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I can now say that I’ve finished my first week of work as a research assistant in the Gibbs Lab at Oregon Health & Science University! The lab is focused on the study and synthesis of fluorescent dyes (known as fluorophores) for a variety of uses, ranging from nerve-sparing surgery to visualization of tumors. So my research is very interdisciplinary – I’d describe it as a mix between biomedical engineering and neuroscience and chemistry.
Although this is my first real job—not a neighborhood tutoring gig, not a weekend cat-sitting post, not a summer internship or a part-time lacrosse coach position—it’s far from my first time in this lab. Last summer (or “the summer before COVID,” as I like to think of it), I spent my eight-week internship trying to answer the same scientific question I’m now working to solve as an official employee: what is the protein target of nerve-specific fluorophore Oxazine 4?
Aside from the masks and the fact that our weekly lab meetings are now held virtually, not much has changed in the year or so that I’ve been away. The end goal is still the same: that my findings will pave the way toward gaining FDA approval and making Oxazine 4 available for use in image-guided nerve-sparing surgery—a procedure that would help surgeons avoid severing or otherwise damaging their patients’ nerves in the operating room. Before my internship last summer, I had never heard of, or even thought about, the possibility of intraoperative nerve damage. So I was shocked to learn that it’s a problem that causes pain and/or loss of function for roughly 600,000 patients every year. That simple statistic is what motivated me throughout all of last summer and continues to get me through long days in the lab!
It’s exciting to be back in the Gibbs Lab, to reunite with my former mentors and return to this familiar project! More updates to come, so stay tuned!
4.5E14, 1.2E2, 94, 59…
I sat stock-still with my body contorted in an awkward position, the tingling and prickling of pins and needles in my limbs hardly registering as I fixated my gaze on the screen with intense, sober concentration, for fear that everything would go awry upon the slightest falter.
…32, 1.8, 0.04, 0.0015…
Alongside the pleasant surprise of an acceleration in the numerical descent emerged a growing, albeit subdued, exhilaration. Prior disappointments had conditioned a wariness that prevailed over my innate optimism.
“Come on…just a bit more!” With the solution literally on the brink of convergence, I prayed earnestly, as though sincerity could somehow tame wild and unpredictable digits into acquiescence. And as though in willful defiance, the numbers deviated off trajectory at that critical moment, lapsing into crippling stagnation– the prelude to eventual failure.
To my uninitiated past self, finite element analysis (FEA) seemed fairly straightforward. Just assemble basic geometries to form a three-dimensional model, input some values and leave all the complicated and cumbersome calculations to the software. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turned out, just about everything.
Running an FEA simulation as an amateur is analogous to orchestrating a battle against an ambiguous opponent without even being fully aware of your own capabilities. You cannot bear witness to the battle as it plays out in a virtual arena, only managing to steal glimpses of its progress through less-than-informative error estimates and iteration loggers– the sole basis for you to evaluate and revise your battle strategies.
Worst of all, when you encounter a protracted battle, you’re faced with a difficult choice. Either persist at the risk of wasting more time, or recall your troops and reconfigure a new battle strategy, though potentially letting victory slip away when it is almost within reach. Making an informed decision is well-nigh impossible when so much is shrouded in mystery.
And just when you think you have it all figured out, you are caught unawares by unexpected results that instantly unravel the fabric of understanding you have painstakingly woven, thrusting you back into a helplessly perplexed state.
My experience over the past few months of fumbling in the dark with COMSOL (an FEA software) has been a stark departure from the safe predictability and stabilizing control I am well-accustomed to, but I have gleaned valuable lessons from it.
Identifying the root cause of a failed simulation by analyzing two dimensional cross sections and using a highly simplified model are but some of the strategies I have developed over time to overcome my inexpertise and unfamiliarity with the software. Countless troubleshooting attempts have cultivated courage, resilience and resourcefulness. Trial and error acquired a newfound appeal as I discovered such creative ways to expedite and refine what I hitherto dismissed as a crude and inefficient problem-solving strategy. Perhaps, most importantly, my innate aversion to uncertainty has given way to a thirst for the unexpected and I can’t wait to see what discoveries lie ahead.