Honors College junior, Major: Biochemistry; Scholars for Medicine (B.S./M.D.) Program; Howard Hughes Undergraduate Research (06) and Beckman Scholar (07-08) Programs
Dr. Robert Haltiwanger
Biochemistry & Cell Biology
-“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
-“We now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb”
-“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
–Thomas Alva Edison
They were the points where I was thinking “Well I really can’t stand this anymore!” But then, looking back, it’s also my most favorite part. Because that’s where I really learned. When I finally overcame it, I thought “Wow, I really like this now!” That’s the gratifying part of it, being able to look back and understand what I was doing wrong. - Eugene Tan
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
Life is sweet for this undergraduate glycobiology researcher! He’s secured a place in the elite Scholars for Medicine program, an integrated 8 year Bachelor's/M.D. program within Stony Brook’s Honors College & School of Medicine; maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA during his three years to date as a biochemistry major; earned the top undergraduate research program awards at Stony Brook, including a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research Fellowship in his freshman year (summer 06), and the premier Beckman Scholars Program award (07-08) which provides over $19,000 in funding from the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Foundation. Prior to attending SB, Eugene was a Siemens Westinghouse semifinalist (04-05) who'd done preclinical pharmacology research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (Summers 03, 04). Eugene even had the opportunity to work with his current mentor, Prof. Robert Haltiwanger of Biochemistry & Cell Biology, the summer after he graduated from Herricks High School, supported by a Harvard Lyman scholarship. Eugene also has benefited since last semester from shadowing Dr. Edward Chan, a physician in the SB Pediatric Cancer Center who is involved in translational laboratory research—something that Eugene hopes to do as well after he completes his medical school training.
What is Eugene Tan’s prescription for success? Though Eugene is quite modest about his accomplishments, there's no sugar-coating this formula: it’s plain hard work and perseverance! Eugene admits to finding inspiration in the practical wisdom of Thomas Edison. Remembering his initial frustration at mastering PCR and cloning, Eugene reflects: “I always think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb thing…I did the thousand and one ways, and eventually got something that works!” And Eugene cautions newcomers to the lab against expecting instant results. Having gone through a series of overcoming obstacles in the lab, Eugene’s learned just “to appreciate the process and the learning. I mean, if something doesn’t go exactly the way you want to, then try to go back and figure out what happened. Just be more focused on the process than on the results. If you don’t get the results, then at least you learned something. That’s a good way to look at research.” Eugene also admits he's quite a perfectionist about his class and lab work, likening his own obsessiveness about details to TV's-detective William Monk, whose compulsion is “a gift and a curse.”
Together with SB’s other Beckman Scholars, Eugene attended the Beckman Symposium in California last July; and will be presenting his current research this coming summer at the Beckman symposium, on “Mapping clycosylation sites on extracellular domina of mouse Notch3 protein." Eugene volunteers at Stony Brook Hospital, and for the Make-A-Wish Foundation; and enjoys Judo/Aikido; and occasional travel to the Philippines. Be sure to look for his poster at the upcoming URECA Celebration on April 30th.
Below are some excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your primary research area. What do you work on?
Eugene: I’m working in Dr. Haltiwanger’s lab right now and I’m working on the Notch3 protein. The lab focuses a lot on glycobiology which is about sugars. So what I’m doing is I’m trying to locate where the sugars are on the Notch 3 protein. The sugar structures play a role in what the protein does and how it signals. And the Notch3 protein is particularly important in this brain disease called CADASIL. It’s been shown in the past that Notch 3 mutations, especially those involving glycosylation sites, will influence the disease. So that’s one of the practical applications of the work that I’m doing. Right now, I’m using mass spectrometry to locate where these sugars are. It’s a kind of a long process…. I’m proud to say I’ve mapped a few sites which is good because it took a while!
How did you get started?
When I was in high school, I came to an orientation here. I think it was the premed orientation. One speaker talked about all the different research opportunities, and happened to mention Dr. Haltiwanger’s name. I looked him up on PubMed and read some articles. It was really interesting. …So then I just sent him an email, we talked . . . and that’s how it all got started.
So you knew about the lab before you came to SB?
Actually I started doing research the summer after graduating high school. And I’ve been there continuously since. It’s been a lot of fun. I just keep going back.
What are your long term goals for when you graduate?
I’m in the Scholars for Medicine program so I will be going to Medical School here. I‘m definitely also considering applying to the MD/PhD program. My experience in research has been very good and I would like to continue doing research in the future — no matter what— whether I decide to to a dual degree or be an M.D. involved in research.
Has your project changed a lot over the time you’ve been there?
The goal has always been to map glycosylation sites. And Notch3. There were road bumps along the way. Some things took a little bit longer than I expected, and there were some disappointing parts. But the good thing is just being able to talk to graduate students and Dr. Haltiwanger and getting some suggestions. I remember PCR and cloning was definitely something that I had a lot of trouble with. It took me several months or maybe up to a year! I had definitely expected to be past that point after 6 months but I wasn’t. I guess it was talking to the different graduate students and getting advice, and figuring out multiple ways of doing things that carried me through. I always think of Thomas Edison and the light bulb thing…I did the thousand and one ways, and eventually got something that works!
Would you say there’s been a learning curve then, since you started in the lab?
Actually, there have been several learning curves along the way! After the cloning, I kind of got stuck at the mass spectrometry step—the instrument that we use to locate the sugars. I’d been stuck on that for several months too. It’s only been recently that we tried out as many things as we could and just got past it. There’s definitely a lot of road bumps along the way but you just have to get over it. Also, you learn to become more independent. When I was started, I was working under a particular graduate student. Then, as time went on, I started asking several different people for help with different techniques. And eventually I became more independent, asking several people how to do a procedure...now, I'm just able to take on more on my own.
What to date have been your favorite and least favorite experiences in the lab?
The PCR was pretty tough. And the cloning of the plasmid after that. And then doing the mass spec. These experiences, they’re kind of my least favorite and my most favorite. It’s both. They were the least favorite because they were the points where I was thinking “Well I really can’t stand this anymore!” But then, looking back, it’s also my most favorite part. Because that’s where I really learned. When I finally overcame it, I thought “Wow, I really like this now!” That’s the gratifying part of it, being able to look back and understand what I was doing wrong.
I really enjoy that research is not just a simple answer that’s clear-cut that I could have solved two years ago. It’s something that’s blossomed into a two and a half year thing. It’s definitely taught me more than just science too. My initial impression of research, when I was young, was that you sit in a lab and do your test tube work and don’t talk to anyone. But as it turns out, it’s not what most people think—that you sit on a box and do your work all alone. It’s really multidisciplinary. In addition to actually doing the research, you have to be able to communicate and you have to give presentations. It’s definitely an interactive thing. It’s helped me with interpersonal skills and presentation skills. And also, in terms of just growing as a person. . . When things don’t go your way, in the beginning, don’t give up. Just keep going! There were many points when I was thinking I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should stop. But you keep going. Eventually you get out of it. It’s taught me how to be more resilient. When I was younger, when things didn’t happen exactly the way I wanted, I would get really frustrated and think about giving up right away. Research has taught me that you have to just keep going and then eventually you’ll get out of your problems. It’s important to keep persevering.
What advice do you have about research for new incoming students?
In terms of advice, don’t go in there and expect to have a paper published in two weeks. Some people attempt to have that. That’s a big misconception. They don’t realize how long the research process actually is. Also I would say that it’s important to just appreciate the process and the learning. I mean, if something doesn’t go exactly the way you want to, then try to go back and figure out what happened. Try to appreciate what you did wrong and what you did right. Just be more focused on the process than on the results. If you don’t get the results, then at least you learned something. I think that’s a good way to look at research.
Has research enhanced your education at Stony Brook?
Even in high school I always heard that SB was excellent in terms of research. I knew if I came here, I couldn’t leave without getting into it. But it’s turned into a big part of my life. And it’s definitely helped me a lot. I’ve taken a lot of science classes, animal development, genetics, cell bio…cell signaling too. And a lot of the things that I’ve learned in those classes correlate somewhat —or even a lot!— to what I’ve done in the lab. I’ve learned PCR in classes many, many times. Since I’ve done it so much myself and since I had so many problems with PCR, I had to research PCR in depth. It then made it a lot easier to study it in class because I’ve actually done it with my own hands. I’ve researched manuals on how to overcome this thing. So yes, it’s definitely me a lot. Also, in terms of mass spectrometry and protein purification procedures, it helped a lot in biochem class because I ‘d been exposed to it before. Being in the lab and having to read manuals and procedures, you really understand all the steps behind the procedures and the concepts too.
You've mentioned your frustration with PCR before!
I tend to be very focused on one thing. So it takes me a long time to do something , sometimes three times as long as other people, I think, usually because I’m so detail oriented about certain things. I sometimes spend way too much doing one thing and dwelling on that one thing. Or I tend to be over-thorough. So I sometimes make fun of myself and say I have OCD, like Monk…
Surely this quality is a help too though?
The Monk part of me I guess can be a kind of a strength too, because I don’t just try to look on the surface for the answer. I try to get really into detail—try to figure out every aspect. I guess it’s double sided. As Monk says, “It’s a gift and a curse.”
How did you enjoy having your mentor as your professor in class?
It was a little strange seeing him at lab and class. But it was good…He’s a very good teacher and mentor. I also learn a lot from the graduate students.
Is it a big lab?
Right now, there’s one post doc, two full time graduate students. There are also 2 rotation students… some undergraduates too. Then there’s the lab tech and an undergraduate lab tech. We also collaborate with the Holdener lab. They go to our lab meetings. The Holdener lab is doing a lot of animal development stuff with mice that correlates to the proteins that we’re working with. . . Working with the two groups, it’s been nice to see the in vivo and the in vitro picture.
And you also have regular presentations at lab meetings?
Every Monday we have to present an abstract that we’ve read, something new in the field that we’re doing…something new in science. There’s a rotation. We have a presentation, of ~30 minutes to an hour, summarizing the work that we’ve done and getting suggestions.
Tell me a little about going to the Beckman Symposium in California last summer.
It was definitely a lot of fun. I liked that there were student presentations every single day so I could figure out what other students like me were doing. There were also a lot of seminars by faculty. They were really excellent speakers. At 8am, they could really wake you up because they had a lot of jokes and animated power point presentations. That was really a lot of fun.
This year you’ll be presenting!
That should be fun. I’ll have a lot of fun making the poster too, making sure everything is parallel.. …like Monk would like it!
You’ve also presented on campus at the URECA Celebration.
I really enjoy the experience. A lot of students came up to me last year and started talking to me about my project. It’s nice to explain and also tell them how I got into research; and they’ll ask me how they can get into research. It was fun also to respond to professors and their grilling questions, and then figure out how much I don’t know and how much I do know.
Is teaching something that appeals to you?
I really enjoy teaching. Because being able to explain a procedure actually helps me know how much I don’t know or how much I do know. So I need to know the material thoroughly. I've mentored one person in the lab. Also random people in the lab who have never done a particular technique will ask me about something and I have an opportunity to show them. And I do the same with them. Each person in the lab has his or her own niche and they’re really good at doing one thing, so we all just share the information we have. It’s a lot of learning and teaching, teaching and learning.
Is science a long-term interest for you?
I first became interested in science in 5th grade when we were started to talk about DNA and genetics. I thought it was so interesting how that you could have these tiny molecules influence everything that you are…But i n terms of formal science fairs, I didn’t really get involved until 10th of 11th grade. At first it was mainly household science projects. But then I started doing a research at Memorial Sloan Kettering in my 11th grade year. That was really interesting. We worked with a computer program that looks at how anticancer drugs can be antagonistic or synergistic.
How are you able to balance academic and research work?
Sometimes it’s a challenge. But also with research it sometimes works out that you start a procedure and you can have a break for 3 hours because you need to incubate something and during that time, you can open a book and study. So it’s not too hard. It just requires planning. You need to drag all your books from your room to the lab so that you’re not just sitting there doing nothing. A benefit of being in the Scholars for Medicine program is that I don’t have the overwhelming stress to do a million extracurricular activities at the same time, AND also take 20 credits AND do research. I’m able to spend a significant amount of time doing research, and I don’t feel stressed out because there’s so much pressure to get into a good graduate school. I really like that I’m in this program and I can do research, not for building a resume but for the fun of it.
How helpful is it being able to do research full time in the summers?
Summer research is definitely a benefit. There’s more freedom in the summer. You get to do the research without the pressure of studying, going to office hours and to class dividing up your day…I really enjoy doing research over the summer because it’s just the research, and no classes to get in the way. Fortunately my schedule worked out even during the school year so that I have a block of time in the morning and a block in the afternoon so that I can manage to do research procedures in those times. Sometimes it gets complicated if you have an hour break but you don’t really have enough time…if you’re fortunate, you can do something within that hour and set something up for later or the next day. But sometimes, if you miss your chance, you may even have to wait until the next week to get what you want done. It makes me wish I could have that chunk of time for research every single day!
Finding time is not easy, for anyone.
Something I like at SBU, though, is that for all the classes, professors always have office hours and are accessible. You can always drop in and whenever you email, they’re usually responsive within an hour.
What have you learned from Prof. Haltiwanger as a mentor? Are there particular qualities that would like to emulate?
The persevering part. Especially when I’m stuck with things, Dr. Haltiwanger will give me so many solutions to get past it. He’s a very positive person, so I really like that. He’s very encouraging. Especially when I get frustrated with something, he’ll give me a bunch of options. I’ll try one of them—and always one of them ends up working. So that’s good!