Honors College Engineering Science major, Class of '07
Prof. Stefan Judex,
Biomedical Engineering &
Prof. Lisa Miller,
National Synchrotron Light Source, Brookhaven National Labs (BNL)
Photo provided courtesy of Roger Stoutenburgh, BNL
There are always tricks in doing experiments that you learn from somebody who's been doing it for a long time. That isn't going to be in a manual or a book. Nobody is entirely an expert, there's always more to learn . I know some students feel they don't know enough. But I would say that most faculty, if you show the dedication, and the ambition and passion for it like they do, will be happy to teach you all that stuff. Because they can give you that. They can't give you the fascination to study.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
If anyone has taken advantage of the research opportunities available at Stony Brook University, it's Ted Feldman! Ted began doing independent research the summer after his sophomore year at Comsewogue High School under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Konstantin Likharev. Ted continued work with Prof. Likharev on this project the following summer while participating in the Simons Program.
Prior to starting as an SBU freshman in the Honors College, Ted worked during summer 2003 in the Thermal Spray Lab with Professor Sanjay Sampath, Materials Science & Engineering, and Professor Jon Longtin of Mechanical Engineering. Materials Science & Engineering continued to be a home department for research for Ted as an undergraduate: he spent many hours working in the Advanced Materials Characterization Laboratory (now, the Center for Nanomaterials and Sensor Development) with Professor Perena Gouma on a project which he presented at URECA's Celebration/research poster day in April 2003 and which he has continued to work on in subsequent years at SBU.
Ted was one of the rare freshmen accepted into the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Program and continued to work on materials characterization—this time with an application to bone—while working at Brookhaven National Laboratories over the summer of 2004. His project on the chemical, mechanical and structural properties in developing mouse bone gave him exposure to bioengineering applications and the chance to work collaboratively with both Dr. Lisa Miller, Biophysicist at the National Synchrotron Light Source and with Professor Stefan Judex of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Ted presented this project at the 2004 BMES Annual Fall Meeting in Philadelphia (funded by a URECA travel grant), and at the spring 2005 URECA Celebration on-campus, and continued to immerse himself further in this project the following summer of 2005 while working at Brookhaven National Labs with support from a Battelle fellowship.
Currently, Ted is working on the developmental phase of a biomedical optics research project with Professor Jon Longtin and Professor Andrew Gouldstone which builds upon a developing fascination with an interdisciplinary approach to research. Ted is still working out the details for his senior honors project — but no doubt, following graduation from SBU — has plans to go to graduate school in applied physics or materials science. Below are some excerpts shared from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .
Karen: Do you have a favorite research experience as an undergraduate?
Ted:I really enjoyed most of the research projects I've been on for different reasons. One of the things I enjoy most is when I get to present some of my work or briefly talk about it. It's always been something I've enjoyed doing, maybe in part [because of a background in] music, I sort of like performing and sort of like the culmination—that you accomplish enough with your work to talk about it and share it with others.
Have you had lots of opportunities to present your research?
I've been pretty fortunate with that. Most of these research programs I've been involved in have ended in a get-together or research symposium. Simons did, the SULI and Battelle programs had a joint poster session. As well as URECA. The yearly undergraduate Celebration has always been fun to do. You get a chance to really see what you've accomplished when you get to put it up on a poster, and see how much you know about what you did. A couple of peers have always been pretty good about really scrutinizing my work which . . . shows me that they're interested in my work and it gets me to think and examine how much I really know about what I've been working on.
You've also had the opportunity to go to an off-campus conference, right?
I was fortunate enough in 2004 when I was working on the Interdisciplinary Biomedical research program to have an abstract selected for a student session of the Biomedical engineering society. I got to go to Philadelphia and present some of my work, listen to fascinating stuff that other undergrads from all over the country had done. And that was really a highlight of all the research experiences I've done as well — learning about it as well as presenting my own work in a professional setting like that. It's sort of another level on top of doing more formal presentations on campus or at BNL. I've learned a lot [about] giving presentations or how to make a good Powerpoint presentation—specifically with Dr. Miller and Prof. Judex. They were kind enough and happy to review my presentation multiple times. In fact, Prof. Judex and I finished the final version on the train on the way down there while he was making his own presentation.
I met you when you were a high school student in the Simons program. Was that your first research experience at SBU?
I had worked with Prof Likharev the summer before that. The summer after my freshman year in high school I was in the Intel prep class in my school, a class designed to get students involved in research so that they could enter the Siemens and Intel science competitions that are particularly a big deal on Long Island. And so I got involved for a couple of weeks in some research on nugents which Computer Associates was building as the software that can think. . . I realized from doing that that I wanted to do something more hands on. So I started reading a lot of stuff from IBM . The next summer when I was looking to work on a project, I originally started contacting people from IBM. One of the things I got from my mom at the time was "Be sure you include something in your email like, "if nobody here is available to work with me, is there someone somewhere else you know doing something similar?". And sure enough, one of guys emailed me back and said something to the effect of: "We don't have available positions this summer, but there's a professor at Stony Brook, named Konstantin Likharev, that's doing something pretty similar." So I looked him up and emailed him and met with him.
That seems very straightforward! Is it generally that easy to find research?
On campus, it's a matter of really just doing your homework and figuring out who you'd like to work with. I usually email. If there's somebody I have for a class, I might just talk to them about it. But I usually am sure to read some of their papers and journal publications that are out, and get a feel for what they're doing, before I talk to them.
For other research program opportunities, it sometimes takes time. It always seems sometimes that research opportunities present themselves kind of at the last minute. You'll apply, and then wait for them to review applications. For awhile, you won't know what you're doing, particularly if it's a summer project. And then all of a sudden, you'll maybe have a couple of offers. I was fortunate that summer… [when] Prof. Likharev … allowed me to do some research in his group,. . [Yet] it isn't always easy to find research. I've definitely been rejected by a few programs at other universities. . .
That doesn't seem to have stopped you, though, from getting involved in research.
There are lots of reasons people are and are not funded. One thing about how you can improve your application, from the student's perspective, is: don't look it as a brick wall with getting involved in research, don't let that be what stops you from getting involved in research. I certainly wasn't getting paid too much when I first started research. So even if you get involved in part time projects during the semester, even if you don't get a summer fellowship . . . now you have something that you can put on your resume that shows a drive and willingness. You have something concrete you can talk about in applications, and now you have a champion in a faculty member who will be happy to write you a very supportive letter of recommendation that will strengthen your chances to get a fellowship later on. You start to develop a knowledge base that you can expand on. You can see how you can apply a skill or how you can apply a thought process or something you learned previously that is useful to a new project. It makes you more attractive to faculty as well as committees.
What is your current research project?
I'm sort of trying to develop a project-- biomedical optics — with Prof Jon Longtin over in mechanical engineering and Prof Gouldstone in materials science. It's kind of interesting since I never had a chance before to conceptualize a project or see it from this development stage of "what are we going to do?" to actually being the one to do it. Most of the work I've done is usually just being the one to do it. And figuring out how to overcome some of the experimental challenges rather than trying to be part of the creative force behind it. I had known Prof. Longtin from when I worked in the Thermal Spray Lab. I had seen him walking around campus one day probably at the beginning of last semester. And I mentioned that I was interested in studying optics. And he said he had this laser that nobody was using in his lab, and we should try to put something together. It was an interest in coming from a lot research in materials characterization, and spending two summers doing materials characterization in a biological sense, over at the Light Source. It kind of set me up for that. Because it was this progression from understanding materials characterization and how optics was a big part of that to wanting to take that interest a little further.
The BMES conference I went to in 2004 [especially] got me interested in mixing or melding optics & materials characterization with biology. One of the great things I think I got out of that was getting to see what everybody else was doing all over the world, and the country-and one of big things that came out of that was seeing how useful lasers could be in biomedical applications and understanding biological problems and biological science. So that was sort of how it developed as a progression from previous research.
How did you first get involved with biomedical questions and doing biomedical research, since your background was mostly in physics & engineering?
I learned about the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research Program that URECA offers first because one of my high school friends had done it the year before. He turned me onto it. He's up at Cornell, and kind of has a similar program of study: he does applied physics and material science. And we had met Prof. Rubin briefly as part of the Simons [Program]. He gave one of the brown bag lunches if I remember. He seemed really dynamic; [and BME] seemed like an enthusiastic department especially when it comes to undergraduate research. So since I never had done anything in bio, and it was a good time to experiment, and the program was designed for non bio majors, I figured "hey, I'll give it a shot" . . .It was also interesting, in that if I remember from the application. . . you had to select a couple mentors from a list based on their research. So I was trying to see if there was a project that I could apply some of the skills I already had to that. I had been working in physics, and in the Thermal Spray Lab that fall. I actually had done some work in Prof. Gouma's lab in materials characterization. That was the first time I had ever really done stuff like electron microscopy. That got me into the importance and the value of materials characterization. When I saw the list of mentors, the project with Dr. Miller and Prof. Judex jumped out at me because it was sort of a similar idea: that we were trying to characterize the material properties of bone be it chemically, using microspectroscopy, infrared microspectroscopy, and nanoindentation. . . so I immediately saw that there was some link between this idea of materials characterization and this project. As well, I always actually wanted to have an opportunity to work in Brookhaven. I had heard of the Light Source before, it's one of their prominent facilities—so it gave me that opportunity as well.
What was it like working at BNL?
BNL is a pretty exciting place. It's its own little world, certainly its own little town down to the little gas station, and the post office. But it's a very open, very collaborative environment that was pretty interesting — beyond just having a chance to work with this technology and this project that could only be done in a handful of places around the world. It was also quite exciting. One day you'd come, and somebody from Australia would be there using the equipment. And so there's that sense — the interest in collaborating. You get the idea that science is this big international effort really. That it's indeed much bigger than just the university, or somehow your specific area.
Did you find it beneficial having the opportunity to do more intensive research during the summer?
More intensive experimental procedures are better when you have the time to fully devote to them. In spending that time, I think that's one of the ways I've learned that I really enjoy research and research is really what I want to do. There were definitely a few nights where I was at the Light Source at 3:30 in the morning. You really get a feel then that it's a 24 hour operation, especially at a facility like that where there's a constant schedule. There's something peaceful I guess about it. There was some kind of sense of awe . . . and I was probably tired. . . . there's also this sense of excitement that I'm being entrusted to use this one-of -a -kind equipment or not too readily available equipment, by myself. It was a good feeling to know that I was trusted that much by higher, very accomplished scientists. As well . . . there was also a kind of happy feeling that I was in my element there, doing that. It's about going that extra mile, being there when nobody else was to get it done.
Do you see collaboration, then, as being one of the appealing aspects of doing research?
I see it now more in developing this project [with Prof. Longtin & Gouldstone] than I have in the past where collaboration was mostly working with other people to figure out the experiment. And now I see that collaboration is largely part of really how science gets done. You need to draw on a lot of expertise. The requirements of expertise are so far beyond one person that you sometimes need to traverse great distances to find the best, or somebody who's willing to help you out. It seems that research is sort of like a puzzle, putting everybody internationally . . . or people from different disciplines or from different universities . . . putting the pieces together in order to get the whole picture which is the project accomplished, or to expand your knowledge of the field.
Is there any hindrance to this spirit of collaboration…say, a competitive drive, or attempt to try to be the one to get the answers first? How do you find balance between these two impulses?
I'd say there definitely is some healthy competition in science. That's for sure. On the one hand, that sort of motivates you to think harder or to think longer and really be thorough in your research and be sure that it's novel. Beyond that, I'd say that it something I've seen a lot in developing this project that you have to do your homework because it seems like a lot of stuff out there has been done or thought about. The amazing thing about science is that there's always a new direction in which you can take something, there's always more that can be done. If anything, the competition drives you to really twist everything inside out. It forces you to be a better investigator, and really start asking more questions as to: what has this person done? where did they leave off? where can we pick up? why did they leave off here? It starts helping you to ask really the right questions.
Earlier you had mentioned doing high school research, being involved with a pre-Intel program. Did you participate in science fairs?
Yes I did. Based on the research I did with Prof. Likharev, I did write an Intel paper and a Siemens paper which were pretty similar topics and didn't win either of them. That happens. But I think it was a learning experience in that too. I think…especially nowadays, research rejection and learning to improve your work based on rejection, is a big part --especially with grant writing. There will be a lot of criticism…[and] scrutiny when you submit a grant proposal. So again, I think competition refines you to really make sure that you're putting the best product out there, the best proposal, the best paper out there that you possibly can.
What actually first got you interested in doing science?
I had done science fairs for awhile throughout middle school, had some success with them there. When I was growing up, they had this program at Shoreham Wading River HS. It was a Saturday science outreach program. That was the first place I really saw stuff like computer components, transistors, capacitors, circuitry, fiber optics, even . . . [got exposure to ]biology, zoology. . . so I think it sort of developed a fascination as much as a skill.
Did your family encourage science pursuits?
Definitely! Growing up, I always remember I was always encouraged if there was something I had a question about always to look it up. So I got used to researching stuff a lot. So that was part of it . . . I was quite well known for taking stuff apart when I was a little kid. I had expertise for dismantling child safety locks apparently.
As an undergraduate, do you get frustrated in trying to balance research and classes?
It can be challenging to balance everything during the year. I think one of the big things I've learned in doing research is it's not a 9 to 5 job. Or it's not a 9-5 activity- . . .The real way I've found to reduce frustration is to not try to expect it to be done 9 to 5 or really for that matter to expect the project to be done in a 10 week summer. So by accepting the fact that it will usually take a lot of time to accomplish the project or sometimes even in a specific procedure might take more than a day or I might have to stay late . . . that certainly reduces stress by not having that expectation that at 5 o'clock I have to be done or be ready to go.
Do you feel that research enhanced your education?
It definitely has. One of the things I usually tell people. . . about why students should get involved in research [is] I think especially in a research university like Stony Brook, your education largely is what you make of it. And here where you have all these world class researchers doing world class research, it is one of the primary ways here to make something of it, to really get the fullest you possibly can out of your education. Beyond that, I think it's also given me a perspective on why you learn some of the information you do, it gives you this vision, this sense of [that] you need to know this because it applies to some real life scenario.
You realize this value of research in your everyday lectures and classes, then?
We covered stuff on optics [in my waves & optics class] recently on Fourier transforms and how that relates to spectroscopy and that's something I've been using practically for the past 2 summers. So when we were talking about that, I was relating the theory and what was going on in class to what I had seen practically. And what I had done practically. So it keeps you focused …Sometimes you think: when are we ever going to use this stuff? Then you see it actually has some value. It's certainly come up in lots of other classes too. Or in another class if we were to talk about a technology like thermal spray, I have a picture of what it is in my head since I've used it before. So there's that advantage to it. I think it's also something of a litmus test, to see if you really want to develop a career, delve into that field. It gives you an idea of what the day to day life of a scientist is.
What appeals to you about becoming a scientist?
I think it's the flexibility to explore ideas that are interesting to me. Explore novel ideas. To really make a mark, really improve the quality of life of people while doing something that I really enjoy. The flexibility of basically being able to take the question of why this happens and this curiosity and develop it into some tangible benefit to people — that also ends up expanding the knowledge in that field— is something I certainly enjoy. As well, it gives you the opportunity to work with technology, and stuff that hasn't necessarily been commercialized yet. There's this great feeling that there's novelty in what you're doing, that not many other people are doing the exact same thing if they're studying it at all. That certainly appeals to me.
Do you think that your strong research background as an undergraduate will be helpful for you, when it comes to grad school?
I know there are quite a few really accomplished undergraduate researchers out there. So I don't know how much it will make me stand out… But it certainly [will have] prepared me. . .Or says I learned some of the skills ahead of time or maybe some skills that are necessary to do research proficiently as a grad student or even hit the ground running from doing research as an undergrad. Beyond that, I think it's also definitely changed my perspective of what I'd like to study. Or type of areas that I'd like to study. One thing I've got out of research is really this interest in this kind of multidisciplinary problem where you get to take your knowledge in a specific field and apply it to something completely different. What's nice about that or what really fascinates me about that is that it really forces you to use all of your knowledge, really examine the whole picture from 360 degrees. You start making analogues ..well if this happens to this material, is this something you [can] draw an analogy to this and something that happens naturally or in a biological system? And I'd say, certainly getting involved with biomedical research has piqued my interest in taking physics and engineering science and looking at how I can apply that to a biological problem. That's something I never really had when I first started doing research, [something I hadn't before] had that interest or that ambition in doing.
Have you ever had very frustrating research experiences? What have you learned from them?
You learn how do deal with certain situations. I remember I was working in a thermal spray lab once and I went to grab a flashlight off one of the desks. It slipped out of my hand and ended up cracking some sort of ceramic sample from some test. There was this big magnite flashlight that slipped right out of my hands and landed smack on the ceramic and cracked it into a thousand pieces. Not one of my better moments in research. ButI learned from that . . . [it] ended up becoming a side project, characterizing the cross section of this thing. Because I had conveniently cracked it into a cross section. Thinking on your feet, and improvising —to say, this isn't great, but we can still do something positive, we can still learn something—that was something I learned as a trick of the trade.
Another thing I always tell people especially when you're operating or using expensive, easily breakable equipment, an SEM or a microscope where if you look away or up or down you can easily crack a lens that costs $20,000 or using a nanoindenter or a 3 point bending test where parts cost tens of thousands of dollars [is}… you should never feel alone. There should always be somebody you can call to get advice from or help. Because while you are entrusted to use this stuff, you're still an undergraduate, and there are still plenty of people that are more versed than you.
Have you yourself ever taken on role of training someone else?
It happened with the project at the Light Source. We currently have a visiting graduate student from Germany. I had to show her how I was doing some of the experiments. . . some of the tricks I had learned in figuring out some of this stuff. Every person builds to the collective wealth of knowledge about it— which is really cool. I've learned a lot of the research skills, just by hands on or by talking to people . . . I'd say that's one of the great things about doing research . . . that instead of learning by book, you learn by doing, and seeing how it really applies in the real world, or at least in the research world.
So regarding research involvement, then, finally, what's your best advice for students?
Just do it. If it's something you really want to do and you're really driven to do it and you make that apparent to faculty. . . A lot of faculty members and a lot of researchers study what they study because it fascinates them. And if you are passionate about learning more about it, and research really I think is the highest form of learning, in that you've become such an expert or you've shown such a drive to learn more that you can actually literally create new knowledge. . . so I would say just do it . . . Look people up online, find out what interests you and what they're doing, and talk to people. Because more often than not, the ambition and the drive is something that nobody can teach you. If you have the fascination and the ambition and the drive to study something, the specifics of the topic (whether it be it biology or physics) you will have to learn theoretically [and it] will come and it can be taught to you. And the experimental skills, the procedures of doing the research, again, is something that can be taught to you. A lot of the stuff might not even be something you learn as an undergrad. Or might not even be something you learn in school. It might be practical knowledge. There are always I found tricks in doing experiments that you learn from somebody who's been doing it for a long time. That isn't going to be in a manual or a book. Nobody is entirely an expert, there's always more to learn . I know some students feel they don't know enough. But I would say that most faculty, if you show the dedication, and the ambition and passion for it like they do, will be happy to teach you all that stuff. Because they can give you that. They can't give you the fascination to study.