I have never understood the word research. Sure, it makes sense when you’re in fourth grade and you write a research paper. In that case, you really are going back through the discoveries of others and re-searching them. But when it comes to laboratory research, there doesn’t seem to be anything “re” about it.

I have been working in the USC Water Quality Lab since my sophomore year. For the past two years we have been working on a water filtration project. It was a really exciting project to be a part of, and we even placed first in the USC Undergraduate Research Symposium two years in a row! This year, however, we are changing gears and starting up a new project — this time in alternative energy. Because I came into the last project after it had started, I missed the chaos, confusion, and constant need to reevaluate everything that inevitably surrounds the beginning phases of any good research. This time, I’ve no such luck*.

Last year's filter research

My lab group (3 undergrads and 1 graduate student) has been reading paper after paper, and thinking through every step of the process for more than a month now. We’re itching to get down to business and begin the “real work,” but every time we start to mix solutions or culture algae or de-chlorinate water, something goes wrong and we end up having to reevaluate and start all over.

Today was definitely one of those days. We had been prepping a glass tank to use in our apparatus, and just when we thought we were ready, the bottom of the tank cracked, flooding our catch basin with carefully treated water. Bummer. We were forced to think of all kinds of options — do we repair the tank? If we do repair it, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? What if we don’t repair the tank, and look into using something else instead?

In the end, we decided to go with a different plastic tank. This means a new volume of water and a whole set of new calculations, but also a wealth of new possibilities. In the end, I’m glad things don’t always go as planned. Working as a researcher, I’m forced to think outside the box like an engineer and master new skills and concepts. In return, I get to see new technologies and processes come to life as a result of my work. How cool is that?

Photos of my lab group working last year

*Turns out my “no such luck” is actually really lucky!