A Surprising Pollutant Discovery During my Trip to Panamá

For many middle and upper-class Americans, going to another country is a vacation. People traveling out of a comparably wealthy place often expect blue skies, crystal clear waters, and cocktails served to them at a poolside bar. However, for lower class travelers and students trying to explore the world, this picturesque scene is often not in the budget. Luckily, this can very often make for a more realistic and wholesome experience when exploring a new place. I think that this may be because it indirectly helps young travelers avoid taking their “bubble” with them when they get off the plane.

Over summer break, my friends and I found ourselves traveling Central America on a tight budget in an effort to gain new experiences and collect ourselves before our senior years at UCSB. We expected to see the bright blue, lionfish filled waters at every beach once we arrived via speedboat at our popular tourist destination: Bocas Del Toro, Panamá. After the thunderstorms cleared, we were in search for a beach close to the main town, and we stumbled upon Istmito Beach. Istmito was nudged at the crossroads of the local cemetery and a low income neighborhood. At first sight, we saw Panamanian kids playing soccer downstream of a small pier, on which european travelers from the hostel around the corner were sitting and sunbathing. However, when we looked closely at the tides of this beach, strangely enough we saw thousands of tiny balls washing within the black waves. We initially thought that what we were seeing were pebbles.

My research here at UCSB in Michelle O’Malley’s lab has always encouraged me to ask more questions and to be curious about things that seem out of the ordinary. This curiosity seemed to follow me outside of the lab in this case.

After visiting this beach and coming back to UCSB, I took a look at a few of these balls and discovered that what we saw and what the kids swam in appeared to be some synthetic fiber. The resources and encouragement provided by my graduate student mentor allowed me to inspect the sample via microscope. After taking a look, it seemed that the balls were composed of cotton or another type of fiber. This fiber originates from humans, rather than my original hypothesis which was that the balls were composed of algae.

This is a less salient manner of pollution compared to what we see on the news: heaping piles of trash in the middle of the ocean and straws inside of sea turtle’s noses. However, seeing this type of pollution at a local beach raises the point that in less developed parts of the world there are all manner of pollution caused by human presence. In this case and possibly many others, we found this pollution within 2 square miles of crystal clear beaches that are often the foci of Instagram posts about paradise. Unfortunately, this pollution often accumulates and affects the beaches next to the homes of people running stores and hostels, since the town is much less concerned with losing money from tourism in these locations.

At the end of this eye-opening trip to Panamá, I came to understand that being an undergraduate researcher at UCSB has instilled curiosity into my continually developing world view. The fact that the world is saturated with questions is exactly the reason why training to become a scientist is a satisfying and endless endeavor.

How a Marine Bio Hopeful Found Herself Working with Parasites

I had come to UCSB with grand plans for marine biology research but flash forward one year, and I’m working in the Parasite Ecology Lab, in a field I had never even considered. In fact, when I was visiting UCSB and a student told me about the parasitology class, my answer was along the lines of, “Parasites? Gross!” And I held to that belief until about the first week of college. I was attending a seminar in the EEMB department, and I was definitely out of my depth, extremely fascinated, and somewhat in awe. While I remember these emotions perfectly, I couldn’t name a single presentation I saw that day, save one. Dr. Armand Kuris gave a talk about using the parasites found in oarfish to determine where this fish lies on the food web. By tracking the life stages of a parasite in different hosts – say oarfish and whale – you could tell which host was eating another host. I had never heard of any parasite research beyond public health, and I had never considered that it could be tied to ecology. I was so fascinated that I had to tell this professor how much I enjoyed his presentation and how exciting I found this research. Apparently, this first conversation went much better than I thought, though I didn’t have much to contribute besides, “That research seems so cool!” (hopefully in a more academic way, but I was nerding out quite a bit). A week later I was offered a position in this professor’s lab. I jumped at the opportunity and have been on that track ever since.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing now if I had never gone to that seminar or voiced my opinion on Armand’s research. Perhaps I would be doing something more marine bio focused, but I might also be the same person who reacted with “Parasites? Gross!”

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.


Biology is as Real as the Life it Studies


STEM majors come in a large assortment — from mathematicians, to physicists, to engineers, to biologists, to doctors. The amount of subdivisions under the STEM umbrella is almost impossible to quantify (but, considering we are STEM majors, of course it’s possible.)

Despite the fact that each field is equally honorable and important in their own right, there remains a hierarchical structure among those pursuing STEM. And which majors are automatically deemed to fall under the lowest possible caste system of science and engineering? The life science majors. The psychology majors. The less quantitative, “soft” science majors.

And why is this the case? Simple. Embedded into our minds is the age old belief that biology, or anything pertaining to the study of life, is qualitative and relies solely on memorization. Between my engineering major friends, there is a joke that goes along the lines of, “Engineering was too difficult for him, so he became a doctor instead.”

While I admire all those who are competent enough to pursue mathematically-intensive professions, let us not bash the ones who helped your mother deliver you as a baby, nor the ones who assessed your head for concussions after a sports-related injury, nor the ones who witness too many deaths and disease-ridden patients for the sake of trying to save people.

I’ve heard counterarguments that engineers can save more lives than doctors merely because they know how to mass produce products — that, depending on what type of product we are referring to, pharmaceutical scientists and biotechnologists help prepare — to the populace, whereas doctors can save only the lives of their patients. But when it comes to life, even just one life is tremendously valuable and deserves to be saved. Don’t you value your life or a loved one’s life perhaps more than the entire population of a country full of strangers? Quality over quantity, ladies and gentlemen. Although preferably, quality and quantity.

Diverging from the clinical side of biology and returning back to the more research-oriented division within biology, the life sciences have, in fact, become more quantitative in this era given how rapidly technology has progressed, and my experiences in a neuroscience lab this summer have only come to reiterate that fact. There are many interdisciplinary aspects to biology now, especially in regards to computer science. The R programming language is useful for ecologists analyzing statistics for a sample and relating their findings to a larger population. In my lab, Python is a wonderful tool for genomics when trying to sort through the millions of base pairs within a single DNA sequence. Electrical engineers may find interesting that biologists do take advantage of multielectrode arrays to map out electrical networks among brain cells. Mechanical and computer engineers can collaborate with biologists to develop artificial organs. Chemical engineers could work alongside biochemists in distributing new pharmaceuticals to target cancer. There doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between math-intensive majors and life science majors. We are all a part of the STEM family, and we function better together than apart.

As a future neuroscientist, I do have to clarify on psychologists. Admittedly, neuroscientists are held in higher esteem because they implement more math than do psychologists. There has also been an irrational rivalry between neuroscientists and psychologists, as neuroscientists focus on the molecular basis of the brain, while psychologists are more interested in the overall function of the brain’s regions. Regardless, they are both interested about the brain. Each play a significant role in understanding the brain, so why are we acting like the Montagues and Capulets? Why despise an enemy who should otherwise be a good friend?

Lastly, to beat down some egotistical arguments (which, if you are a proponent of, you may want to check for hyperactivity in your amygdala, the brain region responsible for emotion): yes, engineers and physicists make more than biologists in this society. We’re aware. No need to rub it in. That’s like if a man were to tell a woman that he’s making $1.00 for every $0.77 she makes, even after the implementation of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Or if a privileged, upper class citizen told a coworker with the same job position that she is making more money because her coworker happens to be in a racial minority group. Football players and actors make more money than combat veterans. Politicians make more money than engineers even after they’ve completed serving their term.

There are many wage disparities that still confound us; however, your salary shouldn’t be how you base your success. Impact. Influence. Happiness. Are you happy doing your job? Are you making enough to support the life you want? How has your work impacted you? Your company? Your country? The world? Will what you are doing influence society, or are all of your efforts just disappearing into the ether?

Engineers are great. Mathematicians are great. Physicists are great. Chemists are great. Geologists are great. Doctors are great. Biologists are great. All STEM professionals are great. All non-STEM professionals are great. We all need one another to function as a healthy society. All I ask, as a life science major, is to not be denigrated or have false assumptions made about my intelligence by the major I chose to pursue.

My research experience in a neurobiology lab this summer and my previous experience in a parasitology lab have made me appreciate biology all the more. We are all trained in our areas of expertise, and I wouldn’t expect a non-biology major to appreciate or want to learn how to reverse transcript RNA into complementary DNA, or manipulate stem cells to differentiate into a brain cancer. That’s okay. What is not okay is belittling the work I do.

Biology is a real science too. And it’s as real as the life it studies.