Alex Treyer
Pharmacology major, Class of '07; Beckman Scholar, 06-07;
URECA Summer Researcher '05

Research Mentor:
Prof. Daniel Bogenhagen
Pharmacological Sciences


I felt special just being in lab. . . A lot of it is just the process. My feeling about my place or role in the lab gradually grew into something that had more basis. I was gaining knowledge about how to do things. Knowledge, that's what makes it. . . after years of studying, years of work, all of a sudden, you walk out on the street and you realize that you know a hell of a lot . . you start understanding how the world works. ...When your experiments start working, that's also a really good feeling. That's when you want to get more results. That's a rush of its own.

Interview: read more >>


Researchers of the Month: past features

Researcher of the Month

About Alex
BeckmanSymposium07Aleksandr Treyer knows what he likes, and puts his full energies into the things he enjoys—playing music, powerlifting, and doing research.

Born in Novosibirsk, Russia, Alex moved to the States when he was 13 and soon after that attended Brooklyn Technical High School where he received solid training in biology studies. As a freshman at Stony Brook, Alex sought out a research position in a Pharmacology lab and was fortunate to land a place in Professor Arthur Grollman's research group working under the direction of Drs. Holly Miller and Yaroslava Polosina. A year later, Alex was awarded URECA summer funding to carry out his work on "DNA polymerases Eta and Iota in DNA repair," work he presented at the spring 2006 URECA Celebration research poster exhibition.

Alex's demonstrated abilities and dedication to doing research were not unrewarded: in spring 2006, Alex was one of two recipients of the Beckman Scholarship, a prestigious undergraduate award supporting 18 months of sustained research with over $19,000 in funding. With the Beckman Foundation support, Alex began working in the lab of one of SBU's Beckman Scholar program mentors, Dr. Daniel Bogenhagen of the Department of Pharmacological Sciences, on proteins that maintain and replicate mitochondrial DNA. In July, Professor Bogenhagen accompanied Alex and the other 2006-07 SBU Beckman Scholar, Rohit Repala, to the Beckman Symposium in California, an experience which Alex describes as "saturated . . . many undergraduates there had publications and first authorships . . . one will be in the next issue of Science. My standards have been raised by seeing my peers at the symposium." Alex will present his recent work in the Bogenhagen research group, "Mutagenesis by DNA Polymerase Gamma and Twinkle Helicase", at both the URECA Celebration on April 25th, and at the 2007 Beckman Symposium in California this summer.

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Worlds apart? . . .

Below are some excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .


The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your research, and how you first got involved in lab work.
Alex:I work with Professor Bogenhagen in the Pharmacology department. Right now I'm working with proteins involved in mitochondrial DNA replication and maintenance. Mostly replication. We basically work on isolating the novel helicase that was discovered not that long ago and we're going to see how it interacts with the polymerase. The mitochondrial DNA only has one polymerase — polymerase gamma. By the time I joined the lab, most of the research was geared toward finding out the structure of polymerase gamma. It's similar to what I worked on in the lab of Professor Arthur Grollman, where I initially got my start in research. He also works with DNA repair. As a freshman, I had been looking for research. I followed up on someone's recommendation to contact a post doc in Professor Grollman's lab, Yaroslava Polosina, and ended up doing research. When I first came to the Grollman lab, as a second semester freshman, I was basically told what to do. I would do very simple things without necessarily understanding them. Afterwards, my understanding and knowledge started growing more and more.

Was it intimidating as a freshman, to call and talk to someone you didn't know about a potential research placement?
I telephoned at first. And it was intimidating. I had never done anything like that before. But usually anything worth starting is intimidating at first. It wasn't that bad.

Had you done any prior research as a high school student?
No, basically in high school, I didn't really have research experience per se. In Brooklyn Tech, they have majors, kind of like college. I was in a biomedical major. . But as a separate after-school thing, one of the teachers there, Mr. Thompson, had us read original research papers — a bit like what a graduate student does when selecting a thesis topic. Now in retrospect, I realize that reading all those papers was a very useful kind of experience. . . My mother was a chemist in Russia, and she actually took me to her lab a couple of times when I was young. I found it very cool being there. Maybe it had some deep psychological effect ?. . . But I'd say that all those early experiences, and whatever I had in high school, they were a far cry what I actually got here. I couldn't say in high school that I absolutely was determined to do research later on. I was thinking about medical professions, and about engineering a little bit. At Stony Brook, I was a biology major, and then I switched to pharmacology later. I was initially interested in the applied side of pharmacology, in clinically-geared research. Now after having these research experiences here, I'm more open to all sorts of things, microbiology, and structural biology. I'm applying now to PhD programs involving various fields — neuroscience, pharmacology, structural biology, molecular imaging. I've kind of got curious about all these areas. It's what I see myself as doing.

Doing research, being in a lab, requires a big commitment, doesn't it?

The lab is a very nice place. Plus Dan's lab, the actual lab. . . the atmosphere, is great. There are very good people working there. It's a community, like a family. It's the kind of atmosphere that makes you want to come to work. On top of that, I've never really minded putting all the hours into labwork. I just don't have a problem with it. I get obsessed with the anticipation of the work. When I set up an experiment with a certain goal in mind, it's the thought of that goal—the thought of seeing what I need to see—and the process—that gets me motivated. Sometimes the actual procedures can be tedious. But it's just something you have to do.

Has being involved with research enhanced your education?
Definitely. Especially since I got involved with research early and I got involved with good people, I was able to see what it would be like on a career level. Honestly, I don't think I would have been able to get the same feel for it if I would have just taken my classes. . . Making research a priority has helped me. The more involved you are in it, the more you see what it's like. That's a simple thing. Plus, it helped me make my decision about grad schools. It's in part the circle of people that you talk to. You're always in contact with people who are doing research, post docs, graduate students, professors. And they'll give their opinion and their knowledge on things. They help you see basically what's out there.

When did you decide about applying to graduate school?

That was around the time I got the URECA fellowship, in my sophomore year. To an extent, what appeals to me about going to graduate school, doing research, is a sort of freedom. I don't know of many other occupations out there that let you work on what you like in the same way. Like I said, if putting in hours is not a problem, then it's not so hard a choice. . .Doing research early on basically showed me what graduate school would be like. Not completely; nothing is going to let you know what grad school is like except for grad school. But it took me as close as possible.

What has so far have been your favorite and least favorite research experiences?
My favorite? Well, the Beckman conference in California in itself was a great thing. That was probably the first time that I saw such an overwhelming amount of knowledge and research coming from people that were my peers. I was a little overwhelmed by that.

But as far as experiments, and lab experiences.—one of my favorite things that I used to do in Arthur's lab was working with mammalian cells. It was tedious and I would need to stay late. There's a lot of handling involved with living things, you can't just lay it off. . . you have to follow through with every step because you have to keep them alive. But I felt a connection working with them. I didn't start giving them names or anything. . . but it felt good, doing the work. The worst thing was then counting those cells on a Coulter counter which I also did. It's a process where you extract the nucleus from every cell and you count the nuclei on this machine. The process is very mechanical and sort of boring. I fell asleep on numerous times on that, so that was probably the worst.

You mentioned the Beckman Symposium. Do you remember the first time you had to present your research?
The first time that I actually presented was the URECA project for the URECA research day. That's when I had to make a full summary of what I did, and lay it out so that other people could understand.That was actually my first poster. It wasn't my greatest job as a poster presenter, and I like to think that I've improved ever since. My last URECA poster was of much better quality. One of the best things that I get from being in Dan's lab is his attention to detail, being able to back up everything that you say. That is one of the things that I really started learning, since I came into his lab. Everything has to be accounted for. My confidence now comes from how much I know about what I'm talking about. That's how you prepare yourself for all these things.

You've had the opportunity to work with and learn from several different scientists, in your time at Stony Brook.
At first, I worked mostly with Dr. Holly MIller and Dr. Yaroslava Polisina [in Dr. Arthur Grollman's research group]. Holly was very energetic. I think back now about all the mistakes I shouldn't have made. But she still would try to point me to the right way. Dan Bogenhagen is more low-key in personality. But even though one person is very energetic, another one calmer..the effect they both had on me is the same. You work however you work, temperament-wise. But everything needs to be done with great detail and accuracy.

You said it's been valuable to get involved in research early on. How valuable is the opportunity to have a summer research experience?
Full time summer research is good, and the most productive. It really helps you see what it's like if you were to do it as your career, as your profession. And plus, in a time like that, you can be much more productive because you don't have everything else on your mind. At least not classes. I'm very fond of research. Of course, you don't necessarily just set a project for yourself and expect to accomplish it. Because research doesn't work on a time frame like that. When you set out to do something, you don't really have any guarantee of how long it will take. But you can submerge into research in the summer. And you know, anytime that it's paid is good too. Then you can take a check to your parents . . .

How do you like being a pharmacology major?

It's a good major in that it's smaller in its core. Everybody gets attention from the advisors, from Dr. Cameron. . . it's very good in that sense. By the time senior comes around, it develops into a community in itself. Also, the pharmacology society, UPS, the Undergraduate Pharmacology Society, is a good club. We had a very good boat in the Roth Pond regatta last year. That was a lot of fun. Hopefully this year, we'll have something too. It's a cool thing.

What advice would you give about research opportunities?
Get out and expose yourself to as much as you can. The only way you're going to find out if you like something is if you try it. Go to different labs. As an incoming freshman, you're not tied to anything. I know that as a grad student, you can do rotations your first two years. You might as well start as an undergraduate, finding out about the different labs, and what's out there.

How do you balance school work and research?

I'm a bit of a wrong person to ask about that. Because I never paid as much attention to my grades as to my work. But you just manage as best you can. I'm also involved in other things here. I play music. . . mostly rock music, guitar. It's something that I enjoy. I also like to do weightlifting, specifically power lifting. I found a gym around here, and I feel good after lifting. I'd like to think you don't have to close yourself off to everything else if you're involved in one thing. I like to do as many things as I can. I feel it's very important to be able to do things that you enjoy.

A range of hobbies and interests! . . . but going back to the research, can you remember when you first started working in the lab? How did you keep yourself motivated when you were first learning, and had to do lots of routine, repetitive tasks?
It's hard to just say—well, this is the big picture. Especially if it's not your project. But I felt special just being in lab. So that helped me, even if the work was tedious. A lot of it is just the process. My feeling about my place or role in the lab gradually grew into something that had more basis. I was gaining knowledge about how to do things. Knowledge, that's what makes it. . . after years of studying, years of work, all of a sudden, you walk out on the street and you realize that you know a hell of a lot . . you start understanding how the world works. That a really good feeling. When your experiments start working, that's also a really good feeling. That's when you want to get more results. That's a rush of its own.