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Researcher of the Month

April 2010

Priya Borker 

Pharmacology major, Honors College, Class of 2010 
URECA & HHMI Summer Programs

Research Mentor: Dr. Lonnie Wollmuth,Neurobiology & Behavior 

PriyaBorkerExcited to investigate neurotransmitters in the brain? Eager to unlock the gating properties of glutamate receptors? Good hands & laboratory skills (e.g. doing site-directed mutagensis, handling & injecting mRNA, recording membrane currents from injected oocytes, etc.)? 

All these qualities characterize Priya Borker, an Honors College pharmacology major who was out of the gate, so to speak, as an undergraduate researcher — getting a head start in her very first semester at Stony Brook (before even having a GPA!) by joining the lab of Professor Lonnie Wollmuth in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.  Priya has remained a dedicated, active Wollmuth lab member over the years, in addition to becoming involved in a host of other activities and organizations. Now looking back on that first hurdle she overcame in 2006 by finding such a great research placement, Priya acknowledges just how much she benefitted from staying the course, and having a long-term interaction within the lab: “It was really an asset to start young, because takes so much time and technical training to do what I do...because of my age, I was able not only be trained but to contribute back after I’ve been trained and know my area of specialty very well.... I feel like I can give back to my grad students."

Priya was one of only 3 freshmen to receive the URECA summer program grant (2007); the following year, she was selected for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute summer program (2008). In addition, she has done study abroad in Manchester, England (spring 09), been an active Americorps volunteer member; shadowed doctors in Pathology and Palliative Care (2008-2009); served as Student Ambassador (2007-present), as Undergraduate Student Government Supreme Court Justice (2007-2009), as an executive board member of the Residence Hall Association, as a CHILL and CHOICE Health and Wellness Peer Health Education intern, and as a Student Health Advisory Council member. She was one of two SB students selected to attend the American Association of University Women (AAUW) conference in Washington D.C. (June 08). Last fall, she was one of a select group of undergraduates invited to present at the inauguration research exhibition honoring President Samuel Stanley, Jr., M.D. In January of this year, Priya presented a poster at California PepTalk Membrane Protein Conference, hosted by Cambridge Health Institute. 

This month, Priya will be literally running from one event to the next. On April 6, Priya Borker is one of 14 SB graduating seniors whose integration of academic excellence with other aspects of their lives is being recognized by the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence at a ceremony in Albany. On April 13, Priya will be returning to Albany to present at “SUNY Undergraduates Shaping New York’s Future: A showcase of Scholarly Posters at the Capitol.” Later on this month, Priya will be participating in the annual URECA Celebration, as well as the Honors College Senior Symposium, where she will be presenting the findings of her work for her Pharmacology & Honors College senior thesis on "Arrangement of the M3-S2 linkers in NMDA receptors during gating.” Her contributions on this project are also reflected in being second author on a manuscript recently submitted by the Wollmuth lab/research group to Journal of Neuroscience

Now looking ahead, after a busy season of medical school interviews and decision-making, Priya plans to go to Case Western Reserve School of Medicine to pursue a dual M.D./ M.P.H degree. Clearly, there is no stopping her! Reflecting back about the choices she's made at SB — doing research in the Wollmuth lab, being a pharmacology major, getting involved in campus life, and in URECA — Priya has a thoroughly positive outlook: "Stony Brook has given me the chance at every opportunity that I could have possibly wanted. It’s been a matter of figuring what I wanted to do, and the timing of when I wanted to do it. I was able to study abroad for a semester. I was able to do research as a freshman. I was able to become a volunteer in so many organizations. And the academics here are incredible. I was able to be pharmacology major, a great major here. URECA too has been fabulous to me, the stepping stone to so many other things I’ve done through my research.. . It’s really exciting." 

Below are excerpts of Priya's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your current research. 
Priya: I work in a Neurobiology and Behavior lab, working on the structure and function and conformational changes that are undergone in glutamate receptors. We use a lot of different techniques, molecular biology, electrophysiology ..and I really love the work that I do. In particular, I work on a subset of glutamate receptors called NMDA receptors which are very important for learning and memory. Dysregulation of glutamatergic transmission has been implicated in mental illnesses and neurodegenerative diseases. . . so our work on the structure of NMDA receptors is important for understanding regulation of glutamate receptors: if you know the structure, you can more easily create drug designs to regulate them better.

How did you get started in the lab? What drew you to this area?
When I was in high school, I had wanted to do research. But the labs I contacted said I was too young. So when I came to college, I was determined to try again. I came to the URECA office to ask about research, and the first question you asked me was: what type of research do you want to do? what type of science interests you? It was one of the first questions of trying to figure out who I was and what I was interested in. Soon after that, I sent an email to a few different professors in the field I was interested in and had a follow-up meeting with Dr. Wollmuth. He took me in without a GPA or anything like that. I was really interested in signal transduction pathways. He tells me that was the reason he took me on, because I was a “nerd who was interested in protein interactions!”

You mentioned that had no previous research experience. So what was the learning curve?  How long did it take till you felt comfortable doing work in the lab?
I started easy. My PI showed me how to make solutions. I would come in every week, and dedicatedly make the solutions I had to make. From there, I learned how to do a little bit of electrophysiology, and experiment with getting actual data from cells; and I helped prepare the cells to get that data. When I got my URECA grant for the summer, I was there full time and I was able to really tie in electrophysiology with molecular biology, and fine-tune the skills I had learned in the academic semester …and I could do even more preparatory work to get the data. From there, I kept learning more techniques within those subsets of electrophysiology and molecular biology. The techniques kept building on top of each other.. .

What are your plans? What will be doing after you graduate? Has doing research helped you towards your goal?
I will be entering the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, undertaking an MD/MPH. I think doing the research helped me in a wide variety of areas. Time management, and that type of thing. But also it’s a matter of knowing what you like to do, and how you like going about that.

What do you like about doing research?
I love being part of active discovery. I like planning things. And I like knowing that my efforts are real… that I can see a result from them in real time. So it’s nice to do electrophysiology and molecular biology where there’s all this preparatory work and you’re planning your experiments to the T and then it doesn’t work and then you’re frustrated, and you think, “why am I doing this?”….and then it works! You’ve figured out this massive problem! . . . You always get that with the research. You go through these phases where you can’t get to where you want to go, but then you make a breakthrough and you can go from there. Once you get past it, it’s such thrill! It’s exhilarating to know you did it!

Was there a particularly memorable moment of exhilaration? or of frustration?
When I had my URECA summer grant (2007), I was doing PCR or site directed mutagenesis on these two different genes for 2 different subunits. One worked fine. The other was a "problem child." For weeks and weeks, I couldn’t get this gene to be able to mutate. It was an incredibly frustrating experience just to go in and try to fix the protocol and tweak the protocol so that it would work…So I read papers, I asked my lab mates, I went back into old lab protocols, and I found this different way of doing a PCR, of doing site directed mutagenesis. I said to my technician, “why don’t we just try it? Let’s try this way “….and it turned out that it worked! It was such a great thrill to be able to fix this problem that had been plaguing me for so long. And now we use it commonplace. I didn’t create it by any means … but my discovery helped the lab in a real way.

Has doing research enhanced your overall education at SB?
Yes, definitely. I've learned a lot particularly about proteins, methodology, and protocols.... You know what every single step means, and how it contributes to the goal of what you want to do. A lot of the science behind my research has helped me in biochemistry, in pharmacology, all of that. But also, it’s the process of learning … You’re learning a lot of things on your own when you do outside research. In classes, you can listen to your professor, you can read the textbook and gain information that way. . . But in a research lab, you’re constantly trying to get information from other places, new information that isn’t in the textbooks. ..You’re trying to teach yourself, as well as bring in everything else you know, in order to create a complete picture.

How useful was it to get that sustained summer research experience?
You have so much more time to learn things. When you have to troubleshoot, you can fix the problem the next day. During the academic semester when you come in 3x a week for three’s great too. But when you have to troubleshoot, you have to wait until the next time you come in and you lose that train of thought, you lose that momentum you had going into the project. During the summer, you can really dedicate your time to it. There’s a lot of progress that’s made when you’re doing something full time. Having that full time experience in the lab really allows you to not only understand the procedures but the theory behind everything. You more and more intimately understand what you’re doing.

In terms of research, what advice do you have for other students?
Don’t be intimidated by your own inexperience. A lot of students I know tell me they didn’t try to do research when they were freshmen or sophomores because they felt that they knew so little that they couldn’t contribute. But it turned out that in my lab, my inexperience and my age was really an asset. It takes so much time and technical training to do what I do …so because of my age, I was able not only be trained but to contribute back after I’ve been trained and know my area of specialty very well. It was really an asset to start young, to be able to be in the same lab for so long.

Something else that I would also say to students is that if you feel like you want to do so many things, "do it!" I’m a really big proponent for dabbling. Through dabbling you figure out what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do. Just do it and whatever you like will stick. Whatever you don’t like will go by the wayside. You can figure out who you are, by figuring what you like to do and just doing it.

Are there qualities that you think make for a successful researcher? 
I think it takes a good balance of patience and impatience. You have to be patient and deal with frustrations when they come, because you’ll always have something to have something to troubleshoot in a laboratory setting.But you also have to be impatient, in that you want to figure out how to get past it as quickly as you can. You have to have that drive to figure something out — and to be motivated to overcome whatever obstacle presents itself.

Sounds like a recurring theme here.... of overcoming obstacles and problem solving?
I’m not saying that problems will occur every day or that you will be overwhelmed. … But it takes work to do research. And I think that goes with everything you do in life. You’re always going to have these obstacles in the way. You’re going to have to figure out how to keep with it, to try to overcome the obstacles, to think creatively and around whatever is in your way…Something that sounds easy in theory, may be something that can be difficult to accomplish in a real world setting.  

Is a lot of creativity involved in lab research?
Definitely! Definitely! The theory sounds good, the theory of how to go about getting something always sounds great and easy. But then you get down to it, and it’s much harder than what you proposed. There’s always something to troubleshoot. You have to be creative.

What’s it like being part of the Wollmuth lab?
My lab is fantastic! We’re always supportive of each other, wondering what everyone else is doing, and trying to troubleshoot with each other. ……I really like my lab. They’re wonderful, smart people who are always willing to help you. It’s great too to have worked for so long in the same lab, because I feel like I can give back to my grad students. They spent so much time and investment in me, improving my techniques and what I can do, and at the same time, I can teach them things that maybe they might not know. I taught one of my graduate students how to do western blots. Now she does them better than I can…! 

It’s a collaborative atmosphere too. The graduate students, the undergrads, and the technicians working together .... we collaborate within ourselves, and we collaborate outside our own lab too. ...We sent emails to other laboratories asking them: how did you do this protocol? what tips do you have on how to do this….That’s a good part of research. It’s really not a single person doing work, but it really is a group of minds getting together to get something done.

Tell me about your mentor.
Prof. Wollmuth, he's wonderful. He really puts so much effort with his undergraduate students. He trusts us, but he’s always there for us. He’s always inquisitive: what’s the data that you got that day?... It’s nice to know that someone is so excited about the work you’re doing. It’s great to have an excited PI. It makes you more excited to do that work, and to discover something…. It gives you that great motivation for your work!

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