Class of 2010; Chemistry Major
Dr. Elizabeth Boon, Chemistry
Chemistry is the hardest subject for me, still! I have to work very hard in order to do well in it. But that’s what I like about it. If it was easy for me, then I would be bored, and who wants that?...
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
Those “lazy, hazy, crazy, days of summer” are anything but for Taemee Pak! In fact, the interim from the last exam in May to the first class in September is jam-packed with lots of hard work. What motivates Taemee? Certainly, participating in summer programs has helped define her future professional goals and explore new disciplines. But more importantly, those summer days have allowed Taemee to engage fully in her passion for science and accelerate her research efforts ― often spending 60+ hours a week in lab.
Since freshman year, Taemee has worked under the mentorship of Prof. Elizabeth Boon in the Department of Chemistry. Her research on the effect of nitric oxide on bacterial biofilm formation and in prokaryotic cell signaling during summers 2007 and 2008 was supported by URECA funding. In summer 2007, Taemee also participated (for a portion of the summer) in the SMDEP preparatory medical school program at the University of Louisville, Louisville, KY where she was exposed to a team-based learning approach to clinical diagnosis and study. This past summer, Taemee got a chance to try her hand at Nanotechnology research, while participating in the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) REU program at Cornell University, where her work on fabricating gold nanosensors for wireless bio molecular recognition was directed by Dr. Carl A. Batt.
Taemee tutors SBU student-athletes (07-present) and has served as a TA for Bio 202. She has presented at the annual URECA Celebration (Spring 2008), Chemistry Research Day (Fall 2007), and the REU Chemistry Symposium (Summer 2007). As a sophomore, Taemee received an Undergraduate Recognition Award (Spring 2008); she also earned national distinction as a Goldwater Scholar. Taemee was born and raised in Poughkeepsie NY, and credits her father with being a strong motivating force in her life:
My father lived in Korea when the Korean War began. He was torn away from his family when he was 7 during an attempt to flee Korea and dodged bullets until found by U.S. troops, who brought him to the U.S. Although he had no basic education, he began college-level night classes with a full-time job, later earning his M.S. in Chemistry. He then began a new life as a very successful inventor for GE and IBM. Perseverance and ambition are traits he strongly reflected in his life and emphasized throughout mine.
Currently in her junior year, Taemee is now considering post graduate programs emphasizing research in nanobiomedicine. When Taemee does have time to relax, she enjoys playing piano and has volunteered for 10 years playing a repertoire of popular and classsical songs for nursing home residents. Below are some excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your area of research.
Taemee: I basically work with bacterial biofilms in the Boon lab. We’re trying to investigate how they form and degrade. Biofilms have increased resistance to antiobiotics (due to the polysaccharide matrix they excrete in communities) — which is part of the problem in medicine. And that’s why these bacterial biofilms are a concern in military, public health, and environmental sectors too. …We believe that nitric oxide plays a role in bacterial biofilm formation and degradation. I’m trying to find out if H-NOX (a family of prokaryotic proteins) is sensing the nitric oxide to help with this biofilm formation, and in addition, what other proteins are involved in this.
How did you get first involved in the Boon lab?
I went onto the chemistry website, looked at the faculty research descriptions, and was interested right away in Prof. Boon’s research. Prof. Kerber recommended her to me as well. Then, I just walked into her office with my resume in hand, and said. “Hi, my name is Taemee Pak and I’m interested in research and I want to do it in your lab.” I had a short little impromptu interview. I think I took her by surprise but she took it in stride, and let me join the lab …I was really lucky when I started in that Prof. Boon’s lab was just starting. She mentored me personally herself for the first several months. Even now, I go to her and I ask her questions, and she’s completely fine with it. She’s very helpful. I count myself very lucky!
Do you enjoy the lab environment?
I enjoy it very much, though I think it depends on the lab. I’ve been in lab environments that weren’t quite as welcoming as the Boon lab. A lot depends on grad students, and how willing they are to help you. If you have to struggle a lot to find out the simplest thing, then it’s a little bit harder—though still character-building. Here in the Boon lab, I really like the people. The lab environment is great.
You’ve also had the benefit of some off-campus research experiences. Tell me a little about the program in which you participated just recently.
I was at Cornell for part of the summer. I worked on fabricating nanosensors in order to selectively and sensitively detect target molecules. I was working with this biowarfare agent, Staphylococcus enterotoxin ß. . . . It was totally different from anything I’ve ever done in my life. Nanofabrication is a completely different world. I had to work in the Clean Rooms; I had to wear the "bunny suit"— the whole bit! . . . With biology research, the work tends to be a little slow. You’re waiting for things to grow. You’re waiting for organisms to do their thing. But with nanotechnology, things go a little bit faster, in terms of device fabrication. I really liked it and I’m interested now in pursuing nanobiomedical research.
What so far are your best/worst days of research?
There's not so much one isolated incident. But there would be a day where I realized I made a stupid mistake early on, a mistake that wiped out a previous week or two weeks of experiments.That’s what I experienced somewhat at Cornell. But the day that I actually got the data that we had hoped for using the nanosensor was a nice contrast. It actually did sense the toxin, and did what it was supposed to. It was perfect, it worked beautifully, and I enjoyed that! I started dancing around in my corner of the lab (when nobody was looking!). Even though a lot of research is finding out what doesn’t work…the times that it does work, it makes the entire experience totally worth it. It’s a very good feeling!
What qualities do you think make for a successful researcher?
Curiosity, of course. . . also, optimism. The most successful people are the ones who can stay upbeat, and say:“Okay this didn’t work, but I have another idea…..” The optimism gives them more energy, motivates them. Prof. Boon is actually very much this way. Every time I’m talking about a new experiment or something that didn’t work, she motivates me by saying, “Alright, this new idea…this will work! Don’t worry!”
How has getting involved in research enhanced your overall undergraduate experience?
If I didn’t participate in research, I think I would have really lost a lot in terms of what Stony Brook has to offer me as a student. My goals would not be as defined. I wouldn’t know what I would want to do, what area of research I would want to go in for the rest of my life. And it’s helped with class work too, definitely. I was just reading the biochemistry textbook earlier this summer in which they explain a lot of the procedures. And I liked it because I’ve done a lot of them. I really like taking the theory that I learn in the classes and applying them in the laboratory setting.
Is it difficult to balance your time in lab with doing class work?
Last semester, I was not able to put as much time into lab because I was taking organic chemistry and physics and a couple of other intense classes. I wanted to spend more time in lab, but I couldn’t fit in enough hours. During the summer, I like that I am able to spend a lot more time in the lab. I do like the laboratory setting a lot. So in the summer, I’ll put in 60+ hours, 70+ hours ….
So, you would say that these summer program experiences have been beneficial for you?
With each summer program, I’ve found my career plans evolving. In the very beginning, I wanted to be a doctor. After the SMDEP program (a team-based preparatory medical school program), I decided I didn’t want to be a practicing doctor. I then considered pursuing a MD/PhD in biomedical research. After the Cornell nantoechnology program, I decided to go into nanobiomedicine. With every summer program, my career plans become more defined. . . .
I went into the Nanotechnology program at Cornell not knowing what to expect. I wanted to give it a try. And I ended up really liking it. If I hadn’t, I believe it would have been a good experience nonetheless in that I would have known what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. Same thing happened with my major. I started out as a bio major. I was so sure of it when I was coming out of high school. But after taking intro courses, I found chemistry to be a lot more engaging for me. Chemistry is the hardest subject for me, still! I have to work very hard in order to do well in it. But that’s what I like about it. If it was easy for me, then I would be bored, and who wants that? . . .
What advice do you have for other students regarding research?
I’ve been asked so many times by incoming freshman, "How do I get into research?" My main advice is: don’t be afraid to ask! People are sometimes too hesitant or too worried about what happens if they say no. They don’t want to ask because of that possible "no." But if you don’t ask, then it’s definitely going to be a “no.” I think: "What’s the worst that can happen?" It’s either a "yes" or a "no." If it’s a "yes," then great, you’re set. If not, that’s alright too. Maybe those faculty can suggest other colleagues who might have space for undergraduate researchers...
Were you always interested in science?
I’ve been participating in local and county science fairs from first grade all the way to high school …and now in college. I remember that project about electromagnetism—the first thing I presented in my life, in first grade. From 5th grade on, I also participated in country/regional fairs. But even with elementary school fairs, I think you learn a lot from presenting. Presenting when you’re young helps you later on, I think. I have to admit that I don’t really feel pressure while presenting now, say, at the URECA Celebration, or Chemistry Research day. Getting nervous is almost a foreign idea, because I don’t really get nervous. I’m very comfortable!