Researcher of the Month
Biomedical Engineering major, Class of 2011
Research Mentor: Dr. Balaji Sitharaman, BME
Research focus : Use of nanoparticles for tissue engineering and bioimaging
For Yahfi Talukdar, Class of 2011, there's no place like BME! Amidst the vortex of decision-making about the future that goes along with being a graduating senior, Yahfi has stayed resolute, calmly focused on one thing— staying at BME, in the lab he loves!: "I already know the faculty. I know what my interests are. I know I want to work in this lab. And I know I already have some of the skills needed ...So I figure, if I stay in this lab, I’ll probably be able to contribute more." This fall, Yahfi will be continuing on at SB in the Graduate Program in Biomedical Engineering. An enthusiastic member of Dr. Balaji Sitharaman's research group, Yahfi joined the lab relatively late, during winter break of 2010, his junior year. But boy did he hit the ground running. Dedicating many hours to his research, working on a "novel nanoparticle enhanced biophysical stimulus," all the hard work and persistence has resulted in being a co-author on a publication in Tissue Engineering. Yahfi has also been engaged on a second project studying the in-vivo toxicity of gadolinium-single walled carbon nanotubes as MRI contrast probes. When opportunities arose to present his work, Yahfi was there. He has presented at the national BMES conference in Austin, Texas (Oct. 2010); at TERMIS, in Orlando, Florida (December 2010); at Laser Fest -Stony Brook (Nov 2010); at the recent Sigma Xi Northeastern Research Symposium (CEWIT, Stony Brook University April 2011);and the URECA campus wide and Nanotechnology Studies symposia (April 2011). Relecting on his undergraduate experiences, Yahfi is very appreciative of the opportunities he's had, and what research has meant for his education: "I’ve learned a lot more working in the lab than through any of the classes I’ve taken. "
Born and raised in Bangladesh, Yahfi moved to the US in 2006. While at SB, Yahfi has received the Excellence in Research-Undergraduate Recognition award, a SMART grant (2009-2010), and URECA Travel grants (2010); and is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society. Yahfi actively served as a Student Ambassador (2010-present), and also worked for 3 years as a Department of Campus Recreation coordinator/supervisor. On weekends, Yahfi works at CA Technologies, monitoring the security of facilities around the globe using C-Cure and Network Client software. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: What is your research about?
Yahfi: The project I’m working on right now is about developing nanoparticles that increase the contrast of MRI images. I’m using carbon nanotubes with gadolinium, a transition metal. The project that I worked on previously involved bone tissue engineering using a process called photo acoustic effect. When pulsed light hits a surface, any surface, the surface absorbs the energy and it expands a bit, and then contracts. The happens every time it is hit by a pulse of light. When the surface expands and contracts, it produces an acoustic wave. And this acoustic wave has been shown to cause stem cells to differentiate into bone cells. We’ve seen that happen with Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSC). We have previously put carbon nanotubes and gold nano particles in the media and we saw that it enhances the effect—it causes more stem cells to convert into bone cells. So basically for my project, the one that got published, we used scaffolds that had carbon nanotubes in them. We grew MSCs on these scaffolds and stimulated with a pulse laser. And we saw ~a three fold increase in differentiation. That was very interesting!
Congratulations on getting published! You must have learned so much from being involved
in the various stages of the project.
First I had to start with all the planning. That was the most interesting part, and also was very overwhelming at first. You would think all we have to do is stimulate the cells and that’s it. But getting every little thing done, and getting every little thing right, takes time. All those little steps (plating your cells; keeping things sterile; ordering; preparing the media, etc.) take planning. All the materials we use are very expensive too, so we have to be very careful … It actually took a few months to plan the whole thing, and then make sure we had everything right. Then we ran the study, and had 5, 9 and 15-day time points for the photoacoustic stimulation. It was difficult doing this phase, getting the stimulations done, while taking classes and coordinating our time. With the help of Kenneth Shaefer who is a graduate student in our lab and a co-author for the paper, we were able to fit in about 6 hours of daily stimulation in our busy schedule. Then all through last summer, I was working with the data. We had so much data! Then it became all about writing and revising. Finally we ended up submitting the paper in December.
How did you first get involved in the lab?
I was taking a bioimaging class with Prof. Sitharaman. I looked at his website. I looked at the kind of work he did and was very interested. So I asked him about working in his lab. It took some persistence, but Prof. Sitharaman eventually invited me to work full time in the lab last winter, during the break.
Tell me about your mentor.
One thing great about Prof. Sitharaman is that, even though you’re an undergrad, he always treats you as a capable person. He had no problem giving me a big project. He asked me to go right ahead and start planning. And he’s very supportive. He really pushes us to do a lot of the planning, and even the manuscript writing. He encourages going to conferences too. Last spring, after presenting at URECA, Prof. Sitharman suggested: “Why don’t you submit for BMES?” And I ended up going to that conference too, and presented a poster. Later, I applied for TERMIS, in Florida. Prof.Sitharaman was there with me when I went to both conferences.
Do you enjoy presenting your work and going to scientific conferences?
I do! At times, doing the research work can be very tedious. Sometimes when you’re doing one thing, you’re doing it for days by yourself. When I was making slides, I was making slides for 8 hours straight, without any breaks. When I was doing assays, I was doing ~50 samples, day in /day out. That’s all I did. But when you later present it to someone, and they say “This work is great!”—that’s when you realize it was all worth it. That’s the fun of it, seeing the look on someone's face when you tell them about your work!
You’ve had some varied experiences, I imagine --going off-campus for some of the meetings.
I have enjoyed all the conference experiences I’ve had. You can get really motivated from doing presentations, and talking to people. And it helps a lot with the project. You end up getting great feedback from other researchers. BMES and TERMIS were both very specialized and had so many projects related to my work. I even got to meet some of the other scientists who collaborate with our lab. You begin to realize how connected the field is. Over the last two years, I’ve really started to know the different groups that are working on related topics...
What made Sigma Xi so different was that it was a very diverse conference. There were projects from purifying water, to turtles, to a project researching dance and the angle of rotation. It was very interesting at Sigma Xi to see other projects – not just in bioengineering – but in every field. URECA was a great experience too.
What did you like about the URECA Celebration/symposium?
The best thing about URECA is you can see what’s happening around campus. There was even another group working with carbon nanotubes from the Material Science department – working with chitosan to make it more biocompatible. This was actually the second year I was at URECA. And I remember seeing the same project last year. This year they were trying to put silver nanoparticles on top of the chitosan. It was interesting to see how the project was progressing even though the students presenting were different. Looking around at the other projects makes you think: what would I do to make that better? How can I incorporate that in my study? This year I had two presentations in URECA, and I had to present my senior design project in an auditorium. I had never given a presentation with a microphone before. That was somewhat nerve wracking but I think our group did a good job and it was a great experience.
What are your plans, now that you’re about to graduate?
I applied for the PhD program here at Stony Brook. And I did get in..so I’ll be here for awhile!
What made you decide to stay at Stony Brook for graduate work?
I like working in my lab. I like the kind of work we do. And I’m very interested in tissue engineering. So I’ve decided to continue my work in the lab. . . I already know the faculty. I know what my interests are. I know I want to work in this lab. And I know I already have some of the skills needed for working in this lab. So I figure, if I stay in this lab, I’ll probably be able to contribute more. Plus, another thing about Stony Brook is that we have easy access to great equipment at BNL. Our lab already uses the TEM and XRF facility in BNL and with the Center for Functional Nanomaterials, the possibilities for collaboration are endless.
Have you had much contact with graduate students so far as an undergraduate? Do you
have an idea what your life will be like as a graduate student?
I’ve learned a lot more working in the lab than through any of the classes I’ve taken. And I’m around graduate students a lot. I've also been working directly with this post doc, Pramod Avti, who has immense experience. He has taught me so much during the last two years. And all of the other graduate students in the lab and department have been very helpful. The PhD students in other labs have expertise in various techniques. I will shoot them emails and they are very helpful, answering questions. Just being around them, I learned so much! And that helped me decide I want to stay in this lab. Plus, in talking with other graduate students, I know what the commitment is. For grad school, I wanted to make sure I’d be really interested in the work. I can’t imagine working on a project that I am not interested in for five long years! A month or two….maybe. But for a PhD I am certain that I am better off doing something that I know I’m really interested in. That's why I'm so happy to be able to continue working in the Sitharaman lab.
You mentioned just now how much you have learned from research. Do you see a connection
with what you learn in the lab with what you learn in class?
I believe I learned a lot more from research than any class- but at the same time, the classes work together with the research to help you learn. When you’re working in the lab as an undergrad, at first it’s more about just doing this or that protocol. You’re doing it and you may be doing it right but you don’t really understand all of it. Then you go back to class, and they’re teaching the same thing. Then you’re able to see: Now I get it – how I did it, why I did it and why it worked. So it ties it all together.
Biomedical engineering is very diverse. It's a field where you learn to be a jack of all trades. We get to take classes on mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, math, programming, everything. Most of the concepts are theoretical and some of the concepts are difficult to visualize. But if you have hands on experience, it’s just so much easier. If you know how atomic force microscopy works and you've worked with it, or you've worked with biosensors in the lab …it is just so much easier to understand the concepts behind it.
You mentioned the interdisciplinary nature of BME work. Do you see that interdisciplinary
aspect in your own research, in your own lab?
Absolutely. Prof. Sitharaman – he has so many collaborations. For the photoacoustic study that I worked on, I had to go to Prof. Longtin’s lab in Mechanical Engineering since he had the laser setup. He is also one of the co-authors and helped a lot in the study. I learned a lot about lasers, and got to work one on one with him, to train on the laser. I got to meet his grad students and I learned from them as well. For my other project, I was also working with Prof. Schroyer’s lab in Pathology; they have a lot of graduate students there. I learned a lot of the techniques from them while I was working there. The exposure that I got from all these people—different research groups, different collaborators, was extremely helpful. And just the fact that I’ve worked in so many settings has already broadened my education so much. Our lab has collaborators too all over - Maryland, Texas, Canada, Netherlands…everywhere!
You've mentioned that you were determined to do research as an undergraduate while
at SB. Is research what you expected it to be?
Research is not as straightforward as I once thought it was. I’m a regular at the BME lecture series– talks given by visiting professors every other Wednesday. And it’s interesting when visiting scientists start talking about their work in the 70s, and then go on to the 80s…90s…and then they explain what they found last year. One particular project may have over 50 publications and may take several generations of graduate students to make it happen. It can take so much work just to reach one goal, or make a discovery. Or work out even a little piece of the big picture. Before, my understanding of research was: you go to the lab, do an experiment and make a discovery. But it doesn’t work like that. Research is not that straightforward …It’s very time-consuming and and one of the biggest issue is: nothing goes right! Even when you have everything set, and you’ve double-checked every detail, things are still going to go wrong. But you cannot give up. You may do an assay for 6 hours only to mess up the last step…… you have to just go back and start over again.
Is it difficult to have patience during these times?
It is, but I think that’s one of the qualities I have. That’s why I’m in this lab, that’s why I’m working in research. It’s just Persistence. If I fail once– I try again. I will keep trying till I get it right. Persistence is the key to success. Especially in grad school when you’re leading your own projects.
Are you looking forward to this next stage – beginning graduate school?
I’m definitely looking forward to it, I'm very excited actually! I was very happy to get into the program, and happy to be among such qualified peers. I know it's going to be a big challenge. And it is somewhat intimidating, knowing what kind of work they expect from us. But I believe I am ready!
Did you initially come to Stony Brook for the BME program, as an undergrad?
Yes, I was very interested in the practical applications of science and medicine when I was applying to colleges. And the BME department here is great. Professors are very helpful, very open to having undergrads in the labs. And there are great opportunities here, for research, for internships too.
What advice would you give to other students?
For freshmen, I would basically say: be persistent and work hard. Keep trying to get involved with research. Any kind of research is a good experience. So don’t be scared to ask. Just go out and try. Don’t feel intimidated. Don't think you're not good enough. Know what you want. Know that you’re capable and these opportunities are there for you to grab. It’s just sad if you don’t take advantage of the opportunities here.
So Stony Brook has worked out for you?
I love this school. I’m glad that I came here. I like being an engineer, I like being in the field of biomedical engineering. And I love research! . . .As an Ambassador too, I have also had opportunities to work with wonderful people who genuinely care about students. People like Dean Stein made a huge difference in my college life. And one thing I absolutely love about Stony Brook is that the school color is red. Red is my favorite color!