Honors College, Class of '09, Major: Biochemistry
Scholars for Medicine (B.S./M.D.) Program; Howard Hughes Medical Institute (05), URECA (06, 07) and Beckman Scholar (08-09) Programs
Dr. Steven O. Smith
Biochemistry & Cell Biology
Group photo: Eugene Tan, Jeff Fei, Prof. Robert Haltiwanger, Jean-Luc Chaubard, Avinash Khanna, at the Beckman Symposium -2008
I guess I like two things about it. The first is the community— the interaction that you have with the grad students, with the post docs, with the professors. ... The second thing is that it’s very different than classwork. When you study for classes, everything is laid out in front of you. You just have to know it. In lab, it’s kind of challenging in that …there’s no one ahead of you that paved the road for you.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
Think college students lack structure in their lives? . . . It's all about structure for Jeffrey Fei who has devoted countless hours to research at the Center for Structural Biology under the mentorship of Prof. Steven O. Smith, Director of the Center. Jeff's talent for research has neatly unfolded while determining protein structures, building a strong foundation in research to support his future medical career, and constructing a stellar undergraduate career. Jeff has completed the first half of Stony Brook's Scholars for Medicine program, an integrated 8-year Bachelor's/M.D. program within Stony Brook’s Honors College & School of Medicine, with academic distinction — graduating summa cum laude, with a 3.98 GPA. The 4 years of work in Prof. Smith's lab have bolstered other accomplishments as well: already a co-author on three publications, Jeff is currently at work on his first first-author publication.
Jeff recently presented "Structures of Phospholamban in Membrane Bilayers" at the Beckman Symposium in Irvine, California (July 09). He's also presented posters at the annual URECA Celebration for the past 3 years. Jeff's dedication to and potential for research has been recognized with a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Fellowship (05), the URECA Summer Research program awards (06, 07), and the premier Beckman Scholars Program award (08-09) which provided over $19,000 in funding from the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Foundation. Jeff was also a 2008 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar; and, in 2009, was honored with the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence and the SBU Provost Award for Academic Excellence.
At home in the Stony Brook environs long before he started as an SB undergraduate, Jeff attended Nassakeag Elementary School, R.C. Murphy Jr. High, and Ward Melville High school (all in the neighboring Three Village School District). Jeff participated in the INSTAR program directed by Dr. George Baldo; and as a high school junior, began doing research in university labs at Stony Brook's Department of Pharmacology with Prof. Holly Miller. In 2005, Jeff was named an Intel Semifinalist, an Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) Finalist and a National Merit Finalist. Jeffrey Fei was born in China, and resided in Toronto in his early years prior to moving to Long Island. Below are some excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: How did you get involved with research at SB?
Jeff: My mom started as a technician here at Stony Brook way back—when I was in 4th grade. She used to take me to a lab in the hospital during work sometimes during the summer because I was too young to stay home alone. Later on, when I was in the INSTAR program directed by Dr. Baldo, I started contacting labs in my junior year of high school at Ward Melville. There’s a big focus on SB University because of the proximity. I joined a Pharmacology lob with Prof. Holly Miller. I did Intel. I spent most of the time working with yeast— doing knockouts, PCR, basic molecular lab work.
How did you find your current lab, and your current mentor?
Prof. Holly Miller had left Pharmacology the year I graduated. That why I had to find a new lab in my freshman year here. So I sent out a couple of emails to a bunch of professors, and Steve [Prof. Smith, Dept. of Biochemistry] was one of the first ones to get back to me. I checked professors’ websites, looked at research summaries, picked the ones I thought were interesting. This was before I took a single bio course. So I didn’t know a lot of stuff.I didn’t know anything about bio actually!
But some of the topics Steve was looking at—Alzheimer’s disease, a lot of GPCRs (G-protein coupled receptors, very big drug targets)…just reading that was very interesting to me. That was why I picked the lab.
Have your responsibilities in the lab changed or developed over time?
There was a sort of trial period, just to make sure that I fit in. I did a lot of miscellaneous stuff with other students. But after a couple of months, after I started to fit in the lab, Steve kind of portioned out my own separate project which involves studying the structure of phospholamban. It’s a protein involved in regulation of cardiac cells. That became my Beckman research project. By now, I think he views me more as a grad student than an undergrad, especially since I’ve been in the lab so long now. I‘ve been there longer than half of the lab.
What’s kind of funny is that I sometimes am the one —even though I’m just an undergrad — to teach the new grad students when they come in for a rotation. (I find though that the new grad students' technique soon surpasses mine though because they’re in the lab much more than I am!)
What do you like most about lab work?
I guess I like two things about it. The first is the community— the interaction that you have with the grad students, with the post docs, with the professors. And the support network is amazing. It’s really very different than what you have in classes and study groups.
The second thing is that it’s very different than classwork. You have to figure out everything yourself. When you study for classes, everything is laid out in front of you. You just have to know it. In lab, it’s kind of challenging in that …there’s no one ahead of you that paved the road for you. So when you do something unexpected, or when some unexpected result comes out of it . . . it’s sometimes hard to make something out of it. You don’t know, for example, if the structure really is like that—or there’s some outside factor that affects it and it’s an anomaly. It takes a lot of time piecing together what the story is as opposed to in class, where they tell you what the story is. That probably is the most challenging part.
Does your mentor help you figure out what’s going on?
He has a lot of great ideas. When we meet with him and show our data to him, he sees things from different perspectives that we don’t see. Afterwards, I think: “I should have thought of that!” He’s also very easy to work with. But Steve’s schedule is busy and there are so many projects that are going on in our lab. You have to be pretty persistent in finding time to meet with him and to take the initiative in your research project because if you’re not, nothing gets done.
What are your plans for next year?
I’m in the Scholars for Medicine program, and I’ll be going to Med School here next year. After taking a bunch of bio courses and biochem courses, I know I really want to do medicine now—which is great. I did not have that certainty about what I wanted to do in high school. I applaud those people that know what they want to do right after school. But I didn’t have that feeling.
Did you find it difficult going to school so close to home?
I guess there are both positive and negative aspects. It’s great having family so close by. I also know the area very well, so I know all the beaches and restaurants. Sometimes I think that if I’d gone to a school far away, I probably would be a little more independent. But that‘s a trade off that I was willing to take. . .
One of the advantages of being in the Scholars for Medicine program was that I didn’t feel that pressure about Med School that most everyone around me felt. They have a cut off score of 28 for Scholars for Medicine & Stony Brook’s average is 31-32. All the Scholars for Medicine students did extremely well on the MCATs. But it’s nice to have that fall-back, and not worry so much about the MCATs. . If you have any pressure, it should be the pressure you give yourself to do what you want to do. It shouldn’t come from the outside.
Do you think you’ll stay involved in research?
I really considered doing an MD/PhD. For the past year Steve and I have talked about it quite a few times. We have two MD/PhD students in my lab. I’ve talked to them and got their input too. But in the end, I decided that doing an MD program is the way I want to go. . . . I’m working on my first first-author publication right now. Most of the project is done; it’s just writing it now that takes the time. So even though I’m leaving the lab in a couple of weeks to start med school I will still be in and out of the lab as well.
Working on publications must take a lot of work, a lot of time.
I 'm working on making the figures for the research that I’m involved in. I never knew how much time it took just to make figures until I sat down to do it. It takes a long time…!
Do you feel like you’re well prepared for what’s ahead?
I hope so. Research has helped tremendously as an undergrad in that you learn about techniques in Biochem or in Cell Bio classes …but all those techniques I’ve done before in the lab. So reading about it becomes so much easier. Also, in Cell Bio or Biochemistry, you learn about other peoples’ experiments and their results and how that translates to paragraphs in textbooks. Being part of that process makes reading and understanding it so much easier I think. It works the other way around too. Sometimes you learn about something in class and go back to the lab and use those techniques in protocols that you’d learned about in class.
What advice do you have for students coming in?
If you want to get something out of it, I would say start early. If you start early, you have less of a background than if you start as a junior or senior when you’ve taken Biochemistry and Cell Bio. But when you don’t know anything about biology, there’s nothing that limits you. You don’t know what you can’t do. You try a lot of things and some things might work! . . . But you need to know that research is a time commitment. You should be aware if you want to do down the path of research that it will take a lot of time.
Do you think the time commitment for undergraduate research is underestimated typically?
I was so involved in the lab. And it’s been a great experience; I’ve loved every minute of it. For me, things were going well in the lab , and I got really focused in research. I didn’t want to miss out on that. And that’s a lot of luck, which is hard to come by. So I grabbed that and held on to it.
But there’s so much to do as an undergrad here. Maybe if I had to do it over again, maybe I would try to be involved in other activities like Study Abroad. There’s just not enough time to do everything. My sister is coming to Stony Brook this fall. I’m telling her to do some study abroad, to get out and see what’s out there…
What other activities did you enjoy here as a student, besides research?
Teaching has been great. It’s a lot of fun. I TA’d Orgo for 2 semesters. And I taught student athletes. This past year, I’ve taught for Kaplan. What’s trickiest to deal with in teaching is when you have such a range of students – some struggling with basics; some very advanced, asking questions outside the textbook wondering how to do extra problems– all in the same class.
Tell me about some of the research poster presentations you’ve done.
URECA was nice. It’s great to see your classmates and see what kind of research that they’re doing. It’s a whole other side of them that you don’t see in class. Also the turnout is quite remarkable. I’ve been here for 4 years now and it gets bigger every year I feel. Just to see that is great. For the university and the program.
Conferences and presentations are fun! I’d done some too in high school (ISEF, LISEF). There’s the research aspect of it where you meet all these people and see all these projects. But there’s also the relationship/community part of it. You see all these people, meet all these people from different fields.
How did you like the Beckman Symposium in California that you recently attended?
We get the red carpet treatment when we go there! We stay in a 5 star hotel. They feed us amazing food – great food! We also had some amazing presentations! And the Stony Brook kids have done well there. Truthfully, I think the people who get the Beckman Scholars award are so well versed and so into the research that they would be doing the work whether they got the Beckman or not. But it does make a big financial difference. The financial support of Beckman is unmatched.
What do you think you learn from giving presentations?
You learn from doing posters. It’s a good process especially if you haven’t done it before – just to do the layout, figure out the storyline you went to tell. At the Beckman Symposium where it’s so diverse an audience, I had a Materials Science professor come up to me and say, “I know nothing about what you’re doing. Tell me about your poster.” If you don’t have a good flow it can be quite a task to lead someone else through your research. So you have to have a lot of pictures –think about how to lead them through the story. Afterwards, when they say, “I think I got that, what you’re doing,” it feels good to have been able to explain it to them.
What qualities do you think make for a successful researcher?
Research can get very frustrating at times when things don’t work. One of the qualities that you need to have is a kind of stubbornness or persistence. When things don’t work, you still have to do it. You can’t just give up. Because if you do give up, then nothing comes out of it. It matures a person quickly when you do research and you encounter problems and you have to solve them.
It doesn’t get to me as much now when things don't work. After you’ve been in the lab for a longer time, you learn to take a step back and look at it. . . . When I first started, I took a lot of things personally. When things didn’t work – I'd agonize over it. I think grad students do the same.
Have you noticed other changes, vis a vis the research experience?
Research is a funny thing. You have to put in a lot of time to get something out of it. If you go to lab one or two hours a week to make buffers, 3 or 4 years can go by and you won’t learn anything. It is a time commitment. But the longer you spend in lab, the easier it gets because you know your way around;you know all the techniques; you know how the lab works, which cuts back on a lot of time. The past couple of semesters, I’ve been able to teach and my schedule has calmed down a lot. My first two years, I was overloading, taking 21-22 credits, doing research, doing a lot of things. I think I calmed down quite a bit my junior and senior years and that's been good for me.
What medical field do you want to specialize in? what's next for you?
We’ll see how it goes. Undergrad turned out great for me. I hope Medical School will be the same. Looking back, I didn’t come in to SB with the mindset of I have to do this 1-2-3-…do research, get publications, etc. It just turned out that way, which is a lot of luck.