Class of 09; Pharmacology Major; Beckman Scholar (07-08)
Who will be the next Researcher of the Month?
See photos of the 08 URECA Celebration of Undergraduate Research & Creativity
. . . Once you get in there you can’t even keep track of time! It’ so consuming. …My girlfriend gets really upset, wondering: “What you doing? You’re always in the lab.” But I tell her I just gotta be there. You can’t get stuff done if you’re not there.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
On April 30th, 2008, Stony Brook University celebrated its 50th birthday. And on that same day, at URECA’s annual undergraduate research Celebration event, all eyes were on Poster #50, "Design of Bio-available InhA Inhibitors with Activity against Drug-Resistant Strains of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis", the work of Avinash Khanna.
Avi’s undergrad research experiences are cause for celebration - as is his own story. Avi moved to the United States in 1997, at the beginning of 5th grade and attended P.S.120 in Queens. He and his mother had emigrated from Afghanistan to escape religious persecution and had been granted refugee or asylum status. Through middle school, and even later on at East Meadow High School, despite his mother’s insistence that he would “do something great”, Avi admits he was barely passing his classes. But in junior year of high school, he finally connected with something beautiful: “The first thing that got me interested in schoolwork, period, was Chemistry. The beauty of it is that all chemistry from what I’ve learned can be reduced to very, very simple ideas. . . I really have to attribute a lot of my care and interest in Chemistry to my Chemistry teacher in high school, Miss Johnsen. She was the best, the stickler of the sticklers. But she was the one teacher in high school that made me read before class. She was one of my favorite teachers.”
Avi continued to explore his passion for chemistry, and became a pharamacology major once at Stony Brook. He made it a goal to work in the laboratory of Dr. Peter Tonge, a professor of Chemistry to whom he gravitated from his freshman year while taking Gen. Chem.132: “Every time I’d go into his office hours, I’d realize the way that the way he taught was the best way that I learned. His explanations are very fluid; they help you understand things on a different level.” Avi’s hard work and motivation in the Tonge lab were rewarded: last spring, Avinash was selected for the premier Beckman Scholars Program award (07-08) from the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Foundation for outstanding undergraduate research, which has enabled him to put all his effort into doing science. Avi has also served as a teaching assistant and tutor for Chemistry classes; and has been involved in the Undergraduate Biochemical Society. Although Avi initially thought about a pre-medical school track, he now plans to apply to graduate programs in Chemistry next year, in large part based on his research experiences at SB.
Avi has presented at two URECA Celebrations (07, 08), and at the Chemistry Research Day (07), and tremendously enjoys interacting with students and faculty engaged in research. Indeed, making connections with other researchers drives Avi; he credits conversations he’s had with Professors Dan Bogenhagen, Isaac Carrico, Francis Johnson, Robert Kerber, and Harvard Lyman — to name a few — as being powerful sources of motivation. Off-campus, Avi presented a poster last month at the national 235th American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting in New Orleans and was amazed to find himself meeting several legendary figures in the field: “It was a blast! … I even got the opportunity to talk to Stephen Buchwald, the scientist who came up with this methodology of making this compound that’s the framework of my compound. I usually have to run this guy’s experiment every time I sit down in my lab. So I go there to ACS and get to listen to a talk from him! I shook his hand, and got to talk to him afterwards! ... It was really moving!” Just recently, Avinash also presented a research talk in April at the 2008 Columbia University Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium; and this coming July, will be presenting at the 08 Beckman Symposium in Irvine California.
Photo taken at 07 Beckman Symposium
(left to right: Rohit Repala, 06-07 Beckman Scholar; Avinash Khanna, 07-08 Beckman Scholar; Prof. Iwao Ojima, Department of Chemistry, Institute for Chemical Biology & Drug Discovery; Eugene Tan, 07-08 Beckman Scholar; and Alex Treyer, 06-07 Beckman Scholar)
Avi reflects that his varied experiences—including visits with his parents who now both live in India, his experience of places where opportunities are more limited, even his own status as a refugee, have provided him with a unique perspective, noting: “I’m really glad that my mother decided to move to this country. I don’t think I’d have this kind of opportunity anywhere else. I’m really thankful! . . . It really makes you appreciate what you have.” 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?
Avi: I’m currently working on making synthetic analogs to a certain natural product usually found in soaps and other antibacterials that are very common— it’s called trichlosan. This molecule, this natural product, is known to inhibit a certain step in the pathway of making mycolic acids. These mycolic acids are really important because they go on to make the cell wall for the tuberculosis bacteria. So if we can inhibit this step, we can essentially kill the mycobacterium in tuberculosis.
How did you get started?
I had a class with Prof. Tonge my freshman year. He was my Gen Chem.professor (132). It was really intriguing every time he gave a lecture. He would always have a cool picture or slide which sort of sums up his research. And I’d always look at the pictures and wonder, “What is that? Why does it look so cool?” I spent a whole summer emailing Prof. Tonge back and forth again and again trying to get research and he dodged me really well for two months! But then one day, he said, “Okay, set up with Allison.”.….She was one of the grad students, doing molecular biology, something that requires you to be very, very, very, very meticulous… I didn’t really enjoy coming to the lab at first. But one day, when Allison was busy doing something on the computer, I went around the lab asking if anyone else needed help. One of the older grad students, Chris, said “Why don’t you come watch me do this?” He did a workup, and let me do the next work-up. It seemed interesting because you could see the reactions happening right in front of your face. You could see things separating. It was pretty intriguing. Since then, I’ve been working with Chris on this other project.
What’s the lab atmosphere like?
Prof. Tonge keeps the lab environment very happy and calm and very education-inducing. He lets his students go and do their own thing. This way, they are the ones who are using their own motivation for work. They are the ones saying, “Yes I want to do this.” It’s not: “I have to be here from 10 to 6.” I completely believe in this because I see the motivation for research coming from myself rather than from being forced to do the work.
How many hours do you typically work?
Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays, I’m there the whole day….I don’t know. Once you get in there you can’t even keep track of time! It’ so consuming. …My girlfriend gets really upset, wondering: “What you doing? You’re always in the lab.” But I tell her I just gotta be there. You can’t get stuff done if you’re not there.
Was it helpful having the summer fellowship?
The fact that you can spend large amounts of time there helps a lot. If you work anywhere along the lines of 10 hours in a day, that’s the only way you’ll get work done. If you work 7, it’s tough. You have to be really efficient. I’m still learning, and am not that efficient. I need to put that time into the lab.
What excites you about research?
It’s definitely the hardest and most elusive catch ….When I started doing research, I realized that I can find things that nobody has ever seen before. Nobody has ever made some of the molecules that I’ve ever made. And I’ve seen what they look like. When I go in there and I make this molecule for the first time and it’s a beautiful white crystal, it’s completely clear….nobody else in the entire world has seen this. Set aside the therapeutic potential for what I’m doing….it’s just nobody has done this before! What I’ve learned, though, is that it’s really tough; it’s not like you’re going to find these crystals every day. It’s more that you’ll find two or three crystals in about 6 months — which makes it sound depressing, but that’s not true. Because when you do get these crystals, you’re on a high for a couple of weeks. You feel absolutely awesome!
What was your best day and your worst day of research?
My work is a bit anticlimactic, actually. I’ll make a compound and I’ll send it out for testing against tuberculosis…and we’ll find out the data about 3 months later. It’s not a right-away thing. Over the summer, towards the end, I made a compound that had a lot of potential. And when we got very good data from the compound, it was very promising, very uplifting! Just the fact that I did such a small experiment that made a big change and had potential for our research made me feel happy.
The worst day, let me think … This one time, I had finished an experiment and I had a big beaker in my hands. I was stirring it, and all of a sudden, I hit a metal part by mistake and the whole glass shattered. The entire compound was lying in front f me. And I just stared at it for a couple of minutes, trying to really understand what I did. A month’s work that I’d put forth.. and it was right there. But I guess that happens!
Has it been helpful to you being around other students, grad students?
When I’m studying for my exams, I can just ask my grad students and more than likely they know the answers and will help. Usually the answer these guys will give you is more complicated than what you’d get in class. But it’s very helpful. It’s stimulating, because you kind of see what you do in class. You see exactly why it’s important in real life. It gives more significance to the class. And you’re likely to study more.
Has research enhanced your overall education here at Stony Brook?
I’ve gotten so many experiences from doing research. Probably the best times of my college have been because I’m doing research. I’ve really met very, very bright people. Before, when I used to go to class, I used to not care as much about what was happening. However, now when a professor displays a slide on a particular disease for example, I am sitting in my class and I’m completely focused on trying to figure out a way to cure it. Because that’s essentially what you do. Problem-solving in research. Your mindset completely changes from ”This guy’s talking about this random thing that I don’t ever need to know anything about” to “How can we use this to help somebody? How can we change or perturb this to learn something more so we can cure a disease.”
What was the first presentation experience you had?
Definitely URECA, the URECA Celebration. ..it’s probably one of the best experiences I’ve had! And it’s most motivating too. You’d see the professors come in that taught you, and now you’re explaining to them something…And they’re all very supportive, they’re all very helpful. And you just realize, again, that this work is something that nobody has seen before and it’s you who’s going to do this. Sometimes people don’t realize it’s upon them to go on and do something. A lot of people are just waiting in life for something to happen….. But sometimes you just realize that it’s time to go and do what you want to do--whatever it may be. It may not be scientific research. But it’s really been great for me to put the work out there, to see it all on this one board…You think, “wow, I did all of that!”
Recently, I’ve been going to a lot of symposiums and a lot of research talks. Going to these symposiums is the best. You go there and you have all the breadth of knowledge of every sort of field. You can ask any professor, what do you think about this idea? And he’ll tell you right then and there. You’ll be talking about your research and somebody will give you an idea. More often than not, they’re an expert in that field.
April has been busy for you. It started with a meeting in New Orleans, right?
I went to New Orleans with another student from Chemistry, Rohit Repala. It was a blast!
I even got the opportunity to talk to Steven Buchwald, the scientist who came up with this methodology of making this compound that’s the framework of my compound. I usually have to run this guy’s experiment every time I sit down in my lab. So I go there to ACS and get to listen to a talk from him! I shook his hand, and got to talk to him afterwards! . . . It was really moving!
Are you ready for the Beckman Symposium this summer in California?
I can’t wait! I think about it every other day. Last year, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. You go there, and not only do they feed you, and give you a place to live..but moreover, you get to meet the most prominent scientists in any field, in your field!…They’re there because they want to help you. I wanted to talk to each and every one of these professors about their work. I want to see what they think, how they think. . . I’ve also learned that philanthropy is really important from all of this. The people who organize this are really amazing too. . Murphy, she knows everybody on a first name basis. That makes you feel welcome, important. Just getting the fellowship itself makes you feel like you want to do so much more work. One, this is what you’re being paid for. But it’s also that people accept and want you to work, they feel like you have some sort of talent, they’ll help you in learning. The fact that people have faith in you is very motivating.
When did you move to the US?
My mom used to tell me, “Avinash, you are going to do something You WILL do something that will make me proud.” I said “okay, mom sure.” And then I went to middle school, I used to barely pass. Throughout high school, until 11th grade, I barely passed all my classes, math included, science included. …But t hen I started taking an interest in stuff and the first thing that got me interested in schoolwork, period, was Chemistry. The beauty of it is that all chemistry from what I’ve learned can be reduced to very, very simple ideas. . .I really have to attribute a lot of my care and interest in Chemistry to my Chemistry teacher in high school, Miss Johnsen. She was the best, the stickler of the sticklers. But she was the one teacher in high school that made me read before class. She was one of my favorite teachers.
What made you decided to be a pharmacology major at Stony Brook?
I had thought about chemical engineering, other fields. But then I met Prof. Johnson. I went to him for a random question. He gave me the most elaborate explanation about prostoglandins. I was moved, and I’m always moved every time I visit him, because he’s a brilliant guy. He knows how to integrate everything into a simple chemical reaction. That’s pretty exciting. That’ s what a pharmacologist can do…. I stumble into his office (he collaborates with Peter Tonge) whenever I need any help. He’s one of the reasons nobody is really upset about the chemistry library being broken down. You can just go to him and he will tell you what issue, who was the author, where they moved to and what they worked on. And if you still can’t find that, he will give you a couple of suggestions. He’s like an encyclopedia. Every time I go to his office, I come out with 10-20 references and other ideas…other ways to go.
From your experiences related to research, do you have any advice for other students?
Do it. Definitely, definitely do it. One thing you want to do before you ask for a research position is to get a firm idea of what the professor’s work is. So you can look up their website, get a firm idea of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it….and read a paper if you get a chance. If you don’t understand something, the best thing is go up to the professor and ask them. Ask what you don’t understand. They will tell you and it will likely spark a nice conversation. You can’t get them to keep quiet once they start talking about their own research!. . . Overall it’s a good learning experience. Also, and this is important: find something that you’re interested in. If you can’t muster the enthusiasm to get there in the morning, you won’t do it.
You’ve had a variety of experiences in your life.
I’ve seen different faces in the world than a lot of people I meet. I’ve seen very different faces...I mean… you live in a village where people milk their own cows, pick up their own vegetables, or go to a local city where everybody is poor and there’s so much corruption. And then you come to a place that’s full of opportunity. . . I’m really glad that my mother decided to move to this country. I don’t think I’d have this kind of opportunity anywhere else. I’m really thankful. … It really makes you appreciate what you have.”