Taking Undergraduate Research to the Next Level
Hands-on learning and mentorship give students opportunities to excel
Stony Brook University undergraduates have excavated ruins in Iraq, traveled to the jungles of Madagascar and navigated the Atlantic collecting marine life — all in the name of science. These experiences are the result of a research-based curriculum that encourages innovation and the University’s focus on mentorship, which pairs undergraduate researchers as early as freshman year with faculty mentors. Through sage advice and hands-on guidance, mentors provide student scientists with every opportunity to excel in their chosen fields and prepare for future careers; they’re nurturing a whole generation of future scientists.
For Shanawaj “Roy” Khair, mentorship has been particularly important for his burgeoning career. Khair graduated from Stony Brook in 2016 with a degree in biology. He got a job soon after in the school’s gastroenterology lab as a research analyst, collecting tissue samples. The professor who mentored him throughout his four-year undergraduate career as his teacher — Ellen Li, MD, PhD, of Stony Brook Medicine’s Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology — continued to mentor him in his professional career as his boss.
The experience students get in terms of teamwork and collaboration is extremely valuable,” said Karen Kernan, director of the URECA program.
Khair is exactly the kind of student Stony Brook attracts: a self-starter who’s passionate about science. While still a high school student, Khair met with local college professors to do research, conducting a small experiment on the relationship between the microbiome and obesity in mice. He would go on to win a Gates Millennium Scholarship — a prestigious award that helped pay for college. Khair could have continued his education at any number of schools, but said he was drawn to Stony Brook because it was such a well-known name in the research community and would give him the chance for in-depth study of the topic he’d found so intriguing.
During his time at Stony Brook, Khair continued researching the gut microbiome under the tutelage of professors and postdocs. His mentors taught him how to publish work — a necessity in the scientific community — and how to conduct a long-term research project.
“My job is to make the paths for students like Roy as easy as possible,” said J. Peter Gergen, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology and another of Khair’s mentors. “They have to step on the gas, but I make it clear where to make the turns. I let them drive through the maze.”
Khair plans to put his education to good use as a physician-scientist, a position that gives doctors the opportunity both to see patients and conduct research. On the advice from his mentors, he is applying to MD-PhD programs and hopes to continue his studies next fall.
“Medical adversity is a common theme in my life, especially coming from Bangladesh, where the medical treatment is not up to par,” Khair said. “My mom and I both have asthma and my dad has diabetes. The process of how medicine works and how it alleviates adversity — I’ve seen that at Stony Brook.”
With so many opportunities to excel and the support of his mentors, Khair will go into the medical profession with a far more extensive background than many of his peers.
A Deeper Learning Experience
The kind of research experience and mentorship that Khair received during his tenure at Stony Brook is commonplace at the University. It’s part of a system that sets up students for success when they leave college and go into the workforce, said Karen Kernan, director of Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URECA) program. URECA involves students from every discipline in research and culminates each year in a celebration of achievements.
“The experience students get in terms of teamwork and collaboration is extremely valuable,” Kernan said. “Research complements what they’re hearing in the classroom. Their understanding of what they’re learning is so much deeper.”
Stony Brook faculty work hard to make sure these research opportunities are offered to the whole student body. During Gergen’s nearly 30 years at the University, the number of students involved in research has more than doubled, he said. “The school has made a concerted effort to involve minority students and students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. And it has worked.”
While incoming students, like Khair, with a solid background in science are commonplace, many come to the school without any research experience at all. Stony Brook faculty quickly bring them up to speed.
“A lot of my friends did research in high school and I couldn’t even imagine that. I came in with no research experience,” said Ioana Soaita ’17, a biomedical engineering major. “I don’t think I’d ever walked into a lab. I didn’t even know what a pipette was.”
Now a senior, Soaita studies the relationship between diabetes and heart disease. In part because her mother has diabetes, she is looking at how fluctuating blood sugar levels in diabetics can potentially cause clogs in the body’s arteries, contributing to heart disease.
Soaita credits her success at the school to her faculty mentors and the support the University has provided in terms of financial aid. In 2015, she was the recipient of a grant from URECA, which offers funding to students with financial need so they can continue their research during the summer. Without that, Soaita said she would not have had the money for housing and transportation.
Faculty also urged Soaita to apply for research positions outside the University, which she said she wouldn’t have done without their encouragement. Looking back, Soaita said she’s amazed at how far she’s come with the help of Stony Brook’s professors and administrators.“
No matter what I choose to do, Stony Brook faculty will support me,” she said. “It shows how far you can come with mentors who want to help.”
Working in an actual lab and seeing people do actual science not only teaches me, but also inspires me,” McTague said. “It encourages me to keep working hard.
Sarah McTague ’18, who’s passionate about marine science, is also grateful for Stony Brook faculty’s mentorship. She said she’s especially appreciative of her mentor Christopher Gobler for his support and tutelage. Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), conducts research on plankton ecology and has given McTague the opportunity to study in his lab, learning the ins and outs of marine science.
McTague has been curious about marine science since her parents took her whale watching as a child. This curiosity blossomed into a full-fledged career path once she decided to attend Stony Brook. Through the marine science club, she heard about a semester at sea program administered by the Sea Education Association and jumped at the opportunity to spend 30 days crossing the Atlantic in a research vessel while studying jellyfish and ocean acidification. Upon her return to dry land, McTague continues to study the organisms that inhabit the ocean. The experience, she said, has increased her interest in the field and solidified her desire to become a professional scientist.
Working in an actual lab and seeing people do actual science not only teaches me, but also inspires me,” McTague said. “It encourages me to keep working hard. It’s a wonderful learning experience.”
All this guidance and research experience is meant to prepare students for future careers — and inspire potential breakthroughs — in science. Stony Brook is well-known for groundbreaking discoveries, such as revealing the cause of Lyme disease and inventing an ultrasound method to speed up bone fracture healing.
Michael D’Agati ’18 is working his way toward joining the ranks of Stony Brook’s scientific superstars. The electrical engineering student is inventing tiny batteries that will stay inside a human body and collect energy that can be used to power everything from a computer to a light bulb. He considers energy to be a broad term, including chemical and mechanical processes such as calorie expenditure and limb movement. He wants to collect it all. The project, if successful, could change the way society uses energy.
“As humans, we produce energy moving on our own, so if you can harness and store this energy, maybe it could be used during everyday activities,” he said.
Advice and attention from faculty with experience in multiple disciplines has given D’Agati the tools he needs to apply his training as an electrical engineer to this unique task. With such an interdisciplinary approach to his studies, D’Agati is able to use his knowledge to work on problems that cross several fields of study, such as nanotechnology and bioengineering.
This approach has paid off — and not only in the lab. D’Agati won a Goldwater Scholarship, an honor bestowed on only 252 scholars nationwide in 2016, which will pay for part of his tuition and expenses.
D’Agati has been involved with Stony Brook faculty since he was in high school, enrolling in programs such as the Simons Summer Research Program, which is open to high school students across the country interested in studying science or math. His mentor, Balaji Sitharaman, director of the Multi-Functional Nano-Biosystems Lab, has been a staunch advocate of his work. Sitharaman said he took D’Agati under his wing, pushing him to learn hands-on research. He also made sure D’Agati had ample opportunity to assist graduate students with their experiments, adding another layer to his education.
“During his entire time in my lab, I have served as his auxiliary faculty advisor,” Sitharaman said. “This included suggesting technical courses that complement his research projects, providing opportunities to co-author conference submissions and peer-reviewed journal articles, and helping him to apply for undergraduate research fellowships.”
D’Agati said the University’s commitment to mentorship is unparalleled compared with other universities, where students have to fight to be heard, and has contributed to his success as a scientist.
Melina Seabrook ’17, who studies anthropology, agrees with D’Agati’s assessment. She said the research community at Stony Brook is relaxed and friendly, which fosters a low-pressure environment in which students can seek out professors for advice.
And the faculty are more than happy to proffer that advice. Elizabeth Stone, a professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Anthropology and Seabrook’s mentor, describes mentorship as the ritual of moving people from student to professional. “It’s a process by which you allow them more and more rope to develop their own ideas and their own direction,” she said. “That is something you don’t get everywhere. [Stony Brook] faculty are more than happy to talk to students about what they’re interested in and what they want to do.”
Seabrook is a go-getter who knows exactly what she wants to do: become an archaeologist.
The senior works with Stone to map archaeological sites, even traveling to Iraq to assist her professor on digs. Seabrook spent 10 weeks excavating pottery, bones and possible amulets used by ancient civilizations, and exhibited a level of dedication that impressed her mentor.
“Melina was really great during the dig,” Stone said. “Her field notes were better than everybody else’s. She paid attention.”
Making a Difference
When students discover their interests, they pursue them 100 percent. Rima Madan ’17, a biology and anthropology double major, traveled to Madagascar in summer 2014 to study healthcare. She said she returned to the United States with a deeper appreciation for science — and her own opportunities at Stony Brook.
“After studying abroad, I realized how fortunate I am to have access to higher education,” she said. “Researching healthcare in Madagascar makes you see the world from a different perspective. When I got back, I was really thankful for all the things I take for granted.”
When I got to Stony Brook, I realized how many opportunities there are,” Rima Madan said. “I have a couple of different mentors, which is really helpful. I was able to grow and learn and build character.
Madan was also inspired to found a club that raises tuition funds so Malagasy children can attend school. She already collected enough to send a young woman to high school. She’s also interested in helping animals in Madagascar and is raising awareness about conservation, with a focus on endangered lemurs.
Madan grew up with a passion for science. Her parents read her stories about Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie and assisted her with simple science experiments. As she grew into a teenager eager to learn, she said it was difficult to find someone who could mentor her and give her the tools to accomplish what she wanted to do. That’s why she decided to go to Stony Brook.
No stranger to science experiments, but new to the laboratory environment, Madan made many mistakes when she first started researching lemurs. But she said that her mentors — among them Distinguished Professor Daniel Dykhuizen in the Department of Ecology and Evolution; Gena Sbeglia, a PhD student; and noted primatologist and Distinguished Service Professor Patricia Wright in the Department of Anthropology — have encouraged her to learn from her mistakes. This advice came in handy after she once did a five-hour DNA extraction only to discover that there was no DNA in the test tube, wasting both time and resources. But she said Sbeglia used the failure to teach her a valuable lesson about what it means to be a scientist and persevere in the face of adversity. The lesson has served Madan well, and she looks back on the incident fondly.
“You’re more likely to accomplish something if you choose to learn from your setbacks instead of letting them hold you back,” she said.
Because of her experience and know-how, Madan already has been accepted to SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, where she hopes to specialize in neurology. She attributes her success to mentors who encouraged her, challenged her and gave her the support she needed to achieve.
“When I got to Stony Brook, I realized how many opportunities there are,” she said. “I have a couple of different mentors, which is really helpful. I was able to grow and learn and build character.”
With such a strong foundation and solid support system, all six students have said they are excited to continue their work in science. As they carry on with their studies and progress within their respective careers, they hope to continue the legacy of Stony Brook, giving back to the community as mentors themselves and taking research to new heights.
Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She’s reported for National Geographic, The Atlantic, NPR and Reuters, among others.View Gallery Watch Video