My summer research experience at Surrey + previous research!

Hi! This week I’ll be talking about my summer research project, the experience applying for it and what it was like. I’m not sure how in depth this post will be because most of the summer was sitting around looking at equations and computer code trying to figure out what was wrong and why so the days kind of blur into each other and aren’t particularly exciting to talk about in a general sense (and I doubt most people reading this blog really care about the details).

Around December last year there was an announcement posted on Surreylearn (the online platform we use to see all the course information, homework, etc) saying that the applications for the London Maths Society undergraduate bursaries were open, that the deadline was in February and that if we were interested in applying we should email a specific person inside the department. I said I was interested and mentioned the modules I’ve liked most and general areas of interest and the person said he’d try to match me to a supervisor. A couple of weeks later he said there was a project that might be of interest to me and asked if I’d be interested in talking to the supervisor about it, I said yes and we set up a meeting to talk about it. During the meeting he gave me a bit of the background and explained what I’d be doing, he gave me a paper to read and told me to check out the website for the software package we would be using for the project so I did, decided I did want to do the project and emailed him back to let him know. At that point he sent me a draft of the application and I had to fill out information about me, my course, my grades, my career aspirations, previous research experience, why I wanted to do the project (I can’t remember if there was anything else) and then send that off to my personal tutor for him to fill out a different section. Once that was all filled out the head of the department had to fill out yet another section and the application was sent off. We heard back around May (if my memory is right) saying that the application was unsuccessful, at which point the supervisor tried to get funding from the department instead. The department agreed to fund the project so we settled on a start date (which I stupidly picked right after final exams with just the weekend in between and since I had to move that weekend I didn’t really get any time to recover).

If you don’t want to read my probably boring attempt at explaining the project skip this paragraph! The project I was doing involved a nonlinear partial differential equation called the complex Ginzburg Landau equation which models pulses. Generally you have multiple pulses interacting with each other but since they generally interact at the tail that means the interaction is really small compared to the distance between the pulses so it’s hard to compute the interaction and the dynamics relating to the interactions. The supervisor and a graduate student developed a numerical method to compute a more efficient way to compute that interaction so my role was to actually implement that method using a matlab package called chebfun.

The first day of the project (it was an 8 week project) involved a meeting with both supervisors discussing the background again, the different steps in the project and a rough timeline. Once I understood what I had to do I was given a desk and a computer at the department and I got to work. Most of my time was split between trying to understand the numerical method, the math involved as well as the background and writing and debugging code. Whenever I got stuck I worked on it for a few days and then went to ask the supervisors for help if I still wasn’t making any progress. A big chunk of the project was actually spent trying to figure out what was going wrong and why (as in any research project) so there were a lot of days where I spent the entire day working and trying things out but ended up not making any progress at all, which was frustrating but it made finally figuring it out be even more gratifying. I spent most of the summer working from the postgrad office so it was nice to get to know some of the postgrad students (as well as the other undergraduate research students), it meant I had easy access to people who could help, a computer that didn’t shut down every time I tried to run the code (like my laptop did) and most importantly, air conditioning so I didn’t have to die in the 30C summer weather. I didn’t have strict working hours but I generally went to work anywhere around 7:30-10am (depending on if I could get a ride to the train station and when) and I left around 5. I obviously got paid, so that was nice. At the end of the 8 weeks I wrote up a report with what I’d done and the results of my work and that’s that, for now anyways.

Doing a summer research project was definitely a great experience and I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks they might be interested in research. I definitely hope I can do another summer research project at the end of this academic year and it helped me be even more sure that I want to do both a master’s and a PhD and ultimately do math research.

Now something some of you might be interested on is how it compares to previous research experiences. Before this summer I had done multiple sclerosis research at a lab at UCSF as well as a computational analysis and a yeast chemical modifier screen at a biotech company in San Francisco. My first research experience (the multiple sclerosis one) was definitely very focused on practical skills. Since I was young and lacked any experience most of my time was spent going around the lab and helping different people with whatever they were doing that day – processing blood samples, running gels, genotyping, extracting DNA from stool samples etc. There was also a grad student doing a computational project and he gave me a small sub project to learn how to code, but overall everything I did was just small pieces of large projects that I never really got the chance to see the full picture of (I did sit on lab meetings but it was usually really hard to figure out how what I was doing fit into what was being presented there every week). My second research experience I contacted the company and asked if I could work with them and they agreed to set up a project for me to do in the summer. Since they basically made the position for me rather than the other way around I had a lot of say on what I was going to do (for example I was the one that got the ALS yeast models from the Stanford lab) and how I was going to do it but I also had a lot of supervision. The first few weeks were mostly shadowing so I could learn lab techniques, not all of it was specifically related to the project (for example, I got to do some work with drosophila) and I got to sit on the lab meetings every week which gave me a feel for how they went about troubleshooting problems, progress week by week, how hypotheses were changing and being developed over time and how the different pieces worked together. The computational project was the thing for which I had the least direction, so I had to figure out how to actually do it entirely on my own and I had basically all of the decision making power on it. Once we got the models working I did most of the setting up the screen and scanning the plates over time etc but ultimately the summer ran out before that got anywhere. For the computational project there was promising data (which I got to present at the lab meetings, it was scary but cool) so I ended up working on it remotely the summer I moved to the UK and put together a preprint on it which we uploaded to biorxiv. There’s still more to do, things to fix (a lot more than I first thought now that I know more about the mathematical background) and ways to extend the project but since I’m thinking about going more into the pure math side of things I haven’t done any more work on it since writing the preprint. The project I did this summer has definitely been by far the most clearly defined, outlined and supervised out of all, which made it easier in a way even though the actual work involved was way harder – everything else I’d done before required more patience and knowing the techniques than actual thinking and figuring out what was going wrong so that was a big plus for me. I did miss lab meetings and the research community feel (plus getting to hear about everyone else’s research) and if I’m being honest I loved lab work, I don’t have much love for computer programming. The other big difference was the timeframe, the summer project here was the shortest by far and there’s no way 8 weeks was enough, it’s nice to have a report at the end but it feels like I was just starting to get somewhere and then it was all over.

Anyways, that was my big rant about research projects, I hope it was useful/interesting? And as always if you have any questions shoot us an email!