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.

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: http://jcs.biologists.org/content/joces/121/11/1771.full.pdf)

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!

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.

A Breath of Fresh Air: My Personal Experience and Development as an Intern

I accepted my internship at UCSB expecting not to have much free time. I had never had a full-time job or anything resembling such work hours and so I fully expected to be extremely busy. Work typical hours from 9am to 5pm, come back and cook dinner and the day would pretty much be gone. I was then pleasantly surprised to find I had a great deal of time outside of work to hang out with new friends I’ve met, travel and explore the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, and even relax and work on my hobbies in exercising and reading.

During my undergraduate career I was never the most diligent worker and I constantly had problems with time management and procrastination. I’d find myself going to my classes during the day, then spending the afternoon and evening just dilly-dallying and hoping I would eventually start my homework. The internet is such a great way to waste time and it just pulled endless hours out of me as I opened and closed the same social media sites again and again. I definitely noticed this happening and identified it as a huge problem in my life, and so I vowed to spend significantly less time on the computer as soon as I came to my Santa Barbara. New city, new mentality. And so far I’d say it’s been a huge success!

One of the best things I did for myself the first day of my internship was introduce myself to as many people as possible. I’m currently roommates with another intern from a different program, and that first day I had a decision to attend the welcome meeting that was specifically for my roommate’s program, or to stay in and rest after a long day. Choosing to be more open and meet the rest of his program completely opened me up to a whole new circle of students just like myself. All the other interns have been so amazingly intelligent, social and eager to learn. We’re all in very similar programs and it’s been such a pleasure to connect and grow with the rest of them.

In addition, after my typical 8 hour workdays at UCSB I’ve found cutting back on computer usage completely unclogged my schedule. I’ve been able to go to the gym after work as it’s so convenient and the gym itself is absolutely massive. In the evenings I find myself hanging out with my peers, whether it’s making a good meal, playing pool, or just talking while sipping a good drink. And on the weekends I’m more active than I thought I’d ever be; I’ve been hiking three times and been to four different beaches in three weeks (Arroyo Burro Beach was the best by far!) as well as tried some delicious restaurants on State Street. It’s truly been a blessing to be able to make meaningful contributions in cutting-edge research in one of the most beautiful cities on the West Coast. This internship so far has really helped me develop into a more social, active and independent individual.

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