As a teenager in Santa Barbara, I usually spend my summers relaxing on the beach, going to movies with friends, playing tennis tournaments, or volunteering at the Ty Warner Sea Center. But this summer was truly different.
I received a brochure in the fall for UCSB Summer Research Mentorship Program. The nearest experience I have had with research were my science-fair projects in middle school trying to understand how polluted our creeks are, and all I recall is that it was fun and instructive. Instead of enrolling in the usual summer classes at Santa Barbara City College, I decided to apply to the program.
Little did I know that this would be a life-changing experience. It was an intense six weeks that shook the little I knew about research and myself. I learned a new motto in life: “It is not a quick sprint for money, it is a marathon for life.” Now, I try to apply it almost every day.
The two first days of the program was called orientation but not the kind of orientation day you have in high school where you have lines of anxious students trying to understand their schedule. This time around, we had 65 top-notch PhD research mentors presenting their projects to high school students from all over the world. It was like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance except that we, students, got to pick our research mentors. The program administrators asked us to rank which mentors we would want to work with, telling us not to get our hopes up because we would most likely not get our first choice.
All research topics were cutting-edge, making it even harder to decide. Should I gain insight into what distinguishes humans from animals by studying all aspects of pain? Or should I analyze cancer cells with the hope of contributing to a cure? Or should I figure out what a Higgs Boson is? I came back home not completely confused but not fully decided.
I learned something about myself right there. With so many interesting options, I picked my research less on the field itself but based on the mentors’ personality. Patrick Keeley and Professor Benjamin Reese were the mentors I picked. Their presentations were particularly engaging. Their work centered on studying the mouse retina, a tissue found in the back of the eye. They were part of UCSB’s Neuroscience Research Institute. I had no idea what “studying the retina” meant, not to mention “how to discover patterns in the structure and arrangement of neurons within it.” Even my parents were curious about “studying mouse retinas,” but I explained my rationale.
Soon enough, I had the unique privilege of working in a university research lab. It was Professor Reese Laboratory at UCSB, commonly named Reese Lab. I had had some exposure in high school to lab equipment but nothing compared to that of the Research Mentorship Program. Under Keeley’s one-on-one mentorship, I learned how to use scientific software and instruments to execute research tasks. One of the key activities was dissecting the retina and preparing the tissue for staining.
It was stressful but exciting. During my work on a very sophisticated microscope, every little bit of my movement was projected on a large screen so that everyone in the lab could see. The first time I was so nervous that I kept giggling, which ended up shaking the entire lab table. Fortunately, my mentor calmly instructed me on how to use thte microscope and where to point my tools.
Some days, we did not get any results after hours and hours of preparation. Other days, we got meaningful results. Scientific discovery is not a sprint but a marathon where one needs to be patient, perseverant, and resilient. One of the most counterintuitive facts of research is that there is no predetermined answer to what you are trying to prove. It is a journey of discovery. I learned that, despite working in a sophisticated environment with powerful scientific tools, you cannot assume that your research will come out the way you envisioned it.
There was a capstone to my project that required me to formulate my own research paper, visually presenting my findings on a large poster and presenting it to all the students and parents the very last week. I also had the opportunity to present my work at the Lokey Stem Cell Research Building at Stanford together with other students working in the field of stem cell research. This event was all the more enlightening for me because it reinforced the lesson that science is a long slog, and that the desire for material success can compromise results. From Professor Irving Weissman of Stanford School of Medicine, I learned that you should not rush into your findings just because of commercial pressure but should conduct research methodically because there are lives at stake. In other words, you should not go into research if all that motivates you is earning money.
Last but not least at this amazing UCSB Research Mentorship Program were insightful lectures every Monday night. I had the unique opportunity to listen to talented lecturers, some of them Nobel Laureates, share their backgrounds and oftentimes unconventional paths to research. From topics like quarks to stem cell therapies, I learned something new, gained some understanding of very complex concepts, but more importantly, was encouraged not to follow the crowd but think differently. Should balloons be the new means of exploring planets instead of robots? Should central banks be independent of government? Should teenagers be put into detention centers while their brains are still developing? These were a small sampling of the questions we encountered. I was humbled when Nobel Laureate Fynn Kydland asked me to share my research project and this in itself was an unforgettable experience that I wish any student were able to have before he or she graduates from high school.
When it was time to go back to school again, I was disappointed. I would not see the beautiful UCSB campus every day, and I will no longer see Keeley and the rest of the Reese Lab team for a long while. I knew that school would be very different and that I had to constantly remind myself that it’s not a sprint, but a marathon. As I talked to my relatives about what I did over the summer, they were amazed about what I had done. They told me I was off on a great start and asked me if I wanted to become a neuroscientist. Faced with this question, I reflected that after my summer spent at UCSB, I understood the different paths of knowledge one can take. Once you take a path, you have to follow it, but at the same time not ignore the others you could have chosen. There is something you can learn from each path even if you have not taken it. And so I responded that I was truly only on the first mile of a figurative 26-mile haul.