’s a lot quieter now. It’s easy to forget that you are a student and that you are still learning. Don’t let forgetting that become your fallout. It’s an important lesson. Now, when I feel like a failure, I just remember the words of my mentor: “Take your time. Practice. You can do it.”

My P.I. is leaving UCSB

A few months ago, my P.I. sent out a message that she had “important lab business” to discuss at our next journal club. We had speculated about what she might say, but I wasn’t thinking too much of it. After journal club ended, she took out her laptop, opened up PowerPoint, and announced,”The lab is moving to UCLA!” I wish I had a picture that captured the look of complete shock on my face in that moment. As she was presenting the PowerPoint about the move, I zoned out for a bit getting lost in my thoughts as many questions raced through my mind. What is going to happen to my graduate student? What will the postdocs do? Does this mean the grad students have to transfer? What will happen to our space? Finally, what does this mean for me?

I really loved this lab. I had an amazing graduate student mentor, I was working on a fascinating project, and everyone there was supportive and fun to be around. The idea of me leaving the lab had never crossed my mind. After the announcement, I became really sad and spent a week brooding while going through the seven stages of grief. The thought of having to find a new P.I. and start over on a new project stressed me out, but I was grateful to have few months to figure out my next step. Although I was hesitant, I knew switching labs could be a good opportunity for me to explore a different field, pick up new skills, and get out of my comfort zone.

I felt like I needed to have something exciting to look forward to, so I started my search for a new P.I. almost immediately. Finding a P.I. this time around felt a lot easier than it did the first time. Doing research for a year really boosted my confidence as a scientist and I knew I had some useful skills to bring to my next lab. I found that graduate students were the best people to talk to if you are looking for a new lab. Graduate students spend time in a few different labs during their first-year rotations and usually have friends in different labs across campus. They were able to tell me a lot about how other labs are run and where to find cool research. A few of them even gave me an offer to join their lab! I was trying to take my time and just reached out to a couple professors. I thought it might take me two or three months until I found the right match, so I was really surprised that I found my new lab in two weeks. Even more surprising was that I decided to leave my lab earlier than expected to start working in my new one.

Three months ago, I was absolutely clueless about any changes to come and I certainly did not think I would be where I am now. I have been in my new lab for a few weeks now and it feels a little weird because everything seems different from what I am used to. Although I am still adjusting, I believe I made the right choice in both picking this lab and choosing to start early.

Forging a New Path

With a lack of exposure to a world of different ideas, academia often at times seemed to be too much of a task for me to confront. From deciding upon which field to choose, a suitable learning environment conducive to my well-being and attempting to find a place to call home for the next several years of my life, among many other factors, some moments in the decision making process seemed more strenuous than helpful, granted that this process is key to carving out one’s future in a very fundamental way. Particularly for many of us whom derive from pasts that have lacked personal models, whom have lead a life in higher education, with the ability to guide those that follow. I in turn had carve out my own path. In addition, pursuing an education in the STEM world, in hopes of becoming a scientist presents its own set of challenges. With trial, error, perseverance and slight trepidation, I managed to progress through each course with curiosity and passion for learning as driving motivators, while simultaneously being cognizant of my performance or lack thereof and how this aspect of assessment would grant or deny my participation in certain opportunities. Little did I know that life in a laboratory would require very different modes of thought and resilience.

As a recent scholar of the MARC program, I have learned more in the past few weeks conducting experiments and gaining guidance from my mentor than what I was exposed to during many classes that I have taken before. Walking past each lab bench filled with various reagents, centrifuge tubes, pipettes, and scales, remnants from my childhood memory suddenly remind me of Dexter’s Laboratory and I find myself excited to be in this environment of discovery, that began as an original desire and thought. Although filled with tangible items useful for our ongoing inquiries, my first several weeks also exposed me to the dialogue that takes place between researchers and those aspiring to become so one day. As they probe further into hypotheses that have been revised several times, I have been able to witness firsthand how “messy” science can be in terms of the quest for answers being a never ending endeavor combined with attempting to understand concepts that have never been addressed or encountered. This part of science filled with mystery keeps the “spirit” of inquiry alive while never-ending failed attempts fuel many to consistently re-evaluate where in the scientific process a mishap may have occurred.

As I exit the laboratory each weekday, heading back to my home I find myself glad to have taken this path which had been foreign to me for an extended period of time. I have already encountered numerous lessons with experiments not resulting as expected and having to troubleshoot mistakes made along the way. Confronted with a new task foreign from my past experiences, I now consistently long to unveil the “dilemma” of the day.