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!

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