For Josh Kantheria '14, Two Mentors Are Better Than One
Many freshmen arrive on campus with a vague idea of how they want to spend their next four years. Not so with Stony Brook University pharmacology major Josh Kantheria ’14, who reached out to several Stony Brook professors to see if he could begin doing research in a collegiate lab setting during the summer following his sophomore year in high school.
“I wanted to get life experience working in a lab so that if I chose, I could work someday in either medicine or as a PhD,” said Kantheria. “I also wanted to participate in high school competitions while I was getting experience for my possible careers.”
The Farmingdale High School sophomore had all but given up hope of hearing from anyone when his sister Sarah convinced him to try one more time.
Josh took his sibling’s advice, and when he saw Stony Brook University professor Robert Haltiwanger’s webpage on the SBU biochemistry faculty site, he sent email.
“I was terrified that he wouldn’t answer me but he did,” said Josh. Better yet, Haltiwanger wanted to interview the young scientist and followed that up with an offer for him to do research in his lab.
At first, the relationship between the established scientist and his young pupil was purely professional. “I was quite literally shaking in my boots to be in the presence of an accomplished professor,” he said. But what helped break the ice was when Josh saw Haltiwanger at the Three Village Church, where both were parishioners.
Just as Josh learned the importance of persistence when he was seemingly out of options to land a lab internship, he discovered how to persevere in the lab by watching Haltiwanger when the answers eluded him. “He taught me how to analyze a problem, how to take my own initiative rather than just to be spoon-fed information. It made me a much more rational person,” he said.
There was one more critical relationship waiting to be developed before Josh’s academic career at Stony Brook would round into award-winning form — and that was with Dr. Hideyuki Takeuchi, who also became his mentor the summer he joined Dr. Haltiwanger’s lab.
“His dedication to science and incredible skill level were what made the biggest impact on me,” said Josh. “He had a great trick or cool tip to make every experiment work better. He would see connections in the data that would mystify me. I did my best to imitate him.
“The specifics involved understanding how sugars, when added to proteins, alter the signaling affinity of those proteins and the implications of that,” Josh said. “He taught me how to load a gel and set up HPLC, a protein purification tool, for example. He would simplify my protocols, because based on his experience, we would skip various steps.”
It was Takeuchi who proposed the idea of helping Josh with the experiments that led to the publication of an article he co-authored with Takeuchi and other scientists. “Joshua has made a significant contribution to our research, which is proven by our publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry,” said Takeuchi.
“Prior to my research, I thought that the extent of biological relevance of sugars was limited to the attainment of energy by the body and its cells,” said Josh. “My glycobiology research with fruit flies showed me just how complex and interesting sugar chemistry and biology can be,” he added.
Josh also contributed to the Young Investigator’s Review, a student-run academic journal to showcase undergraduate research. He is proudest of an op-ed piece he wrote about his efforts to gain lab experience while still in high school and give advice on how to deal with frustration once he got the chance to do research and that didn’t go smoothly.
His hard-won lessons in stick-to-it-iveness earned Josh a URECA (Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities) award that funded his living and travel costs while he spent the summer conducting glycobiology research.
In 2013, recognition for those efforts came in the form of an Undergraduate Academic Achievement Award. “It meant that there were people who believed in me and nominated me based on my own merit,” he said. Those people were URECA Director Karen Kernan and Haltiwanger, who nominated him in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
How does one make the transition from studying the sugar chemistry of tiny fruit flies to understanding the complex interactions of prescription drugs in the human body? “I want to understand the science behind medicine,” said Josh. “For every drug there has been extensive research to know how that drug works, why it works and why it works for that particular disease. I want to experience every part of the process from bench to bedside when I enter medicine.”
His original Stony Brook mentor, Dr. Haltiwanger, has faith that he will. “Josh is bright and hard-working and shows vast promise as a young scientist. I expect great things from him,” he said.
—Glenn Jochum; Photos by John Griffin