Ami & Ashley Amini
WISE Biology majors, Class of 07; Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research & URECA Summer 06 Programs
Dr. Lorne Golub &
Dr. Hsi-Ming Lee
Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine
What is the relationship between periodontitis and other systemic diseases—such as heart disease, arthritis, respiratory disease, and diabetes? What effect do current therapies designed to treat periodontitis have on these systemic outcomes?
Ami. First I would advise them to really find an area of research that they really really enjoyed and that really fascinates them. Because if don't , if you're not fascinated by the research, you're not going to want to go into the lab and find out more about it. You're not going to ask questions that you're wondering about. . .
Ashley. I can't imagine going to school without research. It's so much a part of my day now. I expect myself to be in the lab. I couldn't imagine being without it.
Interview: read more >>
Researchers of the Month
About Ami & Ashley
There is no question that Ami and Ashley Amini make a great team! In high school, they excelled at doubles tennis; and were awarded team prizes in prestigious science competitions (including 2nd and 3rd place in the 2003 & 2004 Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, regional finalist status in the 2004 Siemens-Westinghouse Math & Science Competition). These twin sisters have co-authored a publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and have another publication in the works, based on the many hours of research done through a high school internship program at Regeneron Pharmceuticals under the fine mentorship of Dr. David Glass and Dr. Esther Latres.
Both Ami and Ashley Amini are stellar students in the WISE program and share membership in University Scholars, the Golden Key International Honor Society, and Sigma Beta Honor Society. Now they share close professional aspirations as well, both intent on doing a combined D.D.S./Ph.D. program--preferably at Stony Brook's School of Dental Medicine. This past year, Ashley and Ami were successful in finding the research placement of their dreams working in the laboratory of Dr. Lorne Golub (Distinguished Professor, Oral Biology) and Dr. Hsi-Ming Lee, a research group well known for its ground breaking discoveries involving the development of tetracycline-based MMP inhibitors (such as Periostat® ) as new therapeutic agents.
These two are continuing to work with Dr. Golub's research group this summer, though their funding comes from two difference sources. Earlier this March, Ami had Ashley applied to two different research programs on-campus, and were successful in being awarded, respectively, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate research summer fellowship ; and the URECA summer research program award. Ami and Ashley are active in the Pre-Dental Society at Stony Brook, and hold new positions of President and Secretary in this club. Born in Fort Worth/Dallas, Texas, children of software and civil engineers, and relocated to the Westchester Co. area in their early teens, these two have always had a fascination with dentistry and no doubt will one day open a private practice together. Yet it is their combined passion for doing research and their track record of accomplishments thus far will make your jaws drop! Below are some excerpts shared from their interview withKaren Kernan, URECA Director .
Karen: What is the area of your research?
Ami: We work with Dr. Golub and Dr. Hsi-Ming Lee at the School of Dental Medicine. And our project is mainly focused on periodontitis and the role of MMPs [metalloproteinases] in this disease. . . . We're testing the effects of Periostat® on various other diseases that have been linked to periodontitis. In the last several years, there's been a lot of news about the linkage of cardiovascular disease, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases to periodontitis. So right now we're looking at periodontitis and its link to acne. . . We're trying to see whether doxycycline [i.e. CMT-3] can block the molecular markers of acne. Ashley. My research is also focused on periodontitis. I am mainly interested in whether doxycylcine can stop bone reabsorption by inhibiting MMP activity during periodontitis.
How did you first get involved?
Ashley. When we came to Stony Brook, we became interested in dentistry and we researched a lot of different scientists at Stony Brook Dental. We found periodontal disease and the new development of Periostat® extremely fascinating....so we contacted Dr. Golub and Dr. Lee.
Ami. Right now, we're the only undergraduates in the lab. We're lucky because we came at the right time. . . All the articles in the news that were appearing about cardiovascular disease, gum disease, how flossing increases your life span, I think, were what sparked our interest in dental research. That's why we started contacting scientists in the Dental School. And it was even better than we had hoped to find Dr. Golub and Dr. Lee. Because their research is exactly that— periodontal diseases, and its link to all these systemic diseases. So that was really great!
Was this your first research experience?
Ashley. We were part of a research program in our high school. We found the lab near us that was willing us to help us research different topics in muscle atrophy and hypertrophy. . . and were lucky to find Dr. David Glass and Dr. Esther Latres at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals [Tarrytown, NY]. We worked there for 4 and a half years. We have one publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry[from work done through this internship/research program]...and we're also in the process of submitting a second manuscript that is a continuation of the project.
Ami:We worked from sophomore year (high school) to sophomore year of college. We were initially interested in Lou Gehrig's disease, because our neighbor had just been diagnosed . . . and so we wanted to learn more about the causes of this disease. . . . Our idea was to take muscle atrophy and muscle hypertrophy and look at them in tandem. Ashley researched muscle atrophy; I researched muscle hypertrophy. We found that there are thousands of genes that are significantly regulated in these two processes, but only five genes that were also inversely regulated, meaning that one gene was upregulated in one process but suppressed or downregulated in the opposing process. These genes serve as potential therapeutic targets for muscle atrophy.
How different are the research environments--working in a pharamceutical company and working here at the university?
Ashley. Very different in terms of funding. At the pharmaceutical company, we were able to do many more experiments and do multiple sets of our samples. Here at the Dental School, it's a lot tighter of a budget. So we have to be very precise with everything. [The experience at Regeneron] set a really good foundation. We were able to practice so many times. Our mentors made sure that we repeated experiments until we got it perfect and our lab techniques were very good.
Ami. Our experience with Regeneron has really helped us. . . Dr. Glass at Regeneron taught us that research should always begin at answering basic fundamental questions. Scientists never say "Let's find the cure to cancer." You first try to find what are the mechanisms, basic cellular processes that lead to the initial stages of cancer, or the disease that you're researching.. Research itself has taught myself and Ashley that you have to take things from the beginning and work step by step to the larger goal. . . .Dr. Glass always stressed the importance of research and encouraged us to get either an MD or a PhD. Ever since we were young, we always wanted to be dentists. Dr. Glass was initially concerned that our choice of dentistry as a profession would not allow us to continue our research, something he knew how excited we were about …but then we came to Stony Brook and we started doing research with Drs. Golub and Lee and were exposed to the converging fields of medicine and dentistry. . . I'm glad —extremely happy—that we got this research internship at the Dental School. Because if we hadn't I probably would have [only thought about ] going to Medical School . . . . Now both of us are certain about pursuing a combined PhD/DDS program. We want to continue researching, as well as practicing dentistry, as a career. I think it's great how research is opening up so many new opportunities to practitioners and to other scientists. . . .
What do your Stony Brook mentors have to say about your DDS/PhD plans?
Ami. We've told them about our interest in the combined DDS/PhD program. . . and they've been extremely supportive and are helping us in every way possible. It's wonderful to have such helpful mentors. If we have any questions about dental school, they'll ask for us and find out as much information as they can. Just last week, Dr. Lee brought us to a research talk . . . She's always trying to make sure that we're interested in what we're doing, and not doing something that we don't want to do. ..She's really great.
Ashley. They go out of their way to help us. Both of them are extremely amazing. Dr Golub is great at guiding us, and supporting us in different ways, in experiment designs and the process of applying to dental school. We work closely with Dr. Lee. . .She tells us, if we have any questions, we can always go to her. She is always eager to help and teach us.
It sounds as if you have been very lucky, and have had good mentors from the very beginning!
Ami. [Regeneron] was like a second home for us…. . . Dr. Glass and Dr. Latres were like a part of our family. They made sure we were on track in the lab and at school—even with getting ready for SATs!
Ashley. We never stop appreciating all that Dr. Glass and Dr. Latres did for us. We still go visit whenever we go home to see our family.
Ashley. Sometimes it got tedious…with microarrays..a glass chip with over 10,000 genes, 11,000 genes lined up . . . 5 different time points. . 3 different settings . . . The first time we did it…it was overwhelming. But I took one time point and I learned how to do that really well. And then I did two time points…Eventually, by the end of it, I started doing experiments that were a lot bigger, more involved…You could see more things correlated…different interactions, it was a lot better. . . I became more accustomed to the large amounts of information. Also, you had to be very careful for contamination. Because everything you do is amplified. . . .If you contaminate it, then you have a big problem.
Ami. Your entire experiment can be messed up. . . For me, I think the most frustrating experience for research was the very beginning [during high school], when we were learning all the techniques. We were the first interns at our lab. We were only in high school then. . .so many of the scientists at the lab didn't know exactly what to expect with us. . . But our mentor was extremely supportive and [told us not to ] worry. In the beginning, we had a graduate student right next to us at all times..and he helped us learn everything. . . Also, that was our first 8-hour job, 8-hour workday. The minute we got home from work, we'd go to bed. That early!
Ashley: During the school year we were [also] on the tennis team…We were putting in full days at work, on top of tennis practice. It was really intense at times.
It does sound unusually intense, for a high school research experience.
Ashley. I think it's what you put into it. It was by choice. We wanted to stay longer and work harder. . . . we enjoyed being around our mentors and the people in our lab. It was challenging, but fun!
Ami. It was by choice, I agree. Because we were so interested, we just wanted to be there, and to make the most of our time there.
Is it the same intensity level in college? Is it difficult to put so much into both research and academics?
Ami. It's better here because we can schedule our classes in the morning and manage our time better. And especially in the summer, it's not a problem at all. Because all we do is just research; we don't have to worry about classes. . . The [main] difference between Regeneron and Stony Brook is that we were still learning fundamental techniques at Regeneron. Here, we're not learning the techniques for the first time. . we're learning the basic terminology, the experiments, and trying to think about experimental designs, but do have familiarity with the lab techniques. . . .Before, [at Regeneron] it was very hard in the beginning. Something as simple as using the pipette was very hard for me. . . ..it was very confusing and took time for me to adjust to at first. . . . But I got used to it!
I'd say so! And now you are working on a second paper. What is this experience like for you, being involved in the publication process?
Ashley. We wrote the first draft of the manuscript ourselves.
Ami. And then our mentors revised it. One of the frustrating parts about the research . . . was putting data into publishable form, according to the publication guidelines. Data had to be presented in a way so that there could be no misinterpretation. . . Everything had to be perfect. The figures (there were 12). . . laying out the figures. . . We had to lay them out the way that the journal wants them to look.Writing too took a long time. I think it took 6 months to prepare it.
Ashley. I remember agonizing over every figure and sentence...Our mentors helped us through the process, and we learned a lot. Difficult but amazing. . .
From this same work at Regeneron, I understand that you were involved also in several major science competition efforsts, including Intel Fairs, the Siemens-Westinghouse Math & Science Competition, and the Progenics Westchester Science and Engineering Fair. What did you get out of these kinds of experiences?
Ashley. [Talking to the judges] helps you to…in preparing, you had to really understand and know everything you did. The judges made sure you knew. They really grilled you [about the work].
Ami. [They make sure] that you did the research and not your mentors. . . . The judges really wanted to know, is this your work? If so, do you really understand it? . . . The competitions also improved our presentation skill. We also got helpful feedback on how to improve our presentations.
Do you enjoy talking about research? Whom do you primarily share your research experiences with now...besides each other?
Ami. We talk to everyone about our research. . . My mom is extremely supportive and loves to hear about health issues. She'll ask us, "What does this mean? How does that work? " She wants to know what we're doing with our research projects. In high school, she was one of the people that got us interested in research. Since she doesn't have a foundation in biology, or always know all the terminology or background information, we have to explain everything from the very bottom, from the ground up. It helps us to understand, and to sometimes to discover, "Uh-oh..I didn't really get that one, or I didn't fully grasp the concept." And then we have to go back and try to fill in the gaps in our understanding. . try to lay everything out more clearly so she can understand, and so we can better understand too.
Explaining science to someone who is not necessarily in your same field is something you'll have a chance to do at URECA's Celebration (research poster exhibition) next year, on April 25, 2007. You'll also have the chance to talk to freshman and sophomores, to students who may just be starting to think about the research opportunities at SBU. Tell me, what advice would you give to these students?
Ami. First I would advise them to really find an area of research that they really really enjoyed and that really fascinates them. Because if you don't ..if you're not fascinated by the research, you're not going to want to go into the lab and find out more about it. You're not going to ask questions that you're wondering about…. So once they do find something…and to find something that you really are interested in, just read articles, health sections of CNN, the new research coming out. Everything 's fascinating. But you'll find things that really interest you. Once you find something that interests you, read some more on it and see if it still interests you. Keep reading. ..Once you find something that you enjoy reading about, try to find a mentor.
Ashley. We found that professors are approachable here, willing to help. . . . it's easier than when we were first looking for a mentor in high school..When we met with Dr. Golub and Dr. Lee, we asked for protocols that we could look over during winter break to see if we were familiar with different procedures. We had already read a lot of their articles that were published before we met. Dr. Lee told us about the different procedures that the lab was using which [turned out to be] similar to ones we used in the past [at Regeneron].
Do you think would be as competitive a student now, in terms of applying to graduate/professional programs, without your research experience? How different would your educational experience here at Stony Brook be?
Ashley. I can't imagine going to school without research. It's so much a part of my day now. I expect myself to be in the lab. For the two semesters I wasn't researching, I [was involved in the Regeneron publications and would] do figures on the computer in my dorm room and send it back to my mentor and we'd collaborate that way. I still enjoyed it because at least I was doing something with research. Now that I'm in the lab it's so much better. I always like it so much better when I'm in the lab. I couldn't imagine being without it. . . .Having daily interactions with scientists. And reading different things with them, and communicating back and forth . . it really helps.
Ami. Since I've started working with the Golub group, I feel more connected. I like being in the lab setting. . . And dental research in general is a great area of research to get involved for a number of reasons. . . there's so much research to be done, it's such a great area to get into. It's just so interesting!