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:

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!

“Research is life” isn’t always the way to go

At one of our EUREKA events, we spoke with a panel of grad students about their experiences in academia, and what stood out to me the most was how they all struggled with a research-life balance and “burning out.” I was introduced to this phenomenon this summer, and was actually a bit surprised (and relieved) to hear that they had this problem too.

Full-time research was a significant change from research doing the school year because I didn’t have classes, studying, dance, etc. to divert my attention elsewhere. I snapped back and forth between spending all day at lab and continuing work at home or not working on anything at home and then feeling as though I had wasted all my time. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the internship that I felt as though I found a happy medium, and it was very much a trial and error process, going something like this: “Wow, I feel emotionally exhausted this week; better change some stuff up.” and later “Wow, I feel like I wasted all of my time out of lab; better change some stuff up.” and again “Wow, I feel…” (You get the idea). So probably not the best way to go about finding balance.

Making a clearer work schedule probably would have been helpful, making sure that I spent set amounts of time doing work outside of lab. I found that making plans to actually go somewhere and do something (beyond going to the couch to watch “Game of Thrones”) was helpful. It ensured that I spent some time away from research-related activities while also making me feel like I was keeping busy (although a day of doing nothing was also nice every once in a while).

The trial and error process was pretty rough sailing, but it was perhaps the one of the most valuable experience of this internship. It tested my commitment to research (haven’t we all had the “Am I cut out for this?” moment?) and made me more confident in my ability to accept failure and persist.

The Useful Powers of Office Hours

College can be a confusing time, especially when there’s no clear path towards success. When I was given the freedom to pick my own major, classes, and extracurricular activities, I felt overwhelmed. I entered UCSB as an Environmental Studies major, but I actually had no specific direction for my academic or professional future in mind. In fact, I had applied to other schools as different majors, because I really had no idea where I wanted my life to go during or after college.

I started college worried that I would be unable to do well in school without a larger plan to motivate me, so I decided to go to office hours to hopefully get advice from someone who might have been in my position before. I went to my TA for my Introduction to Environmental Studies class because it was the only class I had that was in my major department, so it would be likely that someone teaching the class would have advice most relevant to me.

I thought that things would be awkward and I wouldn’t learn anything, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my TA, Zoe Welch (pictured with me above this post’s title), was incredibly understanding and insightful. She helped me understand that I can’t really ask someone else what the “right” thing to do is, because that’s something that only I can answer in time.

Looking back, meeting and talking with Zoe was one of the most pivotal things that happened to me in my first year here. The majority of my successes in undergraduate research so far can be traced back to my interactions with her, as she helped me navigate college life, research, and even the majors that UCSB offers.

Zoe also told me about her experiences in graduate school and research, which made me feel much more comfortable about trying to get involved in undergraduate research. This confidence brought me to applying for an internship with the Burkepile Lab at the end of my first quarter, and I’ve worked as an undergraduate research assistant for them for the last six months. That position led me to apply for the EUREKA scholarship and my current work in the McCauley Lab, as I only learned about the scholarship’s existence from a graduate student in the Burkepile Lab. Zoe even wrote the recommendation letter that got me the scholarship, and we keep in touch regularly.

Some of the people working in the Burkepile Lab during Winter Quarter 2017.

Over the last year, I’ve had the luck to to speak with an assortment of graduate students and professors through office hours, lab work, and even mentorship programs. Multiple graduate students here have told me that they started their PhD programs with the intention of pursuing research, then changed gears to focus more on teaching after getting a taste of the ins and outs of academia. I’ve met people who obtained their master’s degrees, then decided they didn’t really love what they were studying and chose a very different for their PhD topic. All of this came to me as a surprise, as I had been under the impression that a person had to be completely assured and confident to succeed in research and academia. It’s really never too late to change when it comes to school, and it’s absolutely normal to be unsure.

The first step is to talk to people you want to learn from; if you’re interested in a certain subject within your field, look up professors and graduate students who study it and send them an email. Professors and teaching assistants are people who exist outside of lecture halls and discussion sections, and many of them are more than happy to help students sharpen their interests and share what they know. Not everyone will be able to assist you, but there are plenty of people at this university who are happy to help, as long as you ask and are willing to listen to what they have to say. You never know what you might find or learn from getting out there and asking questions, so take advantage of being here at this university and talk to people!

Ultimately, you don’t need to have every aspect of your professional future planned out to be successful, even when working in research. It is all but impossible to know exactly where your life will be in a few years, and your interests are likely to change and evolve as you become more aware of possibilities you never could have imagined.

Even after my experiences finishing my first year of college and working in the Burkepile and McCauley Labs, I still lack certainty on what I want to do after college or study for the next three years. But for now, I’m enjoying working in research and being part of a team where we get to use our heads to collaborate and do something that feels like it matters.

The Robot Revolution – Astronomy and Computers

For thousands of years humans have stared at the night sky, naming constellations, telling stories, and making observations about the light of distant stars. Yet, for the majority of that time, astronomers were reliant on what they could glean with their unaided eye. Without a telescope, only about 6,000 stars can be seen from Earth, and from one spot you could only see about a third of those (Bryson).  This is a small fraction of the 1×1024 stars that are estimated to exist. Since the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s, technological advances have gone hand-in-hand with observational astronomy, paving the way for astronomers to look further and create a clearer picture of our universe.

Before this summer, I had thought that observational astronomy consisted of a lone astronomer, or perhaps a team, travelling to be on site with a telescope and staying up all night to adjust the telescopes position and do their observations. Not too long ago, this wasn’t far from the truth. I’d seen images from the Hubble Space Telescope and some other photographs made by professionals and amateurs alike, yet I had no sense of the magnitude of technological advances that had been made in the field.

This summer I began work with the Supernova Group at Las Cumbres Observatory. Amazingly, Las Cumbres Observatory doesn’t actually do any observing on-site. Instead, they manage robotic telescopes around the world that don’t even require a scientist on-site to operate them. This came as a complete shock to me. As far as my role in all of this, I’m not sure quite what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t 8+ hours a day in front of a computer. For interested readers, my daily work schedule looks something like this:

8:30 am: Bike to work

9-5: Work at my computer

5:00 pm: Bike home

Exciting right? The first few days were grueling and frustrating. I had limited experience with programming and working at a computer all day was a big shift from attending classes and doing homework. Yet, the experience has grown on me. It is amazing how much we humans are capable of with a computer at hand.

My current job at the observatory is to create simulations for the new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The LSST will be one of the biggest telescopes in the world, with an aperture of 8.2 meters. (For some suggested names of future large telescopes see In addition, LSST is completely automated, with preprogrammed directions of where to look during its 10 year survey. The telescope will take in 30 terabytes of data nightly (Lerner). In comparison, the entire NASA data set from 1955 to 2000 consisted of only 1 terabyte. There are not enough scientists in the world to sort through all this data manually (and I’m certainly glad they didn’t just decide to leave this job to the interns).

My goal is to take a known supernovae and pretend that if it were at a certain point in the sky on a certain day of the LSST’s survey. Then, try to answer the question of whether we would be able to find it again. The process of getting this code up and running has been an ordeal during which I’ve learned a lot about programming along with the science behind supernovae and the LSST. In the end I would like to be able to run 100,000 simulations for each kind of supernovae, totaling to nearly a million. Even my computer gets a bit tired out after that kind of task!

Supernova are notoriously difficult to spot, lasting only a short time, and nearly impossible to spot with the naked eye. In 1980, only one or two supernovae were discovered each year. With the advent of advanced telescopes and digital photography to record more than the human eye, this number increased to nearly 200 by 2000. As of 2012, astronomers are finding over 1000 supernovae per year (O’Brien).

Thankfully, with the billions of stars there are out there, astronomers are no strangers to big data. In fact, big data and astronomy have been going steady for a while now. However, we’re still looking for ways to improve how we can store and analyze this excess of data. Sometimes, new technology leads to great improvements in astronomy, and sometimes astronomy must push the advancement of technology.


Bryson, Bill. “The Reverend Evans’s Universe.” A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York: Broadway, 2003. 33. Print.

O’Brien, Author Tim. “Supernova 2014J and the Upcoming Deluge of Discoveries.” Professor Tim O’Brien. N.p., 10 May 2014. Web. 08 July 2017.

Lerner, Preston. “July/August 2017.” Discover Magazine. Discover Magazine, 19 July 2011. Web. 08 July 2017.


Sharing My First Research Conference Experience with The Highlanders

UC Riverside and I go way back. Ten years ago, I was an elementary school boy attending a cousin’s PhD graduation commencement at UC Riverside. Now, for the first time in ten years, I come back to UC Riverside to experience in what many researchers do yearly – presenting at a research conference.

SCCUR – Southern California Conferences for Undergraduate Research. It was their Fall Symposium, and I was eager to share the research I have done this summer. As I arrived, I was not anticipating any food to be catered until lunch, yet a simple breakfast was served. This and especially chugging down a cup of OJ were things I needed to kickstart the day.

After checking in, I sat in an auditorium filled with unfamiliar faces. Introducing myself to who I thought were strangers around me slowly became what was like conversations with my lab mates. We conversed about our research, scientific backgrounds, and undergraduate life. The hall gradually declined in volume as a SCCUR Board Member Dr. Jack Eichler welcomed us and officially commenced the conference. Dr. Susan Wessler, the plenary speaker, soon came up and gave a talk about her research on transposable elements. I was intrigued by learning that a big chunk of our genome consists mostly of these transposable elements that have no apparent use, yet research is finding out that they actually do. Her lab tries to decipher the uses of transposable elements, using some similar techniques which I surprisingly know of. That talk had definitely struck an accord with me, © 2016 JUSTIN SU. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.instilling a drive within me to find out more about transposable elements and connect the dots to what I already know.

After listening to presenters give their talks and eating lunch with our two fellow Gorman Scholars, it was showtime. The poster was up; I was hydrated; and people started shuffling into the room. Having a spot near the entrance to the room definitely got many to take interest in my poster. I was enthused to share with everyone interested in my poster, especially those who knew a lot about microtubules. Whenever there was downtime, I would take the opportunity to learn what my neighbors’ projects were and what they researched. Overall, I was mainly busy throughout the entire session – introducing myself, running down key points throughout my project, and even networking with those around me. The environment itself was lively, yet so nostalgic considering this was my first research conference experience.

Reinforcing my point in my first blog post, you do get the recognition, the food, the drinks, and especially the connections. Driving away from UC Riverside was a bittersweet moment, where I felt happy that it happened and sad that it was over. I learned a lot from SCCUR, and I encourage any undergraduate researcher to experience presenting at a research symposium. In addition, this year’s research experience has been extremely educational, and it sure was a summer well spent. I truly thank CSEP for supporting me and my project this year, and I cannot wait to present at the next research conference that will have me.