bunsen

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.

My Thoughts on Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can be quite a stressful time—you’re in the middle of some of your toughest major courses, you’re worried about which schools you will get in to, and you’re probably trying to get a lot of research done all at the same time. Don’t worry, all of us who went through the graduate school application process survived, and you will too. However, I felt that it would be great to share some advice based on my experiences in the process to help alleviate some of the stress you might be having. Disclaimer: all advice I give is based off my experiences applying to PhD programs in chemical engineering, and the expectations of graduate school committees vary from field to field, so take some of what I say with a grain of salt.

 

  1. Writing the graduate school personal statement

 

In all honesty, the graduate school essay is not the most critical factor in your application compared to your GPA and letters of recommendation. However, graduate school committees use it as a means to gauge your writing abilities and how well you can communicate ideas, so it is still decently important. When writing the personal statement, you should keep some important points in mind. First of all, everything you write should be clear and concise—put your main objectives up front and tell the committee exactly why you want to pursue a PhD. Do not obscure your thoughts behind fluffy syntax and fancy words (this is not an undergraduate personal statement). You can be very explicit and say something like “I plan to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering because…”  Additionally, your writing should be problem focused. Instead of saying “I did research in so and so’s lab,” you should say “One of the major problems in field X is Y. My research in so and so’s lab adapts a method that combines C and D and provides a unique approach to solving Y.” Problem focused writing flows much nicer and it will readily convey the rigor and impressiveness of your work to the committee. Lastly, once your essay is written, it is vital that you get it proofread by at least two professors. Professors will be able to catch any potential red flags in your writing as well as provide you with useful suggestions.

 

  1. Preparing for/taking the GRE

 

At least for chemical engineering and probably a lot of STEM fields, the GRE will have little to no bearing on your application unless you do extremely poorly. For example, some schools have already begun to phase out GRE requirements. Additionally, there are some schools that still require it but then the individual departments do not even look at the scores. Nonetheless, most schools still require the GRE as of right now, so you will still have to take it. First, I suggest you take the time to look at typical GRE scores of the applicants admitted to the schools you wish to apply. This should serve as a range for the scores you should aim to get. Next, you should invest in an official GRE prep book. This will allow you get an idea for the types of questions you will expect to see on the exam as well as the exam format. If you are absolutely unable to buy a book, there are plenty of online resources you could look at. Additionally, some programs at UCSB offer GRE prep scholarships, such as the Edison-McNair GRE Scholarship. Lastly, after you study up for the exam, make sure you get plenty of rest beforehand, for your intuition will your best friend in doing well. Afterward, if you feel you didn’t do that well, you can definitely retake it, although I do not suggest retaking the exam more than 2 times as it is very expensive. For STEM majors, you should aim to get above 85thpercentile on math, a 4 or higher on writing, and your verbal score really doesn’t matter at all.

 

  1. Relax and start early

 

Preparing graduate school applications will take a lot more time than you think. I highly recommend you write some sort of draft for your personal statement around a month in advance. Trust me, it will save you a lot of stress later on, and it will also give you plenty of time to get it reviewed by professors. Lastly, you should take a step back and relax a bit. Think about it—you’ve come this far, and you should be excited that you are preparing for the next big steps in your career. Everything will work out the way it should, and I guarantee you will be happy wherever you go.

 

 

Dorian Bruch is a fourth-year chemical engineering major. He likes to rock climb, play games, and go try new food with friends. He works in the lab of Dr. Glenn Fredrickson on studying the nucleation of block copolymers using computational methods. He really enjoys math, theory, and learning about statistical mechanics and applying it to polymer systems.

Things I wish I knew before I came to UCSB

  1. Sailing: I finally signed up for my first sailing class the spring of my sophomore year. These classes fill up super quickly so by the time my window to sign up for classes opened up, they were already full. If you are interested in sailing (which is super fun), just try to crash the first class even if it is full. Most likely, you will be given an add code. There are also competitive JV and varsity sailing teams as well as community races on bigger boats on Wednesdays during the spring and winter quarters called Wet Wednesdays.
  2. Research internships: I wanted to find an internship for the first summer here but I didn’t know about the opportunities that were available here at UCSB. I ended up working at a hostess for that summer. If you are interested in research and want to be financially support for it, check out SIMS, AIM, GORMAN, EUREKA, McNair, MARC, RISE, FLAM, etc. I am myself a RISE and MARC scholar and these opportunities have allowed me to do funded research for two summers and three academic years.
  3. Massage chairs: One of my favorite places to go to is the career service building where there are massage chairs. They have recently been moved to a building next door but these chairs are next-level relaxing. They help to loosen up my muscles, especially when I am stressed.
  4. Find a mentor: I got really lucky to have found two amazing faculty mentors. They have written me countless recommendation letters and have helped me get into amazing graduate and medical programs. In my opinion, having good relationships with faculty mentors are the most important part of undergrad. Not only can they introduce you to amazing opportunities such as scholarships and internships, their recommendations can help you land that dream job/program.
  5. Adventure program: If you like the outdoors, check out the adventure program. I have gone on some amazing trips with them: backpacking through the Grand Canyons for a week, canoeing the Colorado River, etc. You will meet cool people who might share your interests. They also offer adventure passes for about $50 bucks a year that will let you rent anything from surfboards, wetsuits, camping gears, paddle boards, kayaks, hammock, and more. Currently, I am trying their Wine Tasting class.
  6. Textbooks: Textbooks can be expensive. Don’t rush to buy them until you are sure that you will be taking those classes and that they are needed. You might meet a friend who could find the pdf version. Check to see if you can get them from the library or if you can get them on the Facebook page “Free & For Sale (UCSB)” for cheaper.
  7. Enjoy: It is bitter-sweet that my time at UCSB is coming to an end. I love this town and I wish I had more time to enjoy it before I have to leave. I will keep the memories and the friends that I have made here in my heart. These four years have gone by so quickly but they have been the best years of my life.