Blackouts, Space, and Roly Polies

I once heard a story about a blackout that occurred in the 1990’s in Los Angeles. When the residents of Los Angeles looked up at the sky they were shaken by what they saw. With fear in their minds, many called their local police department to report the extraterrestrial attack that was occurring. In reality however, they were just looking at the Milky Way Galaxy for the first time. The extensive light pollution that surrounds Los Angeles obstructs the LA residents from experiencing this wondrous world. A blackout of this magnitude hasn’t occurred since so my father and I have been constrained to looking at the universe through books. We spent many hours throughout my childhood reading astronomy books and discussing them with each other, hoping that one day I would make a discovery. My dreams of discovery weren’t limited to the stars however. When I wasn’t with my dad, I spent most of my time outside in my backyard trying to discover. My main targets for research were roly polies. I spent hours searching for them in the grass and dirt and many more trying to create a suitable habitat for them in sandwich bags. I made many habitats for them in the bags, filling them with different combinations of dirt, grass, water, leaves, branches, and other natural objects that I found in my backyard. Each time a combination didn’t work, I spent time considering what might be wrong and would proceed to formulate a new combination, but every attempt resulted in a failure. What I didn’t know was that I was suffocating them, each time closing the bag to keep all its contents in. When my father finally told me why my roly polies weren’t surviving I wasn’t deterred but instead more motivated. This motivation never faded and when I met my mentor, Professor Joel Rothman, and was told about his new project: researching the effects long term space travel has on living organisms, I thought back to the days I spent with my father talking about space and the time I spent with my roly polies. Professor Rothman spoke with the same passion that my father and I once did and I was ecstatic when I was able to join his lab.

My first few days were filled with counting worms and trying to learn everything about them. It was the first week of summer so the lab was basically empty and I resorted to listening to audiobooks to help the days pass. It didn’t feel like I was doing much but it’s important to note that everything, no matter how simple it may seem, is important when it comes to research. What seemed like just counting and learning through simple experiments wasn’t that, it was important research that was teaching me about worm interactions. The most applicable discovery I made however was that cough drops make hiccups go away. This was able to be tested many times thanks to my body’s great need to randomly hiccup.

My War with Protein Purification

I remember my first battles with protein purification—they were long, strenuous, and I never won. I couldn’t even get a few milligrams of pure, functioning protein. It became my least favorite lab activity. I began to cringe every time I heard the words “p53 tumor suppressor protein,” for it reminded me of my never-ending failures associated with protein purification.


This experience characterized most of my first full-time undergraduate summer research experience. It left me with a sour perspective toward research, because spending five weeks on failed purifications caused me to get no real work done on my actual project. I couldn’t start my project until I had pure, functioning protein. I never did get the protein I needed, so I finished up my final presentation for my summer program in agony.


I know what I’m saying right now must sound melancholy, but I assure you it will get better. In research, you will often be plagued with situations in which your experiments/procedures do not work for weeks or months on end. However, this is all for good reason, because it is how you learn.


Recently, in my second undergraduate research experience, I have come back to protein purification. I carried out four purifications over my first two weeks, and I have never been more successful. On one of my purifications, I obtained 22 mg of pure protein. This may not sound like much, but in the world of proteins it is quite a bit.


My first experiences taught me that you should never let your first pass on any subject—school or research—define how you feel about it for the rest of your life. It takes training and perseverance to become good at something, so you should always be willing to give it another try before you decide it’s not for you. Just like how protein purification became easier and more successful for me in my second experience, chances are, you will find the same successes in your own endeavors.

Vlog- A day of summer research at UCSB

YouTube video is linked!

This is a typical day of research for me. I am currently doing full time summer research in an Organic Chemistry lab for Dr. Javier Read de Alaniz at UCSB through the MARC internship. Living and working by the beach doing what I love is truly amazing. I hope you enjoy the video!

Ngan Nguyen

Fighting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria With Viruses

Bacteria. The single-celled organisms responsible for a range of diseases from food poisoning to the bubonic plague. Modern medicine, especially antibiotics, has allowed us to survive these bacterial diseases. Unfortunately, antibiotics are not working as well as they used to because bacteria are getting better at getting us sick.

The growing problem with using antibiotics, which are the first line of defense against infections, is that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Due to the growing prevalence of pathogenic diseases, scientists are scrambling to come up with alternatives to diagnose and treat bacterial infections and diseases.

Undergraduate researcher, Colin Kim, is familiar with this problem, and he is working to help solve it. As a researcher under Chemistry Professor Irene Chen, Kim studies bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. Although there are more bacteriophages on Earth than there are bacteria, the vast majority are uncharacterized. The Chen group aims to characterize bacteriophages so that they can be engineered to treat bacterial infections.

A typical wound contains a diverse community of microorganisms, and the Chen group hypothesizes that it contains bacteriophages. In order to figure out the different types of bacteriophages, you first need a way to collect them. Last summer, Kim helped develop a method of swabbing human skin to collect bacteriophages and determine the amount of bacteriophage present.

Kim is currently collaborating with researchers to develop a diagnostic tool to detect specific types of bacteria. Because bacteriophages have a high affinity for the types of bacteria they infect, researchers can chemically modify the bacteriophage protein coat so that the bacteriophage will fluoresce, or glow, when it binds to bacteria.

Kim uses the bacteriophage M13, which is well-studied and has a strong affinity for E. Coli. By modifying different parts of the M13 protein coat, researchers can make it have a high affinity for a different bacteria such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphlococcus aureus (MRSA), a pathogenic bacteria that is resistant to higher order antibiotics.

Studying bacteriophages may lead to new developments in how we treat bacterial infections and diseases.

The End of a Run

Wow! As this summer program comes to an end, I am exhausted…

Not the overwhelmingly sleep-deprived exhaustion. But instead, the kind of exhaustion that shows that you have accomplished something—like being out of breath after running.

At the end of a run, you know that you have earned not only the tiredness and soreness, but also the strength that ensues. So as I gear up to sprint the last couple of weeks of the MARC summer program, I know that I will be even more exhausted than I am now. But I also know that there is a great reward waiting for me on the other side of the finish line. I have struggled in workshops to improve my writing and presenting and labored in lab to develop my technique and skills. But there is satisfaction in knowing that you have challenged yourself, struggling through new obstacles and emerging stronger and wiser than before. There is fulfillment that comes with presenting work that you have invested time in and believe in. And there is gratification that comes with knowing you have worked on research that has helped not only your growth, but could also potentially benefit many others.

However, as I run my course, I am not alone. I have met second years that hold so much promise, my fellow third years that have offered encouragement as we run similar courses, and fourth years that are looking ahead to bright futures. As we run along side one another, my peers have seen me struggle when my stride faltered but have only given me positive support to continue. They have provided me with laughs to distract from my labored breathing telling me to slow. To sum it up, they have been pretty awesome!

So if you are looking at the CSEP programs and wondering if all the hard work is worth it… it is. The opportunities that these programs give you are so unique, and only a small group of undergrads gets to experience them each year. From workshops on conferences and graduate school to dinners with experienced scientists from academia and industry, there is always something new to learn, and there is always someone new to meet. So, if you are like me, you may be exhausted, but the soreness just means that you are getting stronger.