Minor: Adapted Aquatics, Chemistry;
Beckman Scholar 08-09
Dr. Robert Haltiwanger,
Dr. Bernadette Holdener, Biochemistry & Cell Biology
"I always feel the need to ask why. I’m always asking questions. I think it’s good for my understanding. And I think it’s good to be critical at everything you are presented with, because if you don’t believe it, you should make the presenter convince you. If you’re not convinced, then the data is probably not good and they should rethink their model.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
Like many freshmen, Jean-Luc Chaubard's goals were fluid when he first came to Stony Brook in Fall 2004, certain only that he wanted to play ice hockey for the school team. Exploring a range of majors from athletic training to environmental studies to business in his first years here, Jean-Luc did not come into full stride academically until he discovered something which solidified his interest—all having to do with small molecules, and what goes on at the molecular level within biological / biochemical systems. A renewed focus on academics together with a new major in biochemistry, and immersion into undergraduate research, propelled him to further achievements, most notably as a Beckman Scholar (08-09). Now with 6 months left to graduate, and plans to start a Ph.D. program next fall, Jean Luc reflects: “This is my 5th year as an undergraduate, because I switched my major around a handful of times. . . Because of that, I found something that I do really like and also, I’ve been exposed to so many things. It’s helped me to be a little bit more well rounded in science in general, I think, than someone who followed a strict path.”
In summer 07, Jean-Luc was fortunate to get his feet wet with research through an apprenticeship in the lab of Professor Nicholas Fisher in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, where he maintained zooplankton and phytoplankton cultures and assisted a graduate student on a project involving determining elemental stoichiometries in these organisms through various trophic levels. As Jean-Luc began to target his energies more and more on biochemistry studies, he then found a research mentor to match this focus, working under the guidance of Prof. Bernadette Holdener in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology (Fall 07) in the Centers for Molecular Medicine. Soon after being awarded the Beckman Scholarship, a top undergraduate research award at SB, Jean-Luc began a collaborative project with the Haltiwanger and Holdener labs on "Generation of Reagent Antibodies to Study O-fucosylation and O-glycosylation." He presented a poster on this research at the URECA 2008 Celebration. And this past November, Jean-Luc accompanied his Beckman Faculty mentor, Prof. Robert Haltiwanger, to the Beckman Symposium in California (July 2008); and again more recently to Fort Worth, Texas, where he presented a poster at the 2008 Glycobiology Conference entitled: “Mapping Notch -Glycosylation Patterns for Mechanistic Elucidation.” He will also be presenting a research poster at the upcoming 09 Beckman Symposium this summer.Jean-Luc received the Dana Bragen Brian Berman Memorial Award for Excellence in Adapted Aquatics (Fall 06), and been inducted into the Golden Key International Honor Society (Fall 07). He currently serves as President of the Stony Brook Roller Hockey Team (Fall 08-Spring 09), a team which he’s been active for 2+ years. He also serves as Secretary of the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society (Fall 08-Spring 09), and was a co-founder of an undergraduate journal club focusing on cellular, molecular and chemical biology hot topics. In his spare time (and there’s not much of that!), he enjoys working as a ski coach at Windham Mountain in upstate New York. He also enjoys swimming, soccer, tennis and softball. Jean-Luc is currently applying to graduate programs in the field of chemical biology. Below are some excerpts of his interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.
Karen: Tell me about your main area of research, what you do.
Jean-Luc: I work on a collaborative project with both the Haltiwanger and Holdener labs, in Biochemistry. Right now we’re trying to make antibodies towards glycosyltransferases (pofut-1, pofut2, rumi). What we mainly study in the lab are the glycosylation patterns of the Notch receptor. An interesting part of the project is that all these enzymes are ER-localized. One of them doesn’t contain the correct sequence that keeps it ER-localized. And so we believe that there are different binding proteins that are associated with this enzyme. And we’d like to figure out what that is. We don’t know what the Notch receptor modifies. But if you knock this gene down, you have embryonic lethal phenotypes in the embryos after only 7-10 days, so it’s obviously fairly important.
What do you enjoy about doing research?
I really enjoy the problem solving aspect. You don’t know what happens so you try to find out what happens. . . It’s really exciting when you get results that work.
Are there times when things don’t work?
All the time. That’s what makes it even better when things do work. Someone once told me that if everything is working, you’re doing something wrong!
Do you have a favorite research experience to date?
Earlier on in my project, I was trying to make the DNA . . .it took me nearly 8 months to do what should have only taken one month to do. So when I finally got that result, after all the troubleshooting, optimizing the reaction, etc, and I saw the results . . it was such a relief! Since then, I got the protein, and expressed the protein…But those moments stand out as days when I got very positive results. I remember being so excited and happy to finally get the results and to be able to move on in the project and push the project forward. That’s the biggest thing – to keep the project moving vs. standing in a hole.
What qualities do you think make for a successful researcher?
Persistence. And time. Failure is imminent. Not everything you do will work. You’ll hit road bumps. You’ll hit walls. But if you remain persistent and keep an open mind to what could be happening in your experiment, and you put a lot of time in, you learn that the more mistakes you make, the more things don’t work . . . the more experience you gain. That’s partly why undergraduate research is so valuable, because you learn how to make mistakes. You learn how to fix mistakes.
You just recently presented at an off-campus meeting, I believe. Tell me about that experience.
I was at the Glycobiology Conference in Texas last week. What I was presenting was a poster that was not exclusively on my project but rather a compilation of undergraduate research projects in the Haltiwanger lab. For the poster, I had to make a couple of graphs. It actually took a day and a half to make these two graphs!. . . Presenting the research was very challenging because I believe I was one of the few undergraduates who were there at the meeting. Everyone asks very technical questions...But it was also very interesting because you get these great project ideas from people: “why don’t you try this?” “Have you tried this? …” They all had very good ideas. The scientists talking to you have the experience. And it’s really interesting to see people so excited about their work, about what they do for a living, talking about their work, and asking you questions about your work. It was a good experience to have, and a very inspiring one as well.
You’ll also be presenting posters at the URECA Celebration in April 2009, and later on the July 09 Beckman Symposium in California. Tell me about the 2008 Beckman Symposium in California you attended this summer.
That was a very good experience. I really enjoyed that all the work being presented was undergraduate research. And the work was very good! That was inspiring. The talks from faculty members from around the country were amazing too.
Prof. Haltwanger remarked, after you had returned from last summer's Beckman Symposium, that you really got a lot out of the Symposium, because you weren't afraid to ask questions.
That’s one thing that drove me to science. I always feel the need to ask why. I’m always asking questions. I think it’s good for my understanding. And I think it’s good to be critical at everything you are presented with, because if you don’t believe it, you should make the presenter convince you. If you’re not convinced, then the data is probably not good and they should rethink their model. It helps being critical. I’ve always asked questions. I’ve always asked why and how. And, what can you do to make this better?
How did you get your first research experience at SB?
Initially, I was very interested in marine science. I had talked to one of my introductory marine science course instructors about getting involved. ..And he helped me look for undergraduate research in Marine Sciences. I ended up working in Dr. Nicholas Fisher’s lab, helping a graduate student with her project. I maintained cultures of phytoplankton and zooplankton. We were interested in how the elemental stoichiometries of various trace metals were affected through trophic levels…We would feed radio-labeled iron to the phytoplankton and then feed the phytoplankton to the zooplankton and study the amounts of that radioactive iron in these zooplankton--to see how elements can move through trophic levels.
How has being involved with research enhanced your education?
It’s helped tremendously. In a lot of the advanced courses you take, you learn the experimental methods that are generally used in the field. Working in the lab, you have to use these methods. So you understand them in much more detail. You actually don’t have to study as much for your courses because you already learn those techniques and you know the properties of what you’re working with.
How many hours do you typically work during the school year?
On average, I probably spend maybe 20 hours a week in the lab. Weekends are actually when you get most work done. And the summers....
Have you ever taken graduate level courses?
I took a graduate biochemistry course in the fall of last year, and then another one last spring on chemical biology. It was very useful. The graduate courses are more problem-solving oriented, and are a good complement to the undergraduate courses. In the undergraduate courses, you learn all the information. But in the graduate courses, you use the information, apply it to systems and experiments, and try to understand results. The graduate courses I’ve taken emphasize all the different techniques, what you can do, what’s possible, . . . what’s being done right now. That was what really grabbed me into the field of chemical biology – what I plan to study in graduate school.
Tell me about some of your other science –related activities.
Together with a few of my peers, we founded an undergraduate journal club. We felt it was necessary for undergraduates to be exposed to primary literature. And it’s worked out great. We get together, discuss recent papers, and invite faculty whose research correlates with the field to be there to mediate discussions. …Because the aims are similar with another club, it’s been fused with the biochemistry society this year.
I also am one of the undergraduate TAs for the biochemistry 1 course taught by my mentor, Dr. Haltiwanger. And I’ve also tutored for calculus and physics. I’ve learned that I really like to teach and that I have a knack for it. . . I believe that I can present the information in a clear manner. When you’re talking to undergraduates who don’t work in a lab, and don’t know the technical lingo being used… what I try to do is to bridge that gap and relate the topics and what’s going on in the course to the students in such a way that they may be able to understand easier what’s going on.
Do you have advice for other fellow students at SB?
Research will definitely help you with your courses. The undergraduate research experience is a good one for multiple reasons. I have really good mentors who are always questioning my knowledge and understanding of what I’m actually doing. If I ever have a question, and this goes for mentors of many of my friends who do undergraduate research too ….you’ll see that the faculty are always open to helping you. They’re willing to help.
Tell me more about your mentors.
I have a weekly meeting with both of my mentors, Dr. Holdener and Dr. Haltiwanger, at the same time. I show them the results that I got during the week. And anything that I have, any ideas…we’ll talk about the logical steps into what we should look at next based on the results that I’ve presented. Anytime I have a question, I can also ask any graduate student, or the post docs, or even the other undergraduates. In the Haltiwanger lab, some of the other undergraduates are very experienced, and they help me as well.
Are you looking forward to starting a PhD program?
I wish I would have started already. It's about time! . . . I would like to do a chemical biology graduate program which is closely tied to biochemistry but there are subtle differences. It’s more chemistry based with a little more drug design/drug discovery-based work, using small molecules to probe biological systems. . . Looking back, what I’m interested in now isn’t what I came here for 5 years ago, but I’m glad I came here to SB. Hockey brought me here. And I’m going to leave after using only a small amount of what the school has to offer. All the research, the academics has been very influential for me—and will definitely help me in the future.
As a condition of the Beckman Scholars program, you made a commitment to working in the lab for two summers and an academic year —including the summer after you graduate. What are the benefits of a program with such time demands?
It’s allowed me to take on a bigger project and to see it further along than just doing an 8 or 10 week program over the summer. I’ve worked in the Haltiwanger lab for almost a year now. And I’ve only now started to become comfortable with and helpful, I think, in what the lab is actually trying to do, what direction we’re trying to take things in. When you first start out working in a lab, you need to realize that it’ll take 2, 3, 4 weeks just to learn where everything is!