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Researcher of the Month
Chemistry major, Environmental Engineering minor, Class of 2017
Research Mentor: Dr. Scott Laughlin, Department of Chemistry
Joshua Farr, a junior in the University Scholars Program majoring in Chemistry, has been working in the laboratory of Dr. Scott Laughlin since March 2015. His project focuses on the chemical synthesis of a complex lipid that is a component of a tracer for imaging brain circuitry in larval zebrafish. Josh has dedicated many hours to the lab all year (even commuting from Westchester where he had a paying job during the summer months), and has patiently been troubleshooting each step of the synthesis: “Getting things to work that have not been working is a really great feeling … I started this synthesis last summer that I tried for months and months and months…something was just not going quite right. Then I tried a different strategy and that has been working a lot better.” Josh looks forward to presenting his project at the upcoming URECA undergraduate research symposium, on April 27.
“Chemistry is great – I love it,” explains Josh. And at SB, Joshua has been immersed not only in research in the Chemistry Department, but has been actively involved as an organic chemistry tutor for the Academic Success and Tutoring Center, and as a TA for the Honors Organic Chemistry sequence and for Inorganic Chemistry I. Recently, Joshua received honorable mention in the William H. Nichols Fellowship competition. Currently, Josh plans to pursue graduate studies in organic chemistry.
Joshua Farr was born in Pasadena, CA where he spent his early childhood, and later moved to Ohio where he graduated from Thomas Worthington HS. His hobbies include: violin, cycling, and cooking. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your current research.
Josh: In the Laughlin lab, we’re trying to identify neural connections within the olfactory system of larval zebrafish. What we’re doing, using chemistry to image brain circuitry, is trying to alter neural transmitters which are molecules that transmit from one neuron to the next. By altering neurotransmitters so that the neurotransmitters will react with something that we add to the outside of neurons that will be able to fluoresce--we can label neural pathways and can essentially map which neurons are connected to each other. That’s the overall goal of the project. I focus on the synthetic side of things, mainly working on the molecule that will label the neurons. And I find that it’s really interesting to be able to make something that is going to serve a purpose (tracing neural circuitry).
How did you first get involved in research?
I had a friend who was in the lab, and he mentioned to me that the lab might have some openings. I looked into the research that Dr. Laughlin had been doing and found it really interesting. I talked to him, and got started last March in the lab.
Had you any previous research experience?
No research experience! But I had a very helpful graduate student who worked with me when I first started. I still work closely with her and ask her questions when I’m stuck.
My mentor, Dr. Laughlin, was also very helpful. When I started initially, I spent time primarily going to group meetings and reading papers to get a feel for the subject matter. But over the summer, he gave me my own project right away, which was really encouraging.
What are the most valuable things you learn from the research?
So I think one of the biggest things you learn is the difference between theory and practice. You’ll take some class, and theoretically any solution you come up with is right and works. But when you’re actually doing something, there’s a lot more nuance. You need to make sure not to have too many steps (because the more steps you have, the yields become lower and lower). And sometimes, even though something looks like it should work, realistically it just doesn’t for one reason or another. Going into you research, you learn how it’s not so cut and dry.
I’ve also definitely learned a lot more about biology than I thought I would because our lab is so interdisciplinary. We have a group meeting each week. And we read mostly neurobiology papers. …I’ve learned a lot more about topics I wouldn’t have learned about in my normal course work –which is really nice.
Does research help you understand your courses better?
It definitely makes your lab skills better. I’m in an electronics lab now which isn’t really the same as my research. … But I’d say that Managing your time, doing multiple things at once is a skill you build from doing research – and that carries into other courses.
.What do you enjoy about doing research?
The lab atmosphere is really, really friendly. Everyone helps each other. If you have a question, you can ask anyone in the lab. There’s no judgment. The lab atmosphere is inviting and makes you want to go into lab more. …
Getting things to work that have not been working is a really great feeling … I started this synthesis last summer that I tried for months and months…something was just not going quite right. Then I tried a different strategy and that has been working a lot better. I think in the next week or two it will be completed and I should be able to present it at URECA.
Had you done any presentations up until now?
No –not so far. ….So I will be doing my first poster at URECA. Hopefully I will have something noteworthy to present.
What are your plans for after you graduate?
Going to grad school, and hopefully getting a PhD. I took a graduate organic chemistry course last semester, which was a really great experience so I’m looking forward learning more about chemistry and honing my skills in the lab.
What advice do you have for other students?
Find a lab that you’re interested in. Joining a lab you are actually interested will make you want to go into lab a lot more than if it’s a chore or something to pad your resume. You want this to be an enjoyable experience –something that you can be learning and growing from doing. Also, it’s important to manage your time well. It can be really difficult to draw a balance between going to lab, going to class, and doing your work without getting overwhelmed.
Anything else to add about research?
I encourage people to get into research. I think it’s a good experience and can be a lot of fun. Not all schools have so many research opportunities as SB. …….. For me, it’s gone well. I couldn’t have asked for a better lab.