Offbrand Cereal: A Chronicle

It was either the sixth or seventh time I took a shower using hand soap before I realized I was probably doing something wrong. The whole living on my own thing was not going quite as I had planned. Living on roughly $50 a week has been a brutally humbling experience that has altered my appreciation of pretty much everything. Somehow the absence of wifi leaves even the most furnished house feeling like some shack in a rundown shanty. Even without wifi I would settle for just a furnished house, but after sleeping on the hardwood floor for the past three weeks my back has probably suffered the full extent of irreversible spinal damage, so I think I will hold off on buying a mattress for a little bit longer. With my spine in the shape of an S, I hobble from place to place. I had a truck but that was before it died on me, right before I was going to see Finding Dory at the drive in with my friend, Sarina. Bummer. Although it’s not really as bad as it sounds. The past three weeks have been filled with a lot of redeeming upgrades. I no longer eat cereal straight out of the box with my bare hands. Nowadays I eat my tootie fruities (no not Fruit Loops, off brand has quickly become my go to brand) with a fork. My favorite memory though has to be using the open flame from my stove to toast (burn) my bread. Don’t worry Berta I will not burn down your flat, and that reminds me, thank you. As much as my difficulties may disagree, I’m grateful for the last three weeks in their entirety. If I had the ability to opt out and move to the Bahamas, I would still choose to stay in Isla Vista nine times out of ten. Why? Because Isla Vista has quickly become my home in a way I never thought possible. The community here is unmatched. A paradise filled with beach bums and beautifully intelligent people is not supposed to exist, but it does, and I get to call it my home.

Not only have I found my home in IV, but I have also found a pretty stable job out here. For summer sixteen and throughout my second year, I’ll be working in the Daugherty Lab hoping to revolutionize diagnostic medicine. Our goal is to develop a method by which we can use antibodies to diagnose disease. If antibody antigen combinations are specific, and antigens are also specific to their disease then by the transitive property or something antibodies are relatively specific to different diseases. Rather than looking for the foreign invader hiding throughout our entire body, we want to start looking for antibodies, the location of which is more well known. We do this through a process called bacterial display. With a bit of protein engineering, some nutrient filled broth that bacteria like, and some FACs analysis, one day we will reach our goal, hopefully. In reality what I do is a lot of pipetting and a lot of babysitting bacteria. During my short time in the Daugherty lab I came to the realization that the cure for cancer is not locked behind some unlockable door, or even behind some immovable mountain. The cure for cancer is behind hours and hours of pipetting. So until that day I will pipette. I will pipette and I will babysit bacteria and feed them a broth that probably has more nutrients than my current diet. Joking aside research is serious work. It can be seriously fun work too, but at the end of the day there is a goal and there is funding and those are the two most important things in a lab. You can’t work on a project that doesn’t have any funding and you have to make sure you’re always making progress towards the larger picture. Research labs live and die by their ability to earn grants. You could have a Nobel prize worthy project but without any funding it will never come to fruition. I say this not out of any spite but to give a clearer picture of how labs work and what drives them. Money drives research.

Working with Joel this summer has been one of the single greatest most gratifying things I have ever done. This experience has affirmed my desire to pursue an MD/PhD (the degree Christina Yang has, so I’ve been told) and think of research as a life-long career. Genentech here I come. With all that being said, I believe my first blog update has reached its conclusion. I’ll let you know all about interrogating e. Coli and using enzymes to separate and sequence DNA in a future update. For now this is Rafael signing off.

Starting At Zero

My debut in undergraduate research has been (at least in my mind) tumultuous. If I were to condense the experience to something that gets the point across, I would point you to this image:

It'll sort itself out, right?

It’ll sort itself out, right?  

First, some backstory. I am a physics major. While I love the major, I also wanted to pursue some technical skills like coding and knowledge of hardware. That’s why I decided to venture into the field of electrical engineering for my first foray into undergraduate research. Interdisciplinary research is big these days, and lots of physics majors don’t limit themselves to research within just physics. I figured that starting in a different field would be fine. The challenge was finding a way to do so.

The AIM Photonics program helped me with this, introducing me to the Blumenthal group (led by Dr. Daniel Blumenthal). Here I am currently, working on a research project that is heavily based on hardware I’ve heard nothing of before, software programs I didn’t know existed, and programming languages I’ve not learned. In other words, I was a bit out of my element.

I’m liking the challenge. I learn that much more because I knew so little about the tools I’m using. I learn things I wouldn’t normally learn.  At the same time, there are downsides. I feel that I have to learn more than someone who is an electrical engineering major (where they might traditionally study these things). It’s some good parts, and some bad parts.

To that I say, “This is fine.”

And to you reading, know that this is normal. The process of undergrad research demands that you learn about things you’ve never seen. If you’re like me and start your research career in a different field, then you might know even less. That’s where most everyone starts. We spend weeks and months learning more about our projects, our tools, and our fields. It’s normal to find it intimidating- we’re just interns starting out. We don’t have the experience our mentors do.

We’ve got to take it one day at time, and then we’ll grow out of this phase.

A Tale of Two Laboratories

          Perhaps one of the greatest points of contention for a college student is deciding what comes next: academia or industry. Being one of the few fortunate students able to participate in both an internship at an academic neurobiology lab and an internship at a local biotechnology startup company during my spring quarter of sophomore year, I have a few pearls of wisdom for those who do not yet know for certain which type of internship suits them best. And, being a literary art enthusiast who tries her best to entertain herself and her audience when writing blog posts, hereby commences the official entry below:


          It was the best of quarters, it was the worst of quarters. All the while completing the last installation of her introductory biology, organic chemistry, and physics courses, a young girl with an ambition larger than her arms could hold endeavored to continue her work in ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences while exploring the new realms of agricultural chemistry to help solve her village’s strife with quickly rotting produce.
          Girl, as she preferred to be called, had been enticed by the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science and its proposition to cure local and world hunger with their developing product. She believed her skills would be adequate enough to contribute positively to the order of brilliant, young scientists, and adored the impassioned effort each of the members of the order gave. At the same time, she was just as equally passionate about her work in her village’s Laboratory of Neurological Sciences, and could not bear to part with the project that she and her mentor have worked on for a year together.
          After three months of laborious undertaking with both ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences and with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science, Girl had found herself with much insight to document in her personal journal. The experiences had been fruitful and worth her while, but she had noticed very stark discrepancies between the two research positions that had graced her.
          Her work with the village Laboratory of Neurological Sciences involved much less interaction with her fellow laboratory peers, aside from her own mentor and the principal investigator of the laboratory, although the occasional conversation with an expert in a particular laboratory technique was necessary. She appreciated the independence, however, as having a project tied so closely to her name made her feel as though she were the mother of the project, having to attend and care for the project as it matured into a complete research publication with statistical results that can be shared for the rest of the world. In this realm, she was in charge of herself and her surroundings. There was much flexibility with her project, with many forks in the road as experiments fail and succeed. If one result proved that another path must be taken to discover prospective cures for neurodegenerative disorders, she followed the path, even without entirely knowing what may await her at the end. Ultimately, her research success depended on the amount of effort she was willing to put in; the more seeds one planted, the better the harvest.
          Work with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science followed a different pace, although the general requirement of her was to perform productive research on a given subject. In this case, the subject had been organic chemistry in the context of preserving agricultural produce. Unlike with the pathway she followed with her work in ye old Laboratory of Neurological Sciences, there was a specific destination to be reached with the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science. She may take a variety of routes to get there, but she had to get there. Deadlines were more strictly enforced; while this aspect may have deterred some from the prospect of an exponential amount of work, she knew she had a team of close colleagues who were almost always available for assistance when needed. The research was a team effort, and each member served as an appendage to the larger body. Projects were often mandated by the head, but without the proper functioning of each body part, the body could not thrive.
          Two laboratories, both with the interest of facilitating research to be of benefit to the populace. And yet, the two laboratories exist as separate worlds with science being the only foundational similarly between the two. As different as the experiences may have been for Girl, she found many benefits in participating in research in both ye old Laboratory of the Neurological Sciences and the Industrial Order of Agricultural Science. And although she had intended for her journal entry to be a determining factor as to what she hoped to pursue in the future, she found herself no further from where she began. Each option was equally as enticing to her. At this point, she knew not which direction to follow, but knew one thing and one thing alone: that as long as she is contributing to the world of scientific research, she is satisfied.


          Essentially, having both academic and industrial research experience has not really helped me narrow down my professional pursuits after completing graduate school, but the time will come when the decision will make itself apparent to me. (There’s still some time, thankfully.) As for you, reader, who managed to tolerate my awful attempt at a not-quite-story to explain what I believe to be are the major differences between academia and industry, only you can go forth and experience one or the either (or both) and make a decision for yourself. If possible, explore internships in both fields. If given only one option, even if it is the option that you do not believe is the one you are leaning toward, try it anyway. Personal experience insight is valuable, and research, despite what setting, is research.

Finding a Research Position as a Gaucho

A question that has probably been asked by many students, particularly undergraduate students, is “how do I find a research position?” The process of finding a lab position itself contains many important steps that identify and help you make sure the lab you are about to join matches you interests and even personalities. On the other hand, mindlessly joining a lab without considering what you really want as well as what the lab offers can really waste not only your time but also the time of the people from the lab.

The first step in this process, even before looking for potential labs, is to make sure that you know what research is about and it is something you are interested in doing. Sometimes when a person is asked why he/she wants to do research, the answer would surprisingly be, “oh, I don’t know, my friends are doing it.” Or even, “cuz’ it will look good on my resume.” This sometimes indicates that the person does not know what he/she is getting himself/herself into. Even if the person can successfully obtain a lab position at the end, chances are he/she would not be too happy about his/her time in the lab. On the other hand, it can be very rewarding if a person knows what he/she wants and successfully finds a lab that suits his/her interests and personalities. This, of course, requires some time, but the reward is very worth the effort, based on many researchers’ experience.

Next, once you find out research is something you would want to spend time on, whether it is because you have talked to researchers or if you have had certain background or reasons, the next thing is to identify your interests and connect with faculties that are doing the research you are interested about. This can be done either through looking up the professors’ websites or discussing the research topics with the professors directly. Oftentimes talking to the professors directly can be more helpful because of a couple reasons. One is because the website might not always reflect the most up-to-date, accurate information. In fact, if you even want to start your own independent project, talking to the professor is always more useful. Another reason is that even the website might be able to offer a lot of information, having a direct communication with the professor might be more helpful since there are many things that online information cannot offer. For example, what if you find out you actually don’t enjoy having chats with this particular professor after all? However, this is also another reason why you should talk to the professors even if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes you might end up liking the professor so much that you change your mind

There are still many things that can be discussed about when it comes to finding yourself a lab position. However, I think the most important thing is to do what you love. If you don’t like something, don’t do it (even if all of your friends are doing it). Being persistent is also crucial (but not overly persistent – you don’t want to find yourself making enemies with professors.) Lastly, let your passion guide you and you will enjoy whatever it is that you are doing.

Exercise Biology

After switching from a flexible university class schedule to an 9 to 6 work day in lab, there is much less lenience when it comes planning out when one can exercise. Sure, a person could wake up in the wee hours of morning to go for a jog before making breakfast and getting ready for the day. Or he or she could head to the recreation center later at night after working on research conference applications, poster presentations, and PowerPoints. But for the STEM folk who just don’t have the same kind of motivation to stay fit as they do to excel in their field of research, I have devised a daily fitness plan for the scientist or engineer stuck in lab for the majority of the day. The workout happens to relate specifically to interns working in the Biological Sciences II building, but it can very easily be tailored to Engineering II, Chemistry, PSBN, or any other multiple-story structure.

Cardio Warm Up: Bike all the way to the Biological Sciences II building from home as quickly – and as safely – as possible. Brisk jog up three flights of stairs to drop off your items in the main lab. Jog up an additional flight of stairs to collect ice for your reagents. Jog down to the third floor to place your reagents in ice. Continue down to the first floor to get a refreshing beverage from the vending machine because you “unintentionally” forgot a drink to keep you hydrated during your lab-inspired workout routine. Jog up to the fifth floor to replace the media in your stem cell cultures.

When Researching on the Computer: Find a stable desk chair, preferably without wheels. If you only have wheeled desk chairs, make sure the back rest is against something sturdy, like a wall. Lower body such that back makes an acute angle with the top of the back rest, and elevate legs from the floor to create a position with your body resembling a V. Legs do not have to be completely straight to accommodate the laptop to be placed on your lower thighs or knees. Begin lifting up your knees to crunch your abdomen. Repeat for thirty to fifty reps. If the shaking of your laptop as you crunch is too distracting for you to effectively read scientific papers, raise your legs slightly higher than resting position so that your abdomen contracts. Hold for fifteen to thirty seconds. Release. Do at least three sets of desk chair crunches (or V-holds). To target your obligues, adjust body so that knees are pointing either to the left or the right. Proceed with aforementioned movement. Be sure to work both sides.

When Walking Down the Hall or to Another Building to Use Some Kind of Equipment Your Main Lab Does Not Have: Brisk walk. Sure, you’ll look a little foolish for keeping your legs unnaturally straight while trying to move quickly, but your calves will thank you after your eight to ten week-long research internship. Also, keep your abdomen contracted throughout the course of the walk.

Lunch Break: As inconvenient as it may seem, purposefully forget your lunch at home (if you happen to live nearby.) Or take the bicycle trip to Isla Vista to grab some food. That way, you are forced to have to slip in a little bit more cardio in your day; plus, your meal will taste that much better. If you have a busy day in lab or are a commuter, however, skip this step altogether.

Going Back and Forth from Different Floors to Access Different Labs: When going up the stairs, skip at least one step to create a lunge-like effect that will target your glutes and hind thighs. For taller folk, skip two steps.

Arm Stuff: Centrifuge containers are easily the best weights you’ll find in a biotechnology lab considering that they weigh about the same as a prepubescent child. Keep in mind not to lift aforementioned containers above your head, as they really are much heavier than they appear. If someone asks if you can help them carry samples, equipment, ice chests, or boxes to a distant location, do not hesitate to say yes. If at a desk reading articles, kick aside the desk chair and do fifty pushups against the edge of the desk while reading (Note: ensure that the desk can hold your weight.) Repeat for four sets. Mountain Climbers, planks, and other arm-related exercises can also be done in this fashion.

All exercises mentioned above can serve as a framework for a more effective lab-inspired workout that you can build yourself.

(Author’s Note: In actuality, you are far better off not engaging in any tomfoolery while in lab to prevent from equipment damage and poor experimental yields, and instead, commit to a daily exercise routine that you can complete after you finish your lab work. Just as it pays to work hard in lab to see results, working out to see results pays just as well.)