NCMIR - visiting from overseas

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NOTE: This page is a daughter page of: NCMIR
Location of NCMIR within the University of California, San Diego

The National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR) is located on the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in California. I visited NCMIR for two weeks in March 2010 - flown over from Brisbane by the director Prof. Mark Ellisman - and have used this page to type notes on the experience. I have tried to type it in such a way it provides useful insight for anyone else visiting NCMIR for overseas (or even another city). I understand NCMIR has quite a few visitors every year.

Visiting NCMIR from Overseas

If you are a US resident you can skip this section, but if you are from anywhere overseas it's important to get a visa and read this section!

Preparing to Visit

At this stage you will have a main contact person in NCMIR. This person will most likely connect you with Jennifer Santos - one of the admin people - to help organize the details of your visit. This may include:

  • Booking and/or recommending your flights.
  • Booking and/or recommending your accommodation.
  • Booking times for you to give any talks (if applicable).
  • Providing you a letter of support.
  • Making sure you have a electronic visa.

Having an electronic visa is the most important step. If you are from Australia, Japan or another trusted country (including most of Europe) on the Visa Waiver Program (see list) this is quite easy. Go to the on the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) website:

Fill in this form and you're done! When they scan your passport at customs they will see your details... but if you are paranoid, like me, you'll also print out the "receipt" just in case it. Your passport must be current and machine readable - the latter refering to a printed pattern under your photo.

What you'll also need for customs is the US address you're staying the first night and a US contact number plus the usual standard contact information: so make sure you write this down. If you don't have a phone number list the lab's number: (858) 534-0276. Finally, a letter of support using the proper UCSD letterhead is a good idea in case they question you. In my case they never asked, but I've provided (as and example) a copy of my letter which Jennifer e-mail me to print here: Image:Ncmir_letter_of_support_visit_example.jpg

I'd also suggest you leave with a piece of paper in your wallet listing a couple of mobile phone numbers of NCMIR people in case you get into trouble, a few maps of the area, and of course your efpos and credit card. There are ATMs all over the place which should take your etpos and generally charge $2-5 US per transaction - not great, but better than using money exchangers at any airport.


Depending where you fly from (and what airlines), odds are you'll come to San Diego International Airport Commuter Terminal via Los Angeles International Airport. Be warned LA airport is huge and chaotic: the lines for customs and check-in can be VERY slow and you'll more-than-likely have to catch a funny-looking bus (you'll probably need to ask staff where to go) to drive you from your arrival terminal (which is probably "TOM BRADLEY INTL TERM") to your departure terminal (which is probably "TERMINAL 4")... and only at the correct terminal will you see your flight displayed. Buses driving across runways and sharing roads with airplanes is something I've never seen before and what scared me even more was how long it takes to get between terminals - add that to long queues and it's VERY easy to miss your flight! From LA you'll probably board a tiny plane with 3 seats per row and after a very short flight you'll arrive in the (much smaller) San Diego airport.

Direction from the Airport

Google-map driving direction from the San Diego International airport to UCSD are here. UCSD (postcode: 92093) is ~15 miles (24 km) north of the airport - ~20 minutes to drive (depending on traffic) or ~2 hrs (six times longer) by public transport! Once you arrive at Gilman Dr inside UCSD, you'll find the main NCMIR lab in the Biomedical Sciences Building - it's on the ground floor "room 1000", with the door on your immediate left as you enter the main automatic glass doors.

If you're not getting picked up at the airport your three main options are:

  • Taxi: ~$40 (+15% tip) - ~20 mins (or double if traffic) (list)... just outside terminal.
  • Shuttle: ~$20-30 ... typically have to book online here but if you ask on arrival you might get luck - the little manned pick-up point is just over the 1st road outside the commuter terminal. You can use group code 556CV for 3 dollars off each way.
  • Public transport: $5 - ~2 hrs .... ask for the $5 all day pass and be warned: you must pay exact change on buses!
Directions from San Diego airport to UCSD via public transport

If you decide to brave public transport you can click and print the diagram above, but this is JUST an aid. What you must do is visit google maps (here), select your time and date (after selecting public transport) and it will show you the best options!

If you arrive on a weekday you'll probably need to catch bus 992 (easy, just outside terminal) or 923 (other side highway) downtown and get off where Boardwalk intersects 4th Avenue (you'll see a tiny pretty park just before on the right just before 4th Ave) then wait for bus 150 on the diagonally opposite corner (see image above). On the weekend bus 150 doesn't run, so you'll have to get off a few streets earlier where Boardwalk intersects Kettner St, go into the "American Plaza Trolley Center" and ask where to board the Blue Line trolley to "Old Town Transit Center" (the same $5 all day pass works for bus and trolley), which is where you'll catch bus 30. Exit bus 150 or 30 at Gilman Dr at the stop pictured. If in doubt most drivers are friendly, so you can ask - if you see you've entered "Torres Pines" state forest you've gone to far!

Getting Around UCSD

Visitor Access and Lockout Hours

Upon arrival at the NCMIR (room 1000), you'll need to ask or walk halfway up the hall to find the administration office and Mark's Office tucked behind it. There someone will take you on a tour to show you the facilities! If you're staying around for a while you'll also be lent a physical key to access the side door and/or a eight digit code from Jennifer (or possible via Vicky) to get into the front door after hours. Room 1000 is unlocked 8:00am-5:15pm - after that it will lock you out and you'll need to punch in your code, but be advised the whole building (the glass doors) get automatically locked on weekends and after 7pm on weekdays, so you'll need to use the side door! If you don't have keys and get locked out you can try (858) 534 7968, but unless someone's near the lab phone you're in trouble!

Getting Around Campus

Map around campus

If you came all this way to visit UCSD make sure you take a few hours to explore! You're best bet is to head to visit the spectacular Giesel Library, and on the bottom floor ask for a map of campus and a "Stuart Collection" brochure which features a 2.5 hr suggested walking tour around campus showing off UCSD's several sculptures and other pieces of art. Yes, it's a big campus, hence the reason there are many UCSD shuttle buses to move students around!

As you explore UCSD the places you absolutely must visit are:

  • Giesel Library - famous library named after Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. "Dr. Seuss" the famous cartoonist of cat-in-a-hat. - features a small display of his cartoons and is worth looking go to the top level for the view.
  • Main Food-court - has a good selection of food and also contains the student services building. Just behind this (Northern side) you'll find a useful bank of ATMs.
  • Cal IT - short for (California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) - a lot of NCMIR employees are on level 3, and may be nice enough to take you on a tour of their fantastic facilities, including huge "walls" (banks of LCD monitors), "caves" (visual displays that surround you) and interactive 3D displays.


If you're coming to NCMIR you might already have your accommodation organized for you, but if not a recommendations will be listed below:

Recommended Hotels

  • Clarion Carriage House Inn Del Mar Inn - Del Mar - This is where I stayed, excellent big rooms with king bed good TV small fridge and even had view of sea. It was a good 30 mins by "101" bus north of UCSD, but beautiful suburb, near shops and little supermarket and gave me good chance to walk along beach on my days off - ~$110 a night (single room).
  • Residence Inn (owned by Marriott) - La Jolla - A visitor called Liz Jurrus stayed here mid 2011 and said was excellent - you get your own studio room. This is about as close to UCSD as you can get - 10 minutes walk to NCMIR via a Gilman drive (see map). Due to it's location it's a tiny bit pricier, but the USCD rate should be ~$160 a night and AAA rate ~$190 a night... and if you're lucky your institute may pay for this. Make sure you don't confuse it with "the Marriott" though (a hotel 30 minutes walk East) - it's merely owned by the Marriott. :-)
  • NOTE: There are several options listed here including hotels like the Marriott (a different one), Sheraton, Hilton, Hilton Del Mar which are close to UCSD, but you can expect to pay more; >$180 a night (single room) for most.

  • Also: Try searching here using (I've made it so it lists cheapest-to-most expensive in La Jolla, but you'll have to enter travel dates).
  • If you're staying for a few months, you can do with my friend Vijay did and contact: US Suite (Corporate Housing San Diego). Through these people Vijay syated at Regents La Jolla (mostly privately owned) on Regents Rd (15 mins walk from UCSD) - for three months, paying about $90 U.S a night (very good for this area) for a king size bedroom, in-house washing machine and dryer, high-speed internet, carpark, and reasonably equipped kitchen, and cable tv.

Recommended Backpackers

For visiting students who want the full "backpacker" experience - a chance to really explore the city and meet fellow travelers:


Getting Around San Diego


San Diego has several taxi companies (most with dodgy websites) - here are a few of the more popular:

Public Transport

Public transport in San Diego includes: bus, trolley (trams) and a few train lines. I found public transport in UCSD was not great - buses were not on time - but the saving grace is that bus times are integrated into google maps - (just select "public transport").

Useful tools:


As of 2010: most buses are $2 per trip or for $5 you can get an all-day-pass covering all bus and trolley (but not train) (current fares here). The trick is you'll need exact change for the bus to feed into the machine. Most important: if you have your own UCSD student or staff card most buses are completely FREE (you just flash the driver your card)!


The bus drivers usually, but not always, shout out the stops and main street names as they approach, so you can pull the cord. I was on one that broke down, but I'm assured that's pretty rare.


The trolley seems like a fun way to get around down-town - if only I could figure it out - take a look at this map of the city center to see what I mean! The only trolley I caught successfully was with other people's help trying to get back to UCSD from the zoo on a Saturday and it wasn't easy. Most San Diego residents drive cars so asking strangers for advice/directions can work, but often they have less clue than you!


If you want to take a trip North you *might* try the train.

  • Pacific Surfliner - Runs from San Diego all the way up to LA. A trip from San Diego to LA takes about 2:20 minutes and runs several times a day. This route terminates at Union Station in Los Angeles. You can use the metro to reach several touristy sights in LA.
  • Coaster schedules - The "Coaster" train is for commuters and runs from San Diego up to Ocean Site (Orange County) (not all the way North to LA sadly), and has several stops, but none near UCSD. While there are no stops at UCSD, there is a UCSD Coaster shuttle that runs between the Sorrento Valley Station to Campus. You can track the shuttle here

Things to do Around San Diego

If you have a few extra days (and hopefully you do!) make sure you take time to explore San Diego! A fantastic site to get you started is:

Here's what I suggest are good things to see:

  • The Beach! (beach map) - You can't leave SD without talking a walk along some of the many beautiful (and varied) beaches! I recommend you start at the (crowded) La Jolla Shores beach then walk south towards the tide pools. There is a region where you'll have to walk along a busy road to get around cliffs, but on the other other side you'll see an awesome colony of seals (fur seals and sea-lions) and brown pelicans... follow it further and you'll come across the famous Seal Rock and "Children's Pool Beach, home to a colony of harbor seals and also much controversy, as shown in this short youtube video. South of that are many beautiful little beaches and rock-pools. North of UCSD and La Jolla the beaches are quite different and only accessible in a few places due to the large escarpment. If you get a chance I recommend walking from UCSD ~20 mins NW to Glider Point at sunset, but it's up to you if you want to walk down the steep escarpment to "Black's Beach" (California's largest nudist beach!). There really is something different to see on every beach! Cost: FREE.
  • Birch Aquarium (website) - A nice little aquarium, worth seeing because it's just a 20 minute walk from UCSD. Unlike the big SD attractions, you'll only need an hour to see everything, meaning I suggest you couple this with a long walk along the beach! Cost: $12 per adult, Open 9-5 daily.
  • World Famous San Diego Zoo (website) - Something you ABSOLUTELY must do (if you like zoos). SD Zoo is in the middle of Balboa Park but be warned, it's deceptively big and has many trails, so you'll want to spend the entire day (at least 7 hrs) to see everything and even with good walking shoes be prepared to get sore feet from walking! There are some fantastic animal displays (eg: tiger, hippo, panda, polar bear) including large areas set aside for African animals, but what impressed me most was how many unusual animals I saw there I'd never seen featured in any other zoo. $37 per adult 1 day (buy online).
  • Balboa Park - Museum (website) - This famous park is hard to get to via public transport, but great fun to walk around and features more museums than you can poke a stick at - so NO you can't do it all in one day! I went to the Natural History museum which was pretty good, but you might chose a different museum! Cost: ~$10-20 per adult depending on what day (some museums are free on Tuesday apparently) and what museum (buy online).
  • SeaWorld (website) - I haven't visited this yet but I'm told it's an excellent day out - some say better than the zoo! Cost: $69 adult 1 day pass.
  • Wild Animal Park (website) - Haven't done, but will definitely have to. It's run by the same organization as the zoo (meaning there can be discounts if you chose to do both), but it's 30 mins drive NE of UCSD. It's 2000 acres, so doing the narrated train is a must apparently. Cost: $37 adult.
  • LegoLand California (website) - Great for kids apparently, but if you don't have children you might want to pass! Cost: $64 per adult, $54 per child 1 day.

That's all the attractions I should list for now (lest I confuse you), but there are definitely many others - especially if you have a car. In my case one of the highlights of my trip was when a friend drove me for a hike in San Juan Capistrano/Cleveland State Forest (map) - my friend is mad keen on mountain-biking - it's not quite as popular are surfing, but it's pretty darn popular.


On this document I have tried to provide help and maps to people wanting to visit NCMIR. Some of the best advice however, will be provided by the friendly group-members of NCMIR who you'll meet. I hope you enjoy your visit, and make sure you take a few days to explore the beaches and visit the famous San Diego zoo! I really enjoyed my own visit.... and now I work there! If you actually need to move to NCMIR, you'll want to visit this page:

NCMIR - moving from overseas

See Also