Making Research Feel Doable

The vocabulary used in describing research often makes it come off as excessively dense and confusing. Which of the following sounds like an easier set of tasks? “For my project this summer, I sat in front of a microscope to pick grains of sand, did some coding, made a bunch of PowerPoint presentations, and also poured vinegar in buckets,” or “I extracted and analyzed microfossils found in sediment samples taken from the Pacific and the Caribbean to gain further understanding of ecological baselines for parrotfish, as well as quantifying the effect of fishing regulations on herbivore populations”? The first one probably sounds a lot more manageable, but both statements accurately describe the research project I undertook this summer.

I remember thinking that research was only for “smart” people, and that I wasn’t qualified to do it in any way until some unspecified point in the future. Who would have wanted me to work in their lab? I hadn’t taken any classes relevant to this project, and while I liked ecology, the last time I had a formal lesson in anything related to marine biology was elementary school! What could I do to be useful in something as complicated as research?

I did not feel confident about my abilities at the beginning of the summer. I didn’t have any experience working with fossils, and I didn’t fully understand the larger context that my project fit into. To my surprise, my project mentor Erin was incredibly patient and accommodating. She understood that I had little experience in anything related to this field of work, and guided me through explaining the importance understanding ancient herbivore populations and linking me several academic papers to read for context. Once I was caught up to speed, my summer project felt a lot more accessible, as I understood the goal of the research and what I could do to contribute with my knowledge, ability, and available time. I was able to start thinking independently about how I wanted to sort and display my data as well as what comparisons and analyses I wanted to make. I didn’t know everything, and certainly felt foolish many times, but feeling stupid and feeling your way through (with some guidance!) is probably the best way to learn in research. (See: http://jcs.biologists.org/content/joces/121/11/1771.full.pdf)


Research can be really slow! When I started the EUREKA summer program, I thought that I would have all this data to show at the end because I would be working full time for two months, but I’ve only managed to get through six or seven samples by the end of this whole process. In order to get a conclusion that’s worth publishing, I would probably need to get through somewhere between thirty and one hundred samples. I’m not trying to say that this is a bad thing, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience to see how much time needs to be put in to move science forward. I feel lucky to have been part of the EUREKA program, as the best way to see the speed of the whole process of research is to see every stage of a study or experiment, and this program gave me a look into that.

In my experiences, people tend to recommend reading departmental websites and research papers before approaching professors to look for opportunities in research. Which is great advice! But sometimes it can seem really daunting because of the complicated language and all the vocabulary words being thrown around. To that I say: understand as much as you can and go for it anyways. You don’t need to know everything that’s going on to get started, because a lot of it will make more sense once you start feeling your way through the process. And I’m pretty sure that professors and graduate students know this, and are willing to help you learn as long as you’re willing to put in the time and effort to honor your commitments and do your best to contribute to the group while also gaining understanding along the way. You absolutely do not need to be a genius or have a 4.0 GPA to begin doing research, it’s just a matter of taking things seriously and getting out there!

The most important thing for getting started in research is to go for it, so the link to the directory for NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates is below! The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a governmental agency that uses taxpayer dollars to pay for academic research in sciences (including social sciences!) and the link below shows programs that use NSF funding to help undergraduates get into research.

Most programs listed occur over the summer, where you get paid to go stay at another college for a little while to do a project. Whether you want to pursue graduate school or not, it’s definitely a great experience that helps you understand the process of research and academia while also getting to travel and live in another place for a bit! It looks great on resumes too, as most of these programs involve a lot of independent responsibilities and public speaking. You do NOT need to be a perfect student or have prior research experience to win these, so get out there and apply if you’re interested!
https://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/reu_search.jsp

Chemistry- Why do we use protection?

I learned to put on my seat belt every time I step into a car, not because it gets me from point A to point B, but because it eliminates some of the risks of being in moving vehicle and sharing the roads with hundreds of crazy drivers. The same principle applies to house insurance, phone cases, door locks, sunscreen, and protecting groups that are used in chemistry. In the past few months, I have been working to develop a protecting technique for a versatile compound known as maleimide. Like a car, maleimide has the potential to do many great things, such as enhancing the development of organic synthesis imaging technology, biomaterials and drug delivery systems. However, unlike how a car can operate without seat belts, maleimide cannot function without a protecting group because it can be too reactive or toxic for direct use in cells or polymerizations. Our research group aims to design a “seat belt” for maleinide so that it can perform its job without damaging other compounds.

Research requires collaboration, innovation, and a lot of patience; all of which I have learned to value these past couple of months. I hope to be able to contribute to the ever-expanding knowledge of science. So much of science is known, but so much more is not.

Researching Independently

The biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone about to get into research is to be prepared to work independently. This was a personal takeaway from the graduate student panel that spoke to interns a few weeks ago. Panelists said a difficult part of transitioning to graduate school was learning to operate with minimal levels of supervision and direct instruction. There’s more expectation to create your own research ideas and experiments, while being able to figure out how to make them all come to fruition. Interns aren’t necessarily expected to operate at this level of independence, but I would say that an undergraduate research experience is the best time to prepare.

This past week has given me a taste of what it’s like to work independently. My mentor was at a conference on the other side of the country to present his research. At first, I was concerned, unsure of what I would do if I faced a major road block. Although I was already accustomed to spending most of my time working alone, not being able to meet face to face at all seemed like it would be a major limitation. This prompted me to plan out the week meticulously, so I could still be as productive as possible.

I started off my week by beginning to write a report on my project in journal format. To begin such a task, I read up on relevant theory through a photonics textbook and other contemporary journal articles. This extra reading allowed me to generate informative figures and summarize the background behind my project. Being able to explain something through writing greatly enhanced my understanding of the topic. I then spent the next few days in the laboratory, both taking measurements, and watching others to see how they handled problems. Finally, when my mentor returned on Friday, we had perhaps our most insightful meeting so far. The extensive preparation I had done on my own, such as reading theory, writing the journal, and troubleshooting problems in the lab helped me make the most of the meeting. We discussed everything I learned, the problems I encountered, and what the remaining weeks of the internship would look like. I now feel that I’ve fine tuned my research work flow and I’m ready to finish the internship strong.

Perks of AIM

One of the great perks of this program is the weekly career development seminars and skills workshops. My personal favorites were the seminars by Professor Schow and Professor Valentine as well as the graduate school panel.

It was very interesting to hear about about Professor Schow’s experience in industry as a researcher versus in an academic institution, as well as how he ended up choosing between schools and different careers. And even though I didn’t understand all of the presentation, Professor Schow gave a great overview of his field and research. For Professor Valentine’s talk, I really enjoyed her emphasis on how random and nonlinear the future could be. She stressed the importance of creating opportunities and asking questions. Overall, it was pretty encouraging to hear that professors too had times in their lives where they weren’t sure or couldn’t choose, especially as I approach the end of my undergraduate education.

The graduate school panel was super helpful in that I got a better sense of what graduate school life is like and there was a ton of great advice. The panel emphasized the importance of flexibility and time management. In addition, they stressed the importance of choosing a good advisor and a healthy lab environment. Being able to ask 6 STEM students about graduate school was a very helpful and eye opening experience!

Overall, my favorite part about all these seminars and panels is learning about the many different ways people ended up at UCSB. Although it’s obvious, it’s always reassuring to remember that there are so many ways to go about one’s career. These seminars and panels also serve as a great reminder that life does not happen 100% according to plan or formula; there are failures and huge moments of uncertainty, along with great opportunities to learn and meet wonderful people.

Feminism Rediscovered

The quintessential Victorian woman was dedicated to her home and husband, and focused solely on raising children. She was respectable and she was not involved in the public sphere. Although this ideology is characteristic of Western women of the Victorian Era, undergraduate researcher Holly Nelson found evidence of American women breaking these gender norms in the late 1800s.

In her senior thesis, Nelson discusses the representation of American women in the 1876 Centennial Exposition and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. These were the first world’s fairs to be held in the United States, and they were a chance for America to demonstrate its industrial power to the world.

In the 1876 Centennial, women were not given a space to present their work with their male counterparts. Undeterred, the women— led by President of the Women’s Centennial Committee Elizabeth Duane Gillespie— organized and fundraised to create their own building, the Women’s Pavilion, that showcased inventions by women. Their actions were controversial at the time because women were not considered a part of the public sphere.

The 1876 Centennial set the precedent for American women to have their own building in the world’s fair, so in the 1893 Exposition, Sophia Hayden, the first female graduate of architecture at MIT, designed the Woman’s Building. 

Nelson argues that despite maintaining a conservative image, in these instances, women were fighting for their right to participate in society. Primary sources that include letters of internal correspondence and speeches revealed how these women wanted to help solve the social and economic problems that plagued American society. They may not have known it at the time, but these women demonstrated feminism in its earliest beginnings.