Alexander Chamessian
Honors College Biochemistry Major, Class of '09;
Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Scholars program, Summer 08

Research Mentors:
Dr. Michael Frohman, Pharmacological Sciences
Dr. Isaac Carrico, Chemistry

"Actually, you have to be crazy about what you’re doing or it’s difficult just to get yourself out of bed on a Saturday morning to go to lab if you don’t think what you’re doing is both significant and interesting."

Interview:

Researchers of the Month: past features

Oct. 17th is Chemistry Research Day - celebrating 50 Years of Chemistry at SB!






Researcher of the Month

About Alex
Alex ChamessianAlex Chamessian is determined to make the most of his college years. His enthuasiasm about science, his drive, and his entrepreneurial spirit is hard to miss. He currently works on "Phospholipase D signaling and lymphocyte chemotaxis" in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Frohman, Pharmacological Sciences (07-present); and following up on a newly developed interest in chemical biology has also recently joined Dr. Issac Carrico's lab to work on "synthesis of chemical probes for use with unnatural amino acid and unnatural sugar modification."

Alex participated in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Scholars program (Center for Science & Mathematics Education) this summer, working in Toronto with HHMI investigator Dr. Jeffrey Wrana and his research group on elucidating "upstream regulators of a transcription factor, TAZ, an essential component in the canonical TGF-beta pathway." Alex's initial research experience at SB involved a computational chemistry project mentored by Dr. Nancy Goroff in Chemistry (fall 06-summer 07).

Alex is currently a senior in the Honors College, majoring in biochemistry. In addition to his research involvement, Alex is president and editor of The Patriot. He's also president of the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society. When he saw a need for a Biochemistry Journal club, he helped to create one! This involved personally setting us seminars with faculty, posting flyers, initiating student interest in talking about science. When he and fellow students next saw a need for an undergraduate journal at Stony Brook, they started working on founding one. This involved seeking out sponsors (College of Arts and Sciences, Biochemistry & Cell Biology Department, for ex), designing a website, building a staff, working from the ground up: "We believe that one of the things lacking for SB undergraduates is our own undergraduate science journal, and the opportunity to present your work to your peers. . . We've been working on fillig this void, and in the next few months, are dead set on publishing our first issue." Be sure to look for updates on the forthcoming SB Journal.

Alex was born in Teaneck, NJ and raised in Rockland County, New York. To all the faculty and staff who've helped him achieve his goals, and broaden his experiences—including Drs. Elizabeth Boon, Isaac Carrico, Michael Frohman, Nancy Goroff, Robert Haltiwanger, Francis Johnson, Harvard Lyman, the staff at the Center for Science and Mathematics Education, and a host of others—Alex is very thankful: "I’ve been extremely lucky to work with some really good people. Every day I feel blessed with the generosity that people have given me here. . It’s not because I’m brilliant or special but I think people have been kind to me because they see a little enthusiasm, and passion. " Below are some excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your primary area of research.
Alex: I’m in two labs now. I’ve hopped around a bit, not because I’m indecisive, but because I figure I am an undergraduate and now's the time to do a smorgasbord of different things, to explore diverse interests. So I’ve done computational chemistry with Prof. Goroff. That got my feet wet with research. Then I moved to Dr. Frohman’s lab—my home lab in pharmacology, the place where I’ve learned the most, including all the basic techniques that one needs in any biological related lab, the “big guns" so to speak. I work primarily with an enzyme called mito-PLD [Phospholipase D]. We’re trying to characterize the function of this enzyme with respect to other cellular processes. Recently, I’ve also become interested in chemical biology, something I want to do for Ph. D. studies in the future. So to beef up my chemistry background and research experience, I’ve recently joined Prof. Carrico’s lab. I’m very interested in the research that he does, and am working with unnatural sugars and unnatural amino acids, doing some synthesis and some in vivo applications.

One of the things that interesting about being is two labs, actually, is that I’m just to the point in the Frohman lab where I’m mature and independent enough to feel confident about doing my own work. I don’t need someone watching over me all the time. But then I go right back to square one in Prof. Carrico’s lab, because I’m a total neophyte there with respect to synthetic organic chemistry. I feel that I bring a skill set that I got from working in the Frohman lab though, which is valuable to the Carrico lab … so it’s definitely going to be an interesting experience this year!

You’re really going to work in 2 labs? How on earth will you manage?
I’m only taking 3 classes. And I’ve given myself significant blocks of time. Tuesday and Thursday, I have 12 hours straight that I can work in the lab. If I don’t sleep, and I eat infrequently…I’ll be able to make some headway this year!

How did you get your initial research experience at SB?
I started sophomore year, in the fall. That in retrospect might have been a little late. Laurie Fiegel, the Honors College Director, had made some recommendations about whom to contact. At first, I didn’t really know how to go about getting into any lab or get started in research. Looking back, I see a big difference in the things I look for now, as far as where I want to research. The kinds of questions I ask when I meet a professor whose lab I want to join are very different than when I first started. There are certain things I would look for in a lab now. Like, apart from the PI himself or herself, you need to think: what kind of support will there be inside the lab? Are there people who are patient and willing to work with you? That’s key. Because (as I've found out from others' less positive experiences) you can be in a great lab  . .  but you won’t learn anything if you don’t have someone teaching you. And that’s usually the role of a grad student or post doc.

But the main tip I give everyone looking to join a lab now is: Always know what the professor is doing. At least try to read a paper. Drop a line in your email — something specific to that professor’s research so it’s not just a mass email. Showing interest in what they’re doing is key! I did that with all the mentors I’ve worked with, from the very start when I contacted Prof. Goroff. We had an interview, and it worked out very nicely. I’m still very much indebted to Dr. Goroff for giving me the opportunity to start doing research, even though the computational project I first started our in wasn’t exactly my cup off tea.

This past summer, you participated in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International program. What was that experience like for you?
I worked with Dr. Jeff Wrana in a prestigious lab. The PI is a superstar. And I learned a ton. By going to a different lab, you get to see little idiosyncrasies in even very basic techniques that people use in all labs. Going to another lab gives you a great opportunity to learn.

Primarily though, the mentoring and exposure I got was from the very hard working post docs. They were very kind to me. I had a great mentor this summer [Bobby], best teacher I ever had in the lab! I learned techniques that I will be able to use here and everywhere else I go. I learned how to think about projects on my own. I was given way more freedom, more independence . . . meaning, that I was thinking for myself. I wasn’t a "pipette monkey" for my post doc. The post doc might initially turn me onto ideas, or make suggestions, but then it was my job to do the due diligence, to propose experiments.

What are your plans now?
After I graduate in May, I’m going to take a gap year. The MD/PhD is ultimately what I intend to do, with a degree in chemical biology.  A graduate course I took last spring with Profs. Carrico and Boon really got me interested in the field. I”ve thought about several options, maybe working in research, maybe in the biotech industry. I'm looking into several programs... but it’s up in the air. There’s a zillion and one things I can do at this point. I'm really excited about all the possibilities.

You've experienced some different lab environments. Can you describe in general what you like about doing research and about the lab environment. What motivates you?
I was reading a book, recently, called At the Bench. In the intro, the author says it’s almost a guilty pleasure to go to work in a biomedical setting because there’s so much autonomy and flexibility. People wear jeans, t-shirts. .. Only here does your boss wear Bermuda shorts and a Club-Med t-shirt! There’s a tremendous amount of independence, autonomy and flexibility which appeals to people who go into science. And that’s in part what I love about the lab environment. You get the independence— it’s encouraged, and that’s one of the advantages. Also, the relationships you get as an undergraduate with graduate students & post docs is invaluable, worth its weight in gold. You’ll get brotherly/sisterly type of  advice from grad students and post docs, about what to look out for in your future, advice that you couldn’t get otherwise. You’re treated as equals for the most part, which I really like. And everyone there is sincere, enthusiastic about what they’re doing.

Another thing is. . . if you look at the attitude of the professor, that’s the ambiance of the lab, the pervasive mood. In the Frohman lab, for example, we’re all relaxed because our PI is so relaxed. He doesn’t try to micromanage us (and I don’t think you do good work if your PI is breathing down your neck!) Dr. Frohman is a good guy, very relaxed.  In my mind, he’s doing us a favor, the undergraduates, just by letting us be in his lab. If we give him something in the way of data, great. But he’s not expecting Nature-worthy publications. He’s doing a nice thing for us by letting us get the experience of doing research, training the next generation of scientists.

Has being in the lab enhanced your academic or classroom experience at SB?
From intro classes up to now, I’m able to understand the context we talk about so much better because I’ve done them, I’ve worked with them. Like anything else, when you have a need for something, you learn it better. You learn it not for learning’s sake, but because you have an application. So yes, I‘ve learned a lot of the things we do in class already in the lab, even before I took the class, because I needed to learn it. It can work both ways too. There are things I’ve learned in class that have helped me when I’m in lab and I have to troubleshoot. Experiments go wrong 99% of the time. And when they go wrong, you have to figure out why this or that went wrong. If you don’t understand the underlying theory of the technique or experiment, then you can’t figure out what’s going on.

Despite the obvious frustrations involved in research, do you enjoy this problem-solving aspect of science?
To be honest, I’m less enamored of the wet-work than I am of the problem solving—the after part-of experiments, the interpretations, . . things to do with creativity. I really like thinking about science. I like taking the results and dreaming up applications. However, I do enjoy the wet-work very much at times because I know the end that I’m striving for. I’m motivated by producing those results that I can then think about… but the problem solving, that’s the part that I like best about doing science.

Is it difficult to balance research and academics?
I’ll let you know. The grades come first.

What are your best/worst days of research?
You really have to like what you’re doing, because if not, you will quit immediately. Things go wrong much more than they go right. And when they go wrong, you feel terrible. You can get in a slump. You can have failure after failure where you begin doubting yourself. But just as quickly, something will go right, and you’ll get so excited you’ll want to be in the lab all the time. Science is kind of extreme. You’ve really got to be disciplined, and believe what you’re doing is important. It’s important to do something you’re interested in. . . Actually, you have to be crazy about what you’re doing or it’s difficult just to get yourself out of bed on a Saturday morning to go to lab if you don’t think what you’re doing is both significant and interesting.

Do you have any other advice for fellow students regarding research?
Don’t get too down on yourself if you can’t produce. If you’re comparing yourself to graduate students who are much more knowledgeable, you’ll notice that they have the same trials and tribulations, the same hardships. They also go through times when they don’t produce for months on end. In reality, they’re probably even more discouraged than you, but they stick it out. So don’t be so hard on yourself if you can’t produce those Nature-results. . you’re not necessarily expected to at this stage.

Most important: make sure you like it, that you have some enthusiasm, some passion. It’s a mistake to do research just because someone told you it looks good on a resume or that you need to do it for med school. If you don’t really enjoy it, your research will likely not be that great, and the benefits you think you’ll get won’t really be that great either. I don’t have that many significant achievements to my name in the lab. But it’s pretty obvious when I talk to people that I like what I’m doing!