Bianca Dunn is a fourth year Microbiology major who has a lot of interest in undergraduate research. She began getting involved in research at UCSB because she wanted more from her classes and desired to participate in a more creative approach to biology.
She applied to a program at UCSB called Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC), which provides support and research opportunities for underrepresented students in biomedical and behavioral science. MARC gave Bianca the opportunity to work in a lab while supporting her both financially and academically.
Bianca began working in Professor David Low’s lab in Spring 2015, a bacterial genetics research lab. The Low lab discovered contact-dependent growth inhibition (CDI), which is a way that bacterial cells kill each other through cell-cell contact, and which causes injection of a toxin. Additionally, the lab studies alternative methods used to combat antibiotic resistance. Getting involved in research has given Bianca the confidence to pursue a career in research and has opened her eyes to the many alternative ways you can further educate oneself.
Q&A With Bianca
What led you to pursue research training during your undergraduate program?
I realized early on that I wanted more from my education. The classroom was only one way to learn and I felt that my creativity and inquisitive nature was best suited for research. Both networking and undergraduate research programs helped guide me into gaining a position in a research lab.
What was your typical day like while conducting your research?
It’s hard to describe a “typical” day of research because the work always changes. Research takes many twists and turns and it’s quite unpredictable.
But, I’ve worked on two projects during my time in David Low’s lab and they both involve lots of bacterial genetic techniques. In my first project, I searched for peptides that could permeate the outer membrane of bacteria in order to facilitate the entry of antibiotics into the cell. My current project involves various strategies for the development of pathogen-specific bacteriophage that can target the essential outer membrane protein BamA. For both projects I’ve used bacterial transformation, gene cloning, mutation techniques, mutant selection, and more. These techniques usually involve growing bacteria in some sort of nutrient broth or agar, then working with various reagents to get what you want. All microbiology lab techniques rely heavily on knowledge of biochemistry—basically knowing how compounds will interact with their environment based on their chemical structure.
Who was your advisor? How was your experience working with your advisor?
My advisor is Dr. David Low, who is a phenomenal mentor. Although he has many commitments and leads a very busy life, Dr. Low always makes time to connect with everyone in his lab. He truly cares about everyone’s well being just as much as the progress of the research. It’s been very inspiring working with him because he has an unlimited supply of ideas for the research, which makes the work exciting because there’s always another approach we can take.
Because Dr. Low isn’t in the lab much, I have also received ample guidance from Zach Ruhe, a post-doc in the lab. Zach is insanely knowledgeable about bacterial genetics and I’ve learned a ton from him in the past couple of years.
What surprised you the most during your research project?
I was pretty surprised that my project didn’t work after a year! However, just because I didn’t obtain the results I wanted, I did learn a ton throughout the process. Projects will “fail” but the knowledge you obtain from the failures is just as important as the successes. What doesn’t work, just narrows down what does work.
Where do you see yourself after graduation?
Graduate school for microbiology research is definitely in the cards for me in the next few years, but right after graduation I’m looking to take a little break from school and work as a lab technician. I’m excited to take a little break from school, explore a new city, and work on improving my lab skills. No matter what I end up doing, though, I always want to be involved in science/education outreach and mentoring for underrepresented groups in STEM. I come from a very diverse background and I’ve made it to where I am because of my grandparents who immigrated from China and Mexico. I want to continue helping others reach higher education, the same way I was able to.
Do you have any tips for someone else who may be in the process of starting their own research project?
I think advice always stems from things you’d wish you’d heard in the past, so here are some things I wish I heard when I first started research:
1. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Take baby steps when you’re first starting out. It’s going to take awhile to get used to the lab and the project, so be comfortable in the discomfort. The timing of results is variable, so you can’t always expect success right away. When you mess up, learn but move on. Everyone makes mistakes—that’s expected—but the important part is taking great care to learn what you did wrong.
2. Ask for help! You’re not expected to do everything alone. You’re with some of the most knowledgeable people in the world. Research is a collaborative effort and it requires all kinds of brains. Plus, you have google! Ask google questions. There are millions of things you can figure out from the huge amount of literature out there.
3. Practice writing and presenting your research! These skills may be even more important than the research itself; what is an idea if it cannot be communicated? I’ve felt a much deeper understanding of my projects when I’ve written about them and presented them in front of other people because it helps solidify your ideas and bring them back to the bigger picture.