When your research results glow

E. coli glowing: Agar plate of E. coli, some with the red fluorescent protein gene

Staring at our plate, my lab partner and I couldn’t help but smile, tears and sweat dripping down our faces.

We had actually done it.

Our teacher had told us this would be a long, hard journey, and that some of us would not be successful. After this week-long quest, we obtained the red fluorescent treasure at the end. We were successful.

Everyone surrounded our plate and us, staring at it in awe as well.

My lab partner looked at me and said, “Our E. coli are literally glowing red! We did it!”

I first realized my passion for microbiology and research when performing a week-long experiment in my A.P. Biology course as a junior in high school. We conducted a bacterial transformation using recombinant DNA technology to insert our gene of interest– a red fluorescent protein gene– in a bacterium, Escherichia coli. As seen in the picture above, this gene allowed the bacteria to, well, glow red! It was a long process that, if not you did not follow the procedure exactly as stated and if you were not paying attention to detail, you would not get the end result.

This short but sweet experiment is a small scale example of what research is like. The process to get to an end result might be long and daunting, but once you get the result, it is like eating that cake after a week of being on a “diet.” I am painting the process as being unenjoyable, but on the contrary, it is full of exciting moments as well and each step encourages you to keep going. Even on setbacks, you learn from them and find new ways to tackle what you were working on.

As I mentioned earlier, my passion for research really started when doing this experiment. I had done other experiments, such as what factors affect the rate of photosynthesis in leaves and understanding the physiology of roly-poly bugs, but none really caught my attention as the bacterial transformation experiment. There are many branches of research that people can go into. You can be in a lab with a microscope, 60 feet underwater in the middle of the Pacific, or in the valley with hiking boots and a large bottle of water. I prefer to be with a microscope and pipette, looking at organisms that are much smaller than I am and understanding their importance and complexity.

Phytoplankton: Different species of phytoplankton collected at the Sea Center

Since there is such a diverse range of research topics, you may not know what you want to go into or what you enjoy most. It is important to try different research areas first. I knew I enjoyed microbiology, but that is still a broad category. I first combined my interest in the ocean with the smallest creatures that live in it: phytoplankton. I was in a laboratory that researched how climate-induced changes affect the physiological and community composition of phytoplankton.

Even though I enjoyed studying phytoplankton, I was drawn more towards the biomedical side of research. I downsized in the organisms I was studying to viruses, which are even smaller and less complex than phytoplankton but have huge impacts on individual people and communities at large.

In general, research allows you to explore your interests while also teaching you patience, new skills, and how to follow a procedure, because trust me, you’ll need to pay attention to all the details in order for your end result to glow as our E. coli did.

Spirited Away (Microbiology edition)

My first experience with undergraduate research has been like one of my favorite movies, Spirited Away. Like the main character Chihiro, I’ve entered into a dreamlike world with fantastic things I’ve never seen before. My parents did not transform into pigs and abandon me like Chihiro’s so I’m not nearly as scared as she was, but I, like Chihiro, initially felt nervous and a little lost.

I entered the spirit world (lab) not knowing a lot about spirits (microbiology, bacterial genetics, lab techniques) and I needed a mentor. Luckily, a post-doc, Zach Ruhe, agreed to guide me. I like to think of Zach as Kamaji, the bath-house boiler man/spider. He has six arms that are always busy in his work, yet he still has given me the chance to work and learn in the lab. I’ve already learned so much from my mentor–how to present ideas, how to express myself in technical writing, how to handle lab skillz with finesse, how to work harder than you think you should, how to play Black & Yellow on Google talk–and I am greatly appreciative.

I also have other helpers in the lab. August, a UCSB 2015 graduate, is a noble role model like Haku. He checks in on me, gives me good advice, and kindly offers zucchini bread snacks to me. Interestingly, Haku and August are both spirits controlled by tyrannical forces: Haku’s being Yubaba, August’s being the medical school application process. My other helper is Jing, a lab technician. I liken Jing to Lin, a sister-like co-worker who comes in from time to time to help out Chihiro and guide her in her journey.

This journey has just begun, but I am beginning to gain more confidence working in the spirit world. The coming-of-age theme of Spirited Away definitely resonates with me through this experience as I’m gaining more responsibility and starting to become a “real” scientist. I’m excited to continue working on our brand new project about antibiotic resistance and I am eager to report back when we’ve gotten more data. Thanks for reading.


Here’s a picture of me slaving away at the lab:

Bianca in the lab