Class of 2010, Honors College
Katarzyna Sawicka (BME Graduate student, Simon lab;
Prof. Sanford Simon, Departments of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, Pathology
"If you say anthrax in a conversation, it sparks interest..."
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
In June, throughout college campuses all over the country, many summer research programs are just starting—with the goal of cultivating and incubating a new batch of scientists. What’s appealing to many entering these summer programs is the prospect of immersion into research, with no other interruptions or distractions. Kevin Knockenhauer, starting this first week of June in AGEP’s Summer Research Institute 9-week program (“Nine weeks that could change your life!”) is no exception:“During the summer, I don’t have any of these worries. I don’t have the stress of classes. It’s just: “Let me do some research!”
Kevin Knockenhauer already knows the benefits of participating in a great summer research program, having been a participating Fellow in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholars program (2008) which, like AGEP, has a mix of SB and non-SB students. In addition to funding summer research, program benefits include: opportunities to interact with graduate program directors and faculty; befriending student researchers in related fields; special workshops (on poster presentation skills, on applying to graduate programs--even tips on writing grad school application statements), and of course, free food! HHMI Scholars also enjoy a kayaking trip in nearby Setauket harbor (see photo, left).
Kevin is currently in the Honors College, class of 2010, majoring in biochemistry. Since spring semester of freshman year, he’s been hard at work in the laboratory of Dr. Sanford Simon doing research primarily under the guidance of BME graduate student Katarzyna Sawicka (pictured above). The project he's been focused on since July of 2007 — and will continue this next year for his senior honors thesis—involves developing a transdermal anthrax vaccine that can deliver protective antigen (PA) through human skin. (More details here/p.12). The proposed vaccine is a nanofibrous embrane containing encapsulated PA produced by the electrospinning technique.
Kevin has to date presented his research on novel anthrax vaccine delivery methods off campus at the World Congress on In Vitro Biology, June 2008, in Tucson, Arizona (poster presentation); the 30th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, August 2008, in Vancouver, British Columbia (oral presentation); the Annual Fall Meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society, October 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri (poster presentation); and the 35th Annual Northeast Bioengineering Conference held this past April in Boston, Massachusetts (oral presentation). This June, he returns to the In Vitro Biology Meeting, this time in Charleston, South Carolina, to give a poster presentation. Kevin also serves as a student representative on two committees for the Society for In Vitro Biology (the public policy and the long range planning committees). In addition, Kevin has presented on campus at the annual URECA research poster Celebration (2008, 2009) and was one of 3 featured student speakers at the recent SB student-organized symposium organized by the Stony Brook Young Investigators (YIR) & the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society. Kevin helped design the program and plans to be involved in editorial work with YIR's online journal next year as well in in the organizational work for YIR's second annuual symposium —this time in his official capacity as secretary of the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society (2009-2010).
This past March (2009), Kevin was one of two SB students nationally honored with a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship (to date, SB has approx. 25 Goldwater Scholars). In the coming year, Kevin plans to take the GREs and apply to graduate PhD programs in the field of biochemistry and /or molecular virology. Kevin admits he loves teaching and has happily served as a TA for General Chemistry I and II, and looks forward to being a Teaching Assistant next year for Biochemistry I and II. Born and raised in Long Island, in fact a resident of Bay Shore for his entire life, Kevin attended Brentwood High School prior to undergraduate studies at SB. Below are some excerpts of his interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.
Karen: How did you first become involved in research?
Kevin: I’ve been on my project for about 2 years now. I started shopping around for labs in freshman year in the spring semester. You know the Undergraduate Biology has an open house, every year? …That was extremely helpful, because I left my resume with a bunch of labs, and actually got one to call me back. I met with Liz Roemer and she interviewed me. And it went well. Right after the interview she asked me to join the Simon lab. Then I met up with my graduate student, Kasia Sawicka who worked there and she took me on. I was really interested in what she was doing… it involved electrospinning.
What’s your research about?
Our current project is essentially the design of a new anthrax vaccine, trying to come up with a new delivery system for it. The one in use right now is an intramuscular injection. Like most vaccines, the big problem is you need trained medical personnel to deliver it. In the case of an epidemic or pandemic, it would be difficult to vaccinate large numbers of people quickly. So what we’re trying to do is come up with a delivery system—which is actually a self-administerable patch that people could put on themselves. How we do that is we’re using a nano-fibrous membrane to encapsulate the protective antigen protein which is part of the toxin that the bacteria secretes. There’s a lot of benefits to it as well. You can actually use less of the antigen, because you’re delivering it to the immune cells of the skin. You can use less…so supplies go longer, and potentially help more people.
Is this improved delivery system that you’re working on applicable for other vaccines?
The original project we were doing was with pertussis toxin which causes whooping cough. That’s a sister project that’s still going on in the lab. We’ve branched off also onto making a vaccine for bird flu … But anthrax is my primary focus. It obviously got a lot of media attention in 2001 with the anthrax letters and remains a hot topic. If you say anthrax in a conversation, it sparks interest.
Tell me about your mentor(s).
I work primarily with Kasia Sawicka, my graduate student. She’s taught me so much… What’s good is she’s always pushing me to do more, to do things that maybe I otherwise wouldn’t do —like recently, applying for the AGEP fellowship which I just got for the summer. I sometimes can be a little too focused, thinking I have too many tests to study for, etc. She’s also very critical which I think is a good thing, because it’s difficult to see your own flaws sometimes.
Dr. Simon, the faculty director of the lab, is a great guy. Whenever we’re not sure of where to go next, or we have a problem to figure out, we ask him about it He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s very intelligent, and loves a good puzzle. And Liz Roemer, I talk with her all the time. She’s my moral support. . . I’m very happy with my lab group.
How much responsibility did you have on the project when you first started? Has it changed over the time?
In terms of my responsibility on the project, it’s certainly grown. Initially when I got there, I was getting trained, learning how to use the electro spinning apparatus …Before we attempted to make an anthrax vaccine, we were doing studies with horseradish peroxidase to analyze the amount of deposition onto our collector, and see the parameters of the actual equipment. But then one day, Kasha said: how would you like to work on a project that involves anthrax? My eyes got wide, and I got excited… I’m the first undergraduate actually on this project.
Did you have to go through any special safety training for this project?
You have to do the standard chemical safety training—everything that people who work in labs do. But we don’t actually work with the bacteria.. It’s safe what we do.
In your day to day research, what would you say is one of the more frustrating research experiences?
Frustration is when things don’t work, and that’s all the time. There was one study we were trying to do…where I probably ran one study at least five times in a row before I got it to work. You have to dose everything onto cells, wait 24 hours, harvest it and run a different assay. You put a lot of work in. I remember when I had a 3-day experiment going, and I was so excited to see the results. Of course it was late at night. I looked at the data readout and I just saw nothing. It showed we had no protein functionality. And I was so upset …But you learn through these experiences: I think the most important thing is not to get discouraged. Obviously it’s not going to work all the time. . . I’ve also been lucky to get decent data. You can get those days when you run an experiment and it works the first time…or you see an interesting result. And I do see interesting things all the time!
Have you had many experiences with presenting your research?
I’ve done a fair share of it. I’ve been to 4 professional conferences now. Going to a 5th in June. The first off-campus meeting I went to was Society of In Vitro Biology in Tuscon. That was last summer, and I loved it. That was one of the greatest experiences. What I liked about SIVB was that it’s such a small group. I felt like I got to know so many people, scientists from all over. Everyone’s excited about what they do…..I presented to someone, they presented to me. There was a networking dinner …..I remember talking to someone from Kansas State about pea plants. I don’t know anything about pea plants but I found it fascinating. It was great. I think that’s what really turned me onto the whole conference hopping thing…That same summer I went also to IEEE in Vancouver. That meeting was the polar opposite of SIVB. It was the biggest meeting I’d ever been to …I didn’t get to know as many people there, and that’s probably one of the drawbacks of a larger conference. But at the same time, I saw so much. There was so much there…
Has giving posters/talks improved your presentation skills?
One of the things I’ve tried to learn is not to let myself get so nervous. I gave a presentation in Boston this past semester that was only 8 minutes. But I remember being so nervous that I felt like I just sped through it… Somehow, I got into the mentality of thinking, as I stood up to give my presentation, that I couldn’t wait for this to be over. But I’ve come to realize that these people aren’t there to criticize you. And also, that I really do want to present. I want to be in the presentation. So now I try to focus not so much on finishing—but more on what I ‘m saying. I feel like I’ve calmed down a lot. . . At the YIR symposium this past April, on campus, I gave a half-hour presentation. And it was probably one of my best presentations. I wasn’t too nervous. I didn’t let it get to me. I was just focused on what I was presenting.
How did you find the URECA poster day?
I love URECA. URECA is great – What I really like about things on campus is I know the people I’m presenting to …I like presenting to faculty that I know .. It’s much more rewarding, because I know them and they know me. It’s more of a friendly conversation.I can tell my friends what I'm doing, see what they’re doing. I love URECA.
Tell me about your experience with summer research programs.
Whenever I really get work done on my project is summer (or winter break). During the semester, I do work but it’s not the same because I can’t commit as much time to it. I’m doing research on the weekends and at night. But at the same time, I have midterms. During the summer, I don’t have any of these worries. I don’t have the stress of classes. It’s just: ”Let me do some research!”
Are you involved in a summer research program now?
Yes, AGEP’s Summer Research Institute. I move in May 31st and AGEP starts shortly after that. I’m really looking forward to it!
You had participated in Howard Hughes last year, right?
Yes, and it was a rewarding summer. In the Howard Hughes program, there was a mix of Stony Brook students and National Scholars. That was very enjoyable. Every Friday, once a week we would have a meeting. Graduate department program directors/heads would come in and talk about the programs on campus. The other half was student presenters. One of us would present on our research. There was free lunch. It was very good…. I found a lot of the research other people were doing was fascinating. I remember Robert Kimmerling talking about what his lab was doing on microfluidics and I thought it was really interesting. I also had a roommate, Chetan, from Hampden Sydney College in Virginia. I spent time with him. He got me into running. And I like running . It’s stress relieving. Last semester, I ran around Circle Road. The first time I did it…I was so impressed that I did something that I had no idea I could do.
When you first came to SB, was research something you knew you wanted –something you knew you were interested in?
That’s one of the reasons I came to Stony Brook. I knew research opportunities were everywhere. Every corner I could find.
It’s great that you found a lab placement in your freshman year. What advice would you give to other students?
You have to show you’re enthused. The best thing to do, if there’s no open house… is email professors. That’s what you have to do. Send out emails. Not long. Be very concise, don’t waste their time. Say a little about what they do to show you put in the work to find out, that your interest is in fact genuine. Show that you know what they’re doing and that you’re interested. Most important is to be persistent. With me, I knew I was interested even as a freshman. A lot has to do with personal motivation. I knew it was something I wanted to do. So I pushed myself to find a lab position.
Was science always something you were drawn to?
I’ve never really questioned getting into science. That’s what I think is weird. I think I figured it out in 6th grade that I wanted to do science…. I don’t’ really know what exactly sparked my interest.. . I remember one vacation break making a water molecule out of clay. I've just always found science to be interesting. My dad asked me: do you want to become a doctor. But I always felt that medicine just wasn’t for me. I like science. . . I like the knowledge. I want to learn something new. …It’s so intellectually stimulating. I like asking questions. I like getting answers and having more questions. I like the nature of the work. If I thought it was boring, I wouldn’t do it.
Do you enjoy being a biochemistry major?
My classes are awesome. Some people really don’t like biochemistry just because it’s so difficult but …I don’t mind I’ve never taken a harder class than Biochem 2. Dr. Marcu, Dr. Karzai, and Dr. Sternglanz, they’re all good lecturers. And I feel like I’m learning so much. I can apply things: take things I’ve learned in organic and apply them to what we’re talking about in biochemistry.
Has doing research been a benefit for you as far as our overall education?
It’s prepared me for graduate school. I know I want to go for a PhD after I graduate from Stony Brook… And I’ve learned things that I would never learn in classes, in terms of specific techniques, how to do independent research, how to design my own studies. You wouldn’t do that in a lab class. Doing research sort of teaches you what science is really about. I feel like if I went to graduate school and never had done undergraduate research, I’d be in for a rude awakening in terms of things not working. I feel like it’s prepared me because I know what I’m getting into. It’s really necessary, this type of experience.
Does the research help you in any way with general coursework?
I think so. I learn the theory in classes. Then I learn the application a lot of times in the lab. And being in the lab, doing research, it gets you to think in a certain way. To realize that you have to solve problems. You’re not just in your classes to memorize information. It’s more important that you understand the theory than to memorize facts. It’s not about memorizing facts, it’s about problem solving. Doing research has given me better critical thinking for my classes. The tests more and more are becoming problem solving tasks. So, it helps in terms of the way I think. That’s changed because of research. I think like a scientist now.