Alexandra Smolyanskaya
Honors College Biochemistry major, Class of '06

Research Mentor:
Prof. Berhane Ghebrehiwet, Department of Medicine,
Division of Allergy & Clinical Immunology

Science never works out perfectly. Which is one of the great things about it. . It give you something to look forward to and challenges you, and pushes you forward.

Interview:

Researchers of the Month: past features

Researcher of the Month

About Alexandra
AlexSmolyanskayaWhat's going on, molecularly speaking, with the C1q protein and its receptor gC1qR in the complement pathway, which is responsible for inflammation in the brain in cases of Alzheimer's patients?  . . .  Are they activated and present on astrocytes?

These are some of the things Alexandra Smolyanskaya is trying to figure out while working in the immunology lab of Professor Berhane Ghebrehiwet, Department of Medicine, here at Stony Brook University. Now in her second year with the Ghebrehiwet lab, she is currently collecting data, doing research and designing her experimental project for her Honors College senior thesis. Alexandra has wonderfully articulated the benefits of being taught by research scientists, of doing undergraduate research and of having great faculty mentors. Of Professor B. Ghebrehiwet, DVM, D. Sc., referred to by his lab simply as Berhane, Alex comments: "He's amazing. He really spends a lot of time with his students. What's actually interesting about the lab is that unlike most labs, we don't have graduate students. So we're treated as the graduate students. We have our own projects. And we work on them pretty much independently. . . it's a great learning environment because you really get to experience the problems on your own."

Alexandra has also benefited from doing off-campus research for the past two summers in the lab of Prof. Andy Singson of the Waksman Institute, Rutgers University where she worked on a genetics projects involved aging in males, using C. elegans as a model for study. Though the two experiences are in different types of labs, Alexandra states: "I'm actually a big advocate of learning from as many places as possible…to be able to approach your problem from many different directions."

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, and schooled in Staten Island from the age of 7 through high school, Alexandra's next stop — following graduation from SBU — will be Graduate School in the field of Neurobiology (at Harvard University). Below are some excerpts shared from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .

The Interview

Karen: How did you first get involved in research?
Alex:Actually…a friend of mine was in my Russian class of all things. She was in [Berhane's] lab. And she was talking about how great it was and what a great mentor he is. Someone who teaches…teaches the way to think about experiments and approach these kind of problems. And it turned that she was graduating that year so he was obviously going to have space so I approached him and he said OK….I approached him for the fall semester at the end of the spring semester the previous year. He was really happy that I came to him early actually…. He said it showed enthusiasm.

Are the questions all worked out for you?...Do you have input as far as what you're going to work on or what your approach is going to be?
When I came in, I didn't know much about anything. So Berhane assigned me a project, he told me this is what you do , this is how you approach it . . . He gave me a protocol and he kind of just said "go" . . . and if you have a problem you can ask him or if you get stuck or something you can always talk to him. But this year when I'm doing my honors college thesis paper, I know I want to do my graduate research in neurobiology. I approached him and asked him whether I can somehow incorporate our research into some sort of relevant [Neurobiology] question. And he let me . . . I'm working on a project incorporating C1q one of the proteins in the major pathway that we work on, the complement pathway, in Alzheimer's disease. . . which somehow sort of relates to neurobiology. . . which worked out really nicely for me. I get to design the whole experiment and figure everything out and do all the reading . . . pretty much like a real project, like a real thesis paper. . .It's really exciting. I'm working on [my own project]. . . At the same time I'm still working on the same general focus of the lab-—which is the complement pathway.

Is it hard to scale down such a research project, to tackle this work in a year's time?
These things always on paper...seem like "I can do this." But actually it's the middle of October and I just got my cells …which means I haven't really started much yet except for the paperwork and the design. So it is hard. Because you always think you can do it. Science never works out perfectly. Which is one of the great things about it, I think...It give you something to look forward to and challenges you…and pushes you forward, I think.

Is it the problem-solving aspect of science and research that appeals to you?
I know a lot of people get frustrated when they don't get results because that happens a lot …more often than not. You don't get results or you get the wrong results. And I don't think there's such a thing as wrong results and most scientists don't either. Because any data is good data. It shows you something whether it be positive or not. And to me whatever it is, it's exciting. And if it happens to be something novel and new, something no one has ever seen before--it's even better. And usually it is.

What is the most frustrating thing you encounter in research?
Time. It's the timing. . . Especially as an undergraduate, and having worked in two labs, I'm limited in time to either a summer or two semesters. I have to finish this project in this window. And often that timing doesn't depend on you. It depends on your specimens or on other people. And that's been really probably the hardest part so far.

How would you say research has enhanced your education?
I think it puts your classes into context. When I take classes-- Genetics for example--there were a lot of techniques that you learn about and applications that you learn about…but they seem kind of irrelevant unless you've been in the field and know how useful this really is..and how difficult it actually was for someone to discover this. You begin to really appreciate the scientists working on this stuff. You learn so much more from your classes because you know how to use the information and what to take from the classes . . it definitely helps to have been in the lab.

How did you get interested in applying to graduate school in neuroscience?
I've never wanted to do the medical school thing. I guess those were the two options with with a biology undergraduate BS. Med School or PhD. I've always loved the idea of research even before I started doing it. . And especially when I started doing it. A lot of people get turned off from it once they do it and see that nothing works. . .

Were particular classes or particular professors also an influence in your decision to pursue research and graduate studies in Neurobiology?
Professor Gail Mandel. Actually she was one of three professors of cell signalling . [The others were]…Paul Brehm, and Simon Halegoua. . . That was the first upper division biology class I ever took. And it just completely blew me away. I loved it. I took it kind of in a weird order..because that s a more advanced class than most other upper division classes and I should have taken it later. But the complexity of it and the beauty. . .and then I took Neurobiology. . . All these pathways—you're studying such a small part of a system and it's just fascinating. Plus the professors will talk about something. You'll see their excitement because these are things they're working on . . . and at the same time they'll say "this is what we found, this is what others have found, and this is what remains to be discovered." I think it's amazing to be able to be at that point in my learning career ….when somebody can tell me this remains to be discovered. And I know that I can go if I want to and do it.

Do you have advice to give to other students interested in going into research?
Start early! That whole time thing that I had talked about definitely has a big effect. Research is so great. It's especially satisfying to be able to come out at the end of it and say I did this..I can share that with the world now by having a published paper, or even just being able to tell people, "yeah. . . this is what I found." But to do that, you have to first establish yourself, being able to approach the problem, be able to think bout it in the right way. To actually do the project. . . you have to allow some time. I definitely think starting early is the best thing you can do if you're interested in research.

What experience encapsulates research for you?
I was working on these two cloning projects at the Singson lab in Rutgers. And it's a fairly simple experiment but a lot has to do with the DNA that you're working on. . . One of them took me about 3 weeks. The other I couldn't finish in 3 months. So I think that's a really good representation of how research can be. Sometimes everything is great and it works with you, the data comes out great, the enzymes work. . . Sometimes no matter what you do, it refuses to cooperate with you.

Is your involvement in research a key factor in preparing you for graduate school?
Yes. Most programs that I'm looking at do not even consider you pretty much if you don't have research experience--as far as I can tell. I don't know anybody that I've met in graduate school that didn't have a research experience…And every department that I've spoken to says you must have a research experience to be competitive. . . .But I think the main thing that people from graduate programs want you to gain from doing undergrad research is being able to think the way a researcher thinks, to be able to approach a problem and realize that: yes, this is what I have to do; these are the controls I need; and this is what this is going to show.

You've interacted already with a lot of different scientists…is there a unifying trait that makes for a successful researcher?
Some people I talk to say they were just lucky. The thing that they had decided to pursue gave them great data . . . And they found some pathway that nobody had ever looked at before. But I also think it does take a certain kind of person, a certain kind of questioning. You have to go in with a lot of questions otherwise you're not going to get many answers.

Will you be presenting at next spring's URECA Celebration?
Of course. . . Provided I have some data!