Saving Time in Lab

Last semester, I hurried out of MOL lab every week to make it to late meal. This past summer, I hurried out of lab at my summer internship to catch my train home. Now I hurry out of orgo lab to finish my reading for precept.

Whether you are working in a lab for your senior thesis or for an intro science class, every period is a race with yourself to complete your work promptly. The key to finishing early is not rushing through your procedure, but rather working efficiently in the lab.

This summer, I worked at a bioengineering lab on campus researching methods to engineer the metabolic pathways of yeast cells to produce large quantities of target biofuels. Normally, yeast cells produce ethanol during fermentation. My goal was to shift the production of ethanol to other biofuels- such as isobutanol- that have a greater potential to be alternative sources of energy. In this post, I will give tips on how to effectively use your lab time by describing a typical day in the lab at my summer internship.

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Starting New Research: How to Learn What You Don’t Know

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

That is what I was thinking when my summer internship mentor asked me if I had any questions. Having only taken MOL214 and CBE245, I was uncertain about what research at a bioenginnering lab on campus would be like. After attending a lab meeting the first day of my internship, I was overwhelmed by all of the new information I was receiving and thought I would never understand metabolic engineering. By the end of my internship, however, I was working independently and designing my own experiments.

When beginning a new research project, particularly in a new field, getting up to speed can be challenging. But if you approach the project efficiently, you will find that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. These are a few strategies that helped me when I entered my summer internship.

Understanding complex mechanisms was challenging, but these strategies helped me along the way.

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Graduate Student Reflections: Nathan Li

This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Alexandra shares her interview.

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As part of our Spring seasonal series, I interviewed Nathan Li, a first-year graduate student participating in the 5-year PhD program in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE). He completed his undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in Chemical Engineering, completing the Environmental track.

Nathan Li, a first-year graduate student in the CEE department.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 2014, Nathan spent a year working at a startup, and the year after that working in finance. However, he felt that those jobs were not completely aligned with his values—partly, he missed the learning environment of college, but he was mostly concerned about the impact of his work: “I wanted to contribute to science and technology more directly.”

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Building a Cannon for a Class: The Unexpected Opportunity of Open-Ended Assignments

Throughout my academic life, I have always struggled to find a topic for open-ended assignments. Of course, the further along in my academic trajectory I get, the less strict the guidelines for each assignment become—and the more I struggle to find myself a topic. Coming up with research topics is, of course, critical to any researcher or student’s success—particularly when the culmination of our work as Princeton students is a nearly completely open-ended assignment: the thesis or independent project that each of us completes to graduate. So, I have learned to embrace my discomfort and use each new prompt as a way to hone my skills at successfully choosing topics.

My Thermodynamics final project: a butane combustion cannon made from PVC pipe.

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Advice on Reaching Out to Faculty

Sitting in the back of a lecture can make your professor seem distant. Reaching out via email, discussed below, can help you get to know them better.

In my last post, I ended with a suggestion: reach out to faculty members. This post is an assortment of advice on how to go about doing that. More precisely, this post is about how to get in touch with faculty for the first time. Yes, dear readers, today we discuss the joy that is the cold email.

There are several situations in which cold emailing can be in your interest. You might want to get to know the faculty member better, or to do research with them. You might also want their advice on research at other institutions, summer programs, or independent work. Whatever your individual case, however, certain general principles apply when reaching out to faculty.

If cold emails are new or intimidating to you, fear not. The advice contained below will (hopefully) make this menacing task feel much more manageable.

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Break It Down Before Breaking Down

A continuation of my last post, in which I describe my experience starting to work as a research assistant at a Chemical and Biological Engineering lab here at Princeton. My work began in 10th grade and ended early this year.

Several months in, I felt like I was finally getting my footing. I had expanded my knowledge enough that I could understand, and make meaningful contributions to, the research project. I was working on computationally modeling the 3D structure of one of the protein receptors that HIV-1 uses to infect human cells. This receptor can bind either to HIV-1 or to other proteins (ligands), and when these ligands are bound to the receptor, they block the entry of HIV-1. By modeling these structures, we hoped to design a synthetic protein that could block HIV-1 infection by binding to the receptor.

A closeup of some of the sidechains of the protein structure for a receptor and ligand.

A few days after I returned home for the rest of the summer, I opened up an email from my post-doc supervisor and felt my heart skip a beat.

“Please write the introduction for our paper on modeling the structures of HIV-blocking proteins over the next two weeks.”

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45 Days in the Life of a Researcher: An Invaluable Summer

The developmental social neuroscience lab studies how neural changes promote social, emotional, and cognitive development

As early as November of my freshman year, I remember hearing conversations around campus about summer plans. These conversations were not about the anticipation of vacation and relaxation, but rather the frantic and stressful search for the perfect summer opportunity to pad their resumes. It was safe to say that I was freaking out.

But this pressure motivated me to learn about my options, which ultimately allowed me to further explore my interests and participate in an incredibly rewarding research opportunity. After many meetings with my amazing academic advisers and career advisers at Career Services, I secured a position as a research assistant at a developmental neuroscience lab at UNC Chapel Hill.

This position consisted of nine consecutive weeks of unpaid, nine to five workdays, and the occasional shift on evenings and weekends. Sound draining? Yes, but I loved every second of it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of work. But what was so enlightening about the experience was the fact that I actually enjoyed doing the work. I found something I was passionate about and I had the opportunity to engage with it every single day.

The first day was a blur—meeting everyone in the lab, getting familiar with the lab space, moving into my office (my own office!!!), and running around campus collecting my various parking permits and ID badges. After taking care of these logistical details, I hit the ground running.

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Confused in Two Languages: Getting Thrown into the Deep End of Research

During tenth grade, I began working as a research assistant at a Chemical and Biological Engineering lab at Princeton—a project I continued until we published a paper early this year. This lab performed computational research using extremely complicated algorithms. As a tenth grader, I had none of the basic knowledge I needed: no chemistry, biology, or coding.

The 3D folding structures I generated for HIV-1 receptor proteins and their ligands–one of the projects I worked on.

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Water Whispering: Memoir of a Winter in the Lab

February 28. I’m sitting in the basement of Guyot Hall, grinding dried algae with a mortar and pestle.

Vials of algae in the freeze-drier – the first stage of analysis.

At this stage, Caulerpa racemosa, the Green Grape Alga, no longer looks its name. In its natural habitat, Caulerpa’s short stalks bob in the water like clumps of balloons. Its round “leaves” are clustered around the stalks just like green grapes, if grapes were the size of pinheads. But by now I’ve freeze-dried these samples so they are shriveled and stiff, and once I’m done grinding them, the plants are reduced to a uniformly fine olive-green powder.

This is what science looks like for me this winter. It’s not simmering test tubes or even statistics: just the incremental alchemy of water samples and crusty Caulerpa into numbers with the potential to tell a reef’s story.

At a recent job interview, I was asked to talk about the lessons I’ve taken away from my research. One image that came to mind was that of my water samples: the hundred or so bottles that I filled in the ocean in Bermuda, carried back to Princeton in a cumbersome cooler, and spent much of this winter analyzing in the lab. Lined up in the freezer, the bottles are identical but for their labels. These bottles contain the most important data I have – and, for months, they’ve looked exactly like identical bottles of water.

But identical they are not. After many a long lab day, I have numbers to crunch – each bottle associated with nutrient concentrations and nitrogen isotope data that begin to tell the reef’s secrets.  These nutrient data represent the raw materials available to plants and animals on the reef. The isotope data help determine where those raw materials have come from, and what organisms are using them. In my thesis, I am studying how nutrient pollution coming from human sewage changes the geochemistry of Bermuda’s reefs, affecting reef organisms, like Caulerpa, that use those nutrients. This has the potential to shift the ecosystem’s balance: nutrient enrichment puts reef-building corals at a disadvantage, threatening the intricate, biodiverse communities – of anemones and angelfish and everything in between – that corals support.

A set of water samples mid-way through vial injections for isotopic analysis.

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Why I Want to Remember Some Painful Memories at Princeton, Too

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Seniors have been forcibly reminded of graduation by senior checkout, where we’ve had to pick up our cap and gown among a long list of other things. 

I’ve handed in my thesis and my lab notebooks to my advisor. I’ve cleaned up the equipment I’ve piled in the corner of the methane sensor cabinet in the lab. I’ve explained my system, with all its lingering imperfections, to my group members. I’ve told them to give my lab screwdriver a new home.

That was how my time in the Princeton University Laser Sensing Lab came to a close. Graduation seems to be a time to celebrate all our successes, and to (already!) feel nostalgic for the good times we’ve had at Princeton. That’s natural. But after such a long and difficult journey, only remembering where I’ve gone right seems oddly one-sided. I wouldn’t be capturing some of the most important takeaways from Princeton if I only remembered the happy times.

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