The Calm Before The Storm

Summer… How I longed for it’s coming during the academic year. It’s because during summer, as an undergraduate researcher, I could focus more energy towards making research progress instead of expending it on course loads, club duties, and the common stressors of everyday life. This summer, I had been fortunate enough to be involved in the Summer Training Academy for Researchers in the Sciences (STARS) program at the University of California, San Diego, through my participation in the University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced DegreeS (UCLEADS) program. The transition from Santa Barbara to San Diego was smooth, as both had world class researchers, a beautiful campus surrounded by a breathtaking beach, and good, warm sun. Besides the recreational activities, which was fuel to work extra hard for the beauty that life had to offer, I was able to work on a project which could potentially make an impact.

I had been accepted into Professor Ratneshwar Lal’s group in the bioengineering department working on micro- and nano-scale vehicles for drug delivery for the duration of the program. My research involved designing a hierarchical template and fabricating a nano-janus particle which could be used for drug delivery. Micro- and nano-scale particles are of interest because of their tendency to accumulate within inflamed regions of the body. Furthermore, the nano-particles can accumulate without being noticed by P-glycoprotein, the protein that is responsible for multi-drug resistance. We were able to fabricate nano-particles as small as 200 nm, which is small enough to cross the blood brain barrier.

With the end of my summer research program came the calm before the storm. The brief moment of tranquility before the hair-pulling commotion which is graduate school applications. The fun is over now, it’s time to get serious. Step one was to study and sit for the graduate record examination (GRE). This was difficult in itself, because I felt that an exam which primarily measured the speed of which someone can do simple maths, or know ambiguous vocabulary words was irrelevant to graduate school success. Regardless, it had to be done. Once preparation began, it was simple enough to continue until exam day came. Afterwards, checking that box on my graduate school applications to-do list was a great relief alone.

gre meme

Step one was over, and many steps remained: the statement of purpose, contacting potential faculty advisers, the application itself… but those are only the physical steps. There is one step that will continue until the very end. That step is the step where all applicants wonder-am I good enough, am I reaching too high, and why do I even bother?

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Even though these thoughts linger on our minds, we proceed anyways, with slivers of hope to see the words “congratulations” in an official letter of acceptance. It’s in these words that we reconcile with ourselves and break into our happy dance. It’s these words that make every moment of unrest that was involved in the graduate school application worthwhile.

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Friendships and Research

Unlike the rest of my friends living in Santa Barbara, I was unable to enjoy the ocean breeze while tanning on the beach because I was engaged in my research for the last eight weeks. However, I am not disappointed by this because the long lasting memories and friendships I made in the Mitragotri lab have made up for the lack of time I had to soak in the summer sun. Before I discuss my experience in the lab, I would like to talk about me and the research I conducted in the summer.

Like most undergraduates, I entered UCSB unsure about my career path. I always knew that my ultimate goal is to pursue my interest in bioengineering and use the knowledge I gain to help treat diseases. However, the path to achieving my end goal had been unclear until I joined the Mitragotri lab. So what does the Mitragotri lab research? We focus on using nanoparticles as tools for drug delivery, and this summer, I was assigned to see how different shaped nanoparticles can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. For my project, I had two objectives: engineering and categorizing nanoparticles of various shapes (spheres, rods, disks), and identifying the mechanisms these various shaped nanoparticles undergo as they are internalized by the blood brain barrier surrounding the brain. So why is achieving these goals worth bragging about? It’s because by knowing the mechanism of how the nanoparticles are internalized, in the future, we can attach drugs to the nanoparticles along with targeting molecules to treat disease-specific sites in the brain. Through this, we will be able to treat the neurodegenerative diseases more efficiently and effectively. This research has been important for me as it allows me to explore various aspects of bioengineering. The knowledge I am gaining while working in lab is allowing me to be a master in my field of interest so that, eventually, I will make an everlasting contribution to our community.

Although one might argue that I thoroughly enjoy working in my lab because I am conducting research in the area I have always been passionate about, I know that my experience in the lab has been delightful due to the people in the lab. I consider myself to be fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to join this particular lab as it provides me with a nurturing environment, which makes the prospect of continuing research even more exciting. I believe that my research experience in the Mitragotri lab is invaluable due to my mentor, Tyler Brown. For most undergraduates, the lack of a good mentorship drives the undergraduates away from continuing their research.

Me and my grad mentor, Tyler

Me and my graduate student mentor, Tyler

However, characteristics like compassion, enthusiasm, and experience that are present in my mentor allows me to appreciate my current research. Through my experiences with my mentor, I have realized that learning the various techniques in lab is not as important as it is to have someone who will support you through your failures and successes. It is necessary to have someone who recognizes your potential and provides you with opportunities that will help pave the path towards the future, which is exactly what Tyler does. Also, the encouragement I receive from the rest of the members of the lab is priceless as well. Working alongside the graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and undergraduates has been fun since we all are a group of friends who tease each other but also look out for one another. The friendly atmosphere of the lab makes research entertaining and mentally satisfying. Overall, due to my mentor and the rest of the lab members, who all care about me and my future, I can call the Mitragotri lab my second family.

Mitragotri Lab

Mitragotri Lab

The Freedom to Conduct Research Without Being Physically Constrained to a Lab

Without the pressure from the heavy course load during the school, summer has always been the perfect time for me to get more involved with research, reform my lifestyle to restore all the unfortunate damages that I did to my body during the school year due to irregular sleeping schedule or unhealthy diets, and check off my bucket list. Since research has been a major component of my summer, let’s talk about my experience in conducting theoretical research first.

It has been a very interesting experience transitioning from an experimental lab group to a purely theoretical group. Unlike what many people associate scientific research with – wearing a chemical spill proof and ski-mask-like goggles, while tweaking your cutting ledge laser optics setup or cultivating your biological samples in an advanced lab isolated from the rest of the civilization, my research group simply does not perform research in a traditional lab setting. My own “lab” has been my petite yet fully capable 11” laptop. To me, it really is a great privilege to be able to have great flexibility in terms of how and where I could work on pushing advances in my project. My comfortable apartment could immediately be turned into a lab as I wish, and so could a secluded coffee shop, or even a close by beach could be a lab if I really wanted to expose myself to some much needed vitamin D!

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My lab has similar perks to this

Although as dreamy as it would sound to conduct “research” at any beautiful beach that Santa Barbara has to offer, I do appreciate very much that I have an office in our physics department’s main building Broida that my faculty advisor reserved for me. It is where I spent most of my time and having an office where I can concentrate without distraction has undeniably contributed to the progress that I’ve made in my project so far.

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A sneak peak to the kind of data that I work with. Courtesy to the Human Connectome Project. Click on the picture to learn more about Human Connectome Project

Now without getting into the specifics of my own research on network neuroscience, which will be reserved for my final oral and poster presentations, I do want to touch on the new things that I learned regarding research in this summer. This is my third summer doing undergraduate research and, in my opinion and from past experiences, the hardest part in research is not necessary the lab work itself, which undoubtedly could be very tough in various aspects, but the process of bridging your knowledge and insights that you gained in your own project with the existing literature. Depending on your field, the literature could be incredibly rich or in the case of relatively new fields, a coherent and unified school of thoughts could be lacking. It then could be challenging, yet equally interesting at the same time, to form interpretations from your own data, and be able to confidently defend your own data and methods when it’s faced with different results from the literature. As a young student with relatively limited research experience, the process of improving experimental methods and advancing the understanding in the field based on the existing literature is something that I’m still learning. And it is needless to say that it truly is a privilege to be able to contribute new information to the general knowledge to certain scientific fields.

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Saw the beautiful Milky Way when I hiked up to Lizard’s mouth at night

Besides research, I have had the time to be eating way healthier unprocessed food compared to my horrifically nutritionally deficient diets during the school year. Combined with better sleeping schedule and exercising habits, this summer has been a great one and I feel fully charged to take on another challenging, schedule packed fall quarter in a month!

My Life at UCSB

I am Kelly, a visiting UC LEADS scholar from UC Irvine. Here I am, at UCSB, on a beautiful summer day, sitting in a computer lab, thinking about how to write this blog. It is difficult, as words are not exactly my strength.

What do I like about being here, people may ask? Well, actually, a lot of things. Here is a list of whatever I can think of at the moment:

  1. The beach is just about a 30-minute walk away. I can go there often without having to pay for parking nor public transportation. It also a good place to go to if one is stressed.
  2. The lagoon – I just like water in general. Also, there are snowy egrets and all sorts of birds I don’t see every day.
  3. It’s not that hot here. Currently, in August, it’s only 80F; meanwhile in Orange County (where I was born and raised), it’s normally 90F.
  4. It is summer; hence, there are not too many people here.
  5. Living in an apartment with other scholars – while this is normal for the typical college student, I am a commuter who has not had that opportunity yet. I have lived in the dorms in the past 2 summers though, but not an apartment.
  6. Free meal plans
  7. The people in my cohort
  8. My research group

Since I am a scholar, I should also mention my research interests. I am a math major, and my areas of interests include Algebra, Number Theory, and Combinatorics. At my home institution, I have conducted research in Algebra, so here, I want to try out Graph Theory.

Here at UCSB, I am working with Professor Padraic Bartlett and 2 other undergraduate students on how to break “almost-complete graphs” (that is, graphs such that every vertex is connected to almost every other vertex) into triangles. After 7 weeks of reading dense papers, drawing diagrams, counting, and mathematical thinking, we are able to prove this result. Now we are in the process of writing up our proof and revising it.

“That’s cool, but how can you apply this to the real world?” is a common question I, as a mathematician, get. Well, in general, if there seems like no immediate use, then there will be one eventually. That is how it worked with binary numbers, which were deemed “useless” until they were used in computer science. Though for my project specifically, breaking graphs into triangles can be applied to computer graphics.

As for my future research plans, I am not sure yet. I do like the topics given to me, but there might be more out there that will also capture my interest. I’m still currently exploring my mathematical interests.

Greenhouses to Purple Lights; A UCSB Botanist Experience

For the summer of 2015 I have been given the opportunity to be a UC LEADS scholar researching my floral passions in the sunny beach side city of Santa Barbara. Being at UCSB during the summer has been a change from the cavalcade of students going from class to class, though the weather never fails to remained the same. Going to a Univeristy with so many distractions some people might wonder how on earth could somebody go to class when the beach is only five steps into your front yard, or study for a test when there is a plethora of exciting people to socialize with all around in IV or on campus, or be in a lab for 7-9 hrs a day, maybe some weekends, endlessly pipetting countless centrifuge tubes and counting dots on a screen slide after slide after slide when there is a litany of other options in SB. The questions aren’t to hard to answer; It’s fun. It’s not strange to think there are other forms of enjoyment out there, and it just so happens that I enjoy sitting silently looking at pollen grains germinate, and being in awe surrounded by brilliant purple flowers, and learning more and more about such awesome organisms.

My goal throughout my education has been to utilize the knowledge to serve the world in whatever ways that are needed. At the forefront of my service has been to study global warming and provide predictions using experimentation to propel a precautionary  mindset producing sustainable industry and environmental practices. It has been a great honor to be selected by UC LEADS to get a stepping start on my goals this summer by being a part of an evolutionary biology lab with the intent to proliferate cooperation and thought.

I am working in the Susan J Mazer Lab of Evolutionary Biology researching the genetic variations between two sister taxa of angiosperm plants, Clarkia Exilis and Clarkia Unguiculata, in pollen tube growth rate and pollen performance to understand the evolution of mating systems through epistasis with other physiologic genes. The experiment started in the fall of 2015 with ~2000 plants of both species in the UCSB Greenhouses. I have volunteered in the greenhouses before, debugging plants and landscaping with previous experience in other jobs handling delicate seedlings, but I was not quite prepared for what came next. With

Clarkia Ungiuculata

Species from California
Common name: Elegant Clarkia
Photographed on Panoche Road, San Benito County, California

tweezers, an xacto knife, and magnifying glasses we emasculated hundreds buds by carefully plucking small filaments with little red caps, the anthers or pollen producing organ, to assure for no self pollination. Once the white stigmas of the emasculated flowers began to bloom and become fuzzy with tiny papillate hairs we carefully pollinated it with other pollen within the matrix. After 4 hours, we took off the style and preserved it in FAA. It all felt like doing surgery, though thankfully flowers don’t have any blood. All of these styles were then stored for this summer, where an amazing team and myself began preparing them for viewing.

We now count blue dots, callous plugs left behind by germinating pollen grains, every 1mm to determine the rate at which the plugs have been deposited.  It takes quite a long time, and with so many slides being produced each week it becomes a challenge to finish, though through all of it, its worth seeing that big excel chart of data ready for analyzing and screaming for graphs to be made.All of this data will be ultimately used to test the prediction that the outcrossing species of Clarkia will have lower variations in respect to pollen tube growth rates due to selective pressures of competition, while selfing species will maintain a larger genetic variation in pollen tube growth because there isn’t as selective a pathway for competition. The performance of the pollen, tested by how many pollen germinate on the stigma, as we predict, will increase as the pollen tube growth rate increases by epistatic interactions or some other joint mechanism. The goal of the study is not only to perfect the methods for calculating pollen growth rate and pollen performance but to make predictions for the future wildflower populations in the dawn of global warming.

California-water-drilling-boom

Global warming is no longer a fantastical precaution told by just scientists, but an ostensible fact of the 21st century that cant be considered a future problem any longer as violent storms and insane record highs and lows are becoming more and more frequent as the years progress. Sea levels are rising at an incredible pace throughout the world, flooding not only Balboa Island in San Diego every so often, but decimating villages along the coast line or near delta basins. The greenhouse gases have been accelerating in concentration, causing a gradual heating of the earth, and with it a slow drying of fresh water supplies. The changing physiological conditions of earth also inspire further change in the biosphere, an area that has much importance to my research. As wildflower populations slowly die off due to water dehydration, we want to know what will happen to plants that can survive the heat, but don’t have complete tolerance to drought conditions as much as succulents would for example. Our study sets out to understand the possible implications of a warming climate on the physiological characteristics of Clarkia; pollen tube growth rate, pollen performance, style lengths, and petal size and inversely on the mating system. Selfing plants suffer from a depression in genetic variation, where as outcrossing individuals will produce offspring with a variety of genes that subsequently promote sustainability against disease disasters. As the climate warms and pools dry, we expect to see many plants, Clarkia Unguiculata for example, become smaller in size like its selfing sister ,Clarkia Exilis, and express qualities closer to a selfing plant than an outcrossing plant. Our study is discovering if those selfing physical qualities are genetically tied to self compatibility genes either on the same locus or by epistasis interactions to predict the outcome of outcrossing populations in the future of hotter days.

This summer has been amazing outside of the lab as well as I went on a two day seed collection in Sequoia National Forest with my PI. I have always heard about red woods taking peoples breath away, I just never expected such a cliche experience to be so life changing. I felt incredibly humbled by the shear height and volume of this sole organism, while realizing large or small, were all in this whole journey together. Gaining field experience is a lot different than the greenhouse or the lab as its a literal hunt for your data. Keeping eyes pealed is key because its easy to miss a population, and its also simply a shame to miss anything while in Sequoia Forest. It is all a challenging process but seeing all the beauty of the world while making progress is what makes evolutionary and field biology such an amazing career opportunity. The UC LEADS crew has been an amazing eye opener to me as everyone has a prodding mind with interesting personalities that nobody can find anywhere else. Spending time with my colleagues and getting to know their projects deeper and deeper every time we meet, while also reveling in each other successful projects is uplifting and encouraging.

I am having the time of my life in Santa Barbara thanks to the awesome people of UCSB and UC affiliates who have allowed this summer to happen the way it has.