“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.

Developing Undergraduate Research Skills Outside of a Laboratory

As I’ve been working in my lab – making new bacterial culture media/buffers, running DNA extractions of bacteriophages, and compiling qPCR data for analysis – I realized that the tasks in lab are very similar to what we do on a daily basis. Whether you are already working as an undergraduate researcher, or if you are hoping to get started, here are some research skills and techniques you could develop outside of the lab as part of your daily routine!

Colin is currently about to enter his third-year working in the Chen Lab

About to enter my third-year working in the Chen Group!


  • Cooking

As a college student, cooking is one of the biggest tasks on my daily ‘to-do’ list. Even though eating at local food stores saves time and effort, I enjoy cooking. Cooking is an awesome opportunity for you to develop your research skills!

Cooking recipe for spicy chicken breasts –

Cooking recipe for spicy chicken breast

Protocols to make PBS buffer, LB, TB, 2xYT, and SB bacterial culture medium

Protocols to make PBS buffer, LB, TB, 2xYT, and SB bacterial culture medium

The way I run experiments in my lab is extremely similar to the way I cook at home. For example, the first time I cooked chicken breasts, I gathered all the ingredients and tools and followed the recipe carefully – exactly the same as following the protocol for extracting viral DNA from my bacteriophage samples. I did not succeed at either on the very first try, but I didn’t give up. It took a couple of failures to make the experiment work – just like it took a few tries for me to get the chicken breast recipe right. The point is, if you continue to practice, you will eventually become an expert at the specific techniques needed for your experiments/cooking.

  • Staying organized

I don’t know about you, but I can’t start studying unless my desk is clean. Staying neat and organized is a key point in research. As you go through your undergraduate research journey, you may forget to label tubes, or misplace or mix up your samples if you don’t pay enough attention to organization. It’s much easier to avoid these problems if you start clean on a daily basis. Your work space at home reflects the degree of organization you will have in the lab!

My desk at home

My workspace at home – a binder for research papers, a clipboard with documents for data analysis

My workspace in lab

My workspace in lab – buffers, tubes with samples, autoclaved pipet tips, and an ice bucket specific for my experiments to reduce contamination








Put on the desk only what you need for that specific task – if you are studying for Organic Chemistry,

A sample entry in my lab notebook on RT-PCR (experiment done on 5/9/2015)

A sample entry in my lab notebook on RT-PCR (experiment done on 5/9/2015)

then you shouldn’t be on your phone! Make sure to label things on your bench and stay organized. For example: since I work with microbes, my samples are extremely sensitive to contamination. To avoid contamination, I autoclave my reagents, tubes, and pipet tips.

It is also very important to get in the habit of annotating and recording your experiments because you never know what will happen in your experiments, even if you think you did everything right. You might need to repeat the experiment a couple months later, when you have forgotten the exact details of the experiment. This is why it is important to practice taking thorough notes in your introductory laboratory courses. In the same way during your daily routine, you could easily develop note-taking skills by making ‘to-do’ lists of your day.

Additional tips: 1) Google Calendar to organize events, lab work, school, etc. 2) Zotero and/or Mendeley to manage and share research papers


  • Building relationships

If you are an undergraduate student, you almost always will be working with a graduate student or a postdoctoral mentor. Besides the time you will be spending on experiments with your lab mentor, it is also very important to develop a personal relationship with them. It is so crucial to develop good relationships with your TAs and your professors because who knows what will happen in the future? Next thing you know – you might be spending most of your day running experiments with the TA that taught you about the basics of chemistry lab techniques. Fun fact: my graduate student lab mentor was actually my General Chemistry (Chem 1AL) Lab TA during my very first quarter in college!

Grabbing lunch with my Principal Investigator, Professor Irene Chen (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

Lunch break with my Principal Investigator, Professor Irene Chen (Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry)

Me at CSEP's dinner with faculty with Professor Joel Rothman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology)

At CSEP’s dinner with faculty with Professor Joel Rothman (Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology)

If you are hoping to pursue graduate studies, and even a career in academia, what better way is there for you to learn about the research path than talking directly to your Principal Investigator (PI) or professors in your college? As an undergraduate, professors might seem intimidating, but many of them are actually very encouraging. I had the opportunity to ask Professor Joel Rothman in the UCSB Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology about his awesome journey to becoming a faculty member at UCSB. I was surprised that he became an expert in the wine making before he became a professor. I also got the chance to go to lunch with my PI, Professor Irene Chen, and to talk about how she began researching about the Origin of Life. It was fascinating and encouraging to hear their stories because they were once an undergraduate researcher like me!

  • Going on walks & enjoying life

One of the biggest advantages we have as UCSB students is that our school is on the beach, literally. It is important to take some time off doing your homework or designing your next experiment, and go on a walk at the beaches nearby. On my walk, I think about life, and how beautifully it was designed for us to enjoy… and where life first began (Origin of Life – main research topic of the Chen Group). For me, the most creative ideas pop up in my mind when I am de-stressing and appreciating the good things that were provided for me!

Taking a walk and enjoying the astonishing view of sunset at Sands Beach, Isla Vista

Taking a walk and enjoying the astonishing view of the sunset at Sands Beach, Isla Vista

The Layers of Medicine: My Summer at Stanford

“Can I get a 5:0 Monocryl and 6:0 Fast Absorbing Gut?” I thought after hearing Dr. Aasi repeat the remark over fifteen times a day through the span of my internship I would get tired of the phrase, but the request was precedent to surgery and watching Dr. Aasi perform surgery was number one on my list of preferred summer pastimes. During the short amount of time I was able to spend at Stanford Medicine shadowing Mohs practitioner and surgical oncologist Dr. Sumaira Aasi, I learned more about the nature of doctors and their teams than I did about the details of medicine. Of course I was intrigued by the effectiveness of Moh’s medicine in removing basal cell carcinomas and the many reasons skin grafts can die after being sutured to an open wound and the exact temperature of liquid nitrogen–all fascinating topics of conversation–but the paramount take away from my summer at Stanford was being able to observe the intricate workings of a hospital clinic.

Dr. Aasi and her team resemble a house of cards. It seems as if they can read each other’s minds, always knowing the whereabouts of every patient’s wandering family members and the next tool Dr. Aasi needs placed in her hand. The team flows, with every factor of the equation solved for. One nurse enters a room as soon as the first exits, the rooms are prepped just in time for the doctor to enter, and the slides are presented at perfect moments between surgeries. There is an unspoken understanding of the way things need to go. My first few days of the observership I was following Dr. Aasi around like a lost puppy, equally befuddled and awed at the clockwork that was their clinic.

The Outside: What Field of Medicine?

Dr. Aasi performs surgeries regarding lesions on the skin that can take the form of basal or superficial squamous cell carcinomas, cysts, lipomas, or keloids. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are skin cancers that are contained in the outermost layer of the skin, the epidermis. The cells on the topmost layer of skin are called squamous cells, which are constantly shedding and being replaced by basal cells, located in a lower layer of the epidermis. Basal and sqaumous cell cancers are most commonly developed from sun exposure and poor sun protection. They are found in areas such as the face, back of the neck, arms, ears, or hands. The most  common type of skin cancer is a basal cell carcinoma, a slow growing cancer that is minimally invasive and rarely spreads throughout the body. A squamous cell carcinoma is less likely but has a higher likelihood of spreading to other parts of the body because it is found in deeper layers of the skin.

The two main surgical procedures to treat these carcinomas are Mohs surgery and excisions. The Mohs procedure is practiced when there is a skin cancer present on visible areas of the face. Mohs is beneficial because it preserves as much healthy skin as possible and keeps scarring to a minimum. This treatment involves subsequently removing layers of skin that contain malignant cancer cells and immediately sending them to the lab for analysis of leftover tumor. If cancer cells are identified under the microscope, the doctor goes back in to remove another layer of the skin, and the process is repeated until there are no leftover cancer cells. Similar to removing a rotten chunk of an apple, the removed portion is tested for residual impurities. The process is repeated until the patient’s slides are all cleared, Dr. Aasi averaging between one to three stages per patient.

An excision surgery is performed when the skin cancer is located in more conservative areas of the body such as the back, chest, or abdomen. The procedure removes a larger portion of the skin and cuts deeper than Mohs procedure. The doctor incises around a predictable margin for the tumor and immediately sutures the incision without waiting for lab results. Then, the sample is sent to the lab and the team notifies the patient of the results in a few days.

The Middle: What I Learned from Watching Surgery

The first surgery I watched was a Mohs procedure on the outer cartilage of the ear. After the nurses numb the area by administering shots of lidocaine with epinephrine, Dr. Aasi enters and incises around the tumored area. She gently holds and lifts the thin layer of skin using a pair of tweezers. Next she makes systematic cuts under the lifted layer of skin and runs them smoothly up the incised area until the entire sample is cut loose. Dr. Aasi also makes two grid-like cuts along adjacent sides of the incision to orient the sample in relation to the patient’s body. These grid marks help her understand what she is seeing under the microscope. The practice seems routine, almost too easy for Dr. Aasi’s experienced hands. Her steady, composed form makes the evidently complex operation seem simple.

The nurses take care of most residual duties such cautery and pressure dressings between stages, while Dr. Aasi is usually out the door and already halfway to the lab before I can even turn toward the exit. After each stage, the clinic sends the sample of skin to pathology where Dr. Aasi sketches the shape of the sample and applies a different color dye to each edge. These preliminary duties help her visualize a general map of the sample under the microscope. By adding the blue, black, and red dyes, Dr. Aasi distinguishes top from bottom and left from right in relation to the sketch, which is always drawn in regard to the patient’s left shoulder. The pathologists flatten and cut the sample of skin into several slides that are put through an automatic dye machine and then arranged for the doctor to read.

The first time I observed Dr. Aasi viewing specimens under the microscope I was baffled at the speed at which she zipped through the slides and made calls to clear the patient. While all the cells looked like identical blobs to me, she was able to differentiate between  the misshapen island cells of a tumor and the sweat glands, hair follicles, nerves, and normal skin cells the body produces. Over time Dr.Aasi taught me how to distinguish the cluttered, island like appearance of cancer cells from the rest of the body’s creations. Usually colored darker than the surrounding areas, they show up in clusters, resembling nests of irregularly shaped cells. If any tumor is seen under the slide, Dr. Aasi determines which area of the original sample the tumor is in based on the grid marks and dye she placed on the specimen. Characteristic of Mohs, in subsequent stages Dr. Aasi removes skin only from areas where tumor is still present, preserving as much healthy skin as possible.

The Inside: The Lessons That Changed How I View Medicine

While Dr. Aasi operates on patients she often strikes up conversations about random yet intriguing topics. We find ourselves talking about how classy the Obama family is one minute and the next Dr. Aasi will be reminiscing her college days and how she actually had to go to the library and read a book to do research. These spur of the moment exchanges characterize my most valuable glimpses into Dr. Aasi’s life. She discloses stories about her career in medicine, ranging from her experiences as an attending, the hardships of adjusting to new hospitals, and some of the scariest moments she’s had in an operating room. These stories inspire through character, they mean something because they make the hospital come to life, and it’s stories like this I hope I’m able to tell someday.

Through my time at Stanford I learned so much more than I thought I would. Not just about the nature of dermatologic surgery, which proves to be a job for a doctor, artist, and perfectionist all in one, but also about the unforeseeable speed at which life moves and the pure joy that comes from being able to help people. From hearing the stories of hundreds of patients and watching the doctor cure their illnesses, I got a firsthand glance into the miracles of medicine. After witnessing the pain and suffering associated with cancer, I was moved by the resilience of patients faced with circumstances beyond their control. I was stirred by the selflessness of doctors and the amazed by the rhythm of hospital clinics. I learned more from this experience than could ever be written in a textbook, urging me to learn by facing a constant rollercoaster of emotions. But most importantly I learned to never forget sunscreen.


A New Research Experience as a Freshman Mechanical Engineer

I have been asked how I got into research so early in my undergraduate career, so I’ll break it down.

Summer 2015: The Summer Institute of Mathematics and Science

The summer before my Freshman year I got an email inviting me to apply to the Summer Institute of Mathematics and science (SIMS). I didn’t know it when I applied, but SIMS was a two week intensive program that introduced research and introductory classes in a condensed and fast-paced way. These short few weeks was my first research experience. Working with Ryan Need and other SIMS students, I melted together iron and germanium to make crystals that have a square shape in their lattice structure. These exhibit a phenomenon called skirmions, which may one day lead to a more efficient way of storing data. What does any of that mean and how do you communicate it in a way that other people can understand? Welcome to research.

Fall 2016: Finding Another Opportunity for Research

I knew after SIMS that I wanted to continue down the research path, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. I went to a couple of seminars that had been advertised, and learned a bit about what research others were doing. I found a couple of projects that I was interested in and emailed the professors. Unfortunately I did not have the experience that they were looking for (understandably). After some other attempts, I emailed Sumita Pennathur essentially asking if I could sit in a corner of lab to observe. She kindly replied that I could attend the weekly group meetings. Yay, I got an in! And after the first few minutes of the first meeting I attended, where one of the lab members presented on their research, I realized that I knew very little as a freshman. All the more reason to pay attention and learn what I could.

Winter 2015-Summer 2016: Gorman Scholar Internship

In winter quarter, the SIMS alumni were recommended to apply to the EUREKA! program, which rewards a stipend to students during 8 weeks of research–in a lab of your choice–over the summer. What a great deal! I applied and got in, actually as a Gorman Scholar, which is a similar program that differs a little when it comes to funding. I emailed my acceptance to Sumita and she was happy to make me an offical part of the lab. So here I am now, a Gorman Scholar Intern, working in Sumita Pennathur’s lab, with Mike Garcia as my graduate student mentor.

The morale of the story is keep trying. Keep emailing professors and graduate students and go to showcases and seminars. Put yourself out there and grow out of your comfort zone. Keep persevering and you’ll make it.