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.

Research. What is it good for?

A few nights ago, my fellow CSEP scholars and I had dinner with faculty from STEM fields all across the UCSB campus, and we chatted about this very question: what is research good for? From these conversations, I got a lot of insight from people extremely well-qualified to answer such a question. So I am here to share this expert advice so that you may learn these lessons sooner than I did.

There is the more obvious answer to what the benefit of research is: resumé booster. Whatever it is that you want to do in STEM, research experience is helpful. Whether you want to go on to get your Masters, go to graduate school, or go straight into industry after your undergraduate education, previous lab experience, in my opinion, is an unspoken requirement for admission. This was reinforced by a conversation I had with a professor at dinner. He told me that research experience is often used as a filter to narrow down the pool of applicants. Therefore, many smart and capable candidates are not even given a chance—a sad reality. However, this is not done in malice. It is done because the amount of qualified candidates is so large (and growing every year) that they must narrow them down somehow. Now, I am not telling you this story to scare you or to say that those without research experience have no chance of progressing in their careers. I am telling you this as advice to seize all of the opportunities you can so that you are not tossed aside when you really are a smart and capable candidate. Therefore, research in your undergraduate career gives you a leg up, which is nothing but helpful in the competitive world we live in. Many of the skills and techniques that you need in both grad school and industry are taught through lab experience as an undergraduate, such as how to set up, purify, and analyze reactions. You learn what the research process is like and how to move forward when your reactions either do or do not work. It even teaches you what lab culture is like and how to navigate within it. This, among many other reasons, is why previous lab experience makes you a more desirable candidate.

While this may be a good enough reason to jump on board the undergraduate research train, it is not the only or most important answer to why research is good. Research (at all levels) teaches you about yourself. Personally, it has taught me what my passion is and, as a result, what I want to do with my future. It has forced me to carry on in the face of adversity, whether that adversity came from a project failing or from lacking role models for my education. From the people I have met and the experiences I have had, I strongly believe that research helps produce people that are driven and strong, as well as guides them to careers they love. At dinner, Professor Joel Rothman told me that he loved his job and would not want another one, and I believed every word. Not only because of the conviction in his voice but also because of his story. He had taken time off during graduate school and found his way into winemaking. After a few years, he had made it to the top of the winemaking industry. However, once there, he looked around and saw what his future would be like, and he saw a life that could not give him the excitement and gratification that research could. So he went back to graduate school, and although he did not take the typical path to get to where he is, Professor Joel Rothman is now a successful professor, mentor, and researcher. Therefore, I would like to leave you with this remark: while research makes future employers happy, it should, first and foremost, make you happy.

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