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Researcher of the Month
Biochemistry major, Honors College, class of 2016
Research Mentors: Dr. David Talmage, Pharmacological Sciences; Dr. Lorna Role, Neurobiology & Behavior
“Not only am I fascinated by the brain and neuroscience, I feel that research gives me a very valuable opportunity to learn things that my textbooks cannot teach me . . .,” reflects Jonathan McGuire, a rising senior in the Honors College majoring in Biochemistry.
In his freshman year, Jonathan joined the Center for Nervous System Disorders joint laboratory of Dr. David Talmage (Pharmacological Sciences) & Dr. Lorna Role (Neurobiology & Behavior), where he strengthened various laboratory skills and now currently works with MD/PhD student Elizabeth Ballinger to investigate the effect of MeCP2 deletion on the integrity of the Cholinergic Nervous System. This is part of an ongoing project focusing on Rett Syndrome, a neuropsychiatric disorder with similarities to autism. This spring, Jonathan was one of 6 undergraduates to be selected for the URECA-Biology Alumni Award to support his research for summer 2015 – an award that enabled him for the first time to devote himself full time to his research/senior thesis project. “When the school supported me with this grant, it basically told me that they believed in me. It was very reassuring. Now I could work full time as a researcher – which was a goal of mine ever since I came here. Being able to immerse myself throughout the summer has been truly rewarding and I’ve made some great progress. I am truly thankful for the experience.”
Jonathan took the initiative to gain hands-on experience in neurobiology research
as early as 10th grade (Valley Stream South HS, NY), working under the mentorship
of Dr. Einar Sigurdsson at NYU Langone Medical Center; he presented this research
at the 2012 Long Island Science & Engineering Fair, advancing to the second round
and receiving honorable mention in the Medicine & Health Sciences category. At SB,
Jonathan has served two summers as an orientation leader; volunteers at Stony Brook
hospital, shadows an orthopedic surgeon, was an organic chemistry teaching assistant;
and was selected as a student ambassador for the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. To
give a student perspective on URECA and the value of undergraduate research experiences,
Jonathan volunteered this past July to talk with high school students participating
in the Pre-College Summer Institute offered through the College of Arts & Sciences
(CAS), and also assisted with Biology lab tours.
Jonathan plans to apply to medical school in the near future. His hobbies include volleyball, soccer, and ultimate Frisbee. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Jonathan: I work in the Center for Molecular Medicine, Center for Nervous System Disorders in the laboratory of Dr. Talmage and Dr. Role. My particular project is focused on Rett syndrome, an autism like neuropsychiatric disorder. We’re trying to find out what effect MeCP2 deletion has on the integrity of the cholinergic nervous system. I am investigating whether or not the deletion of the MeCP2 gene leads to cholinergic neuronal death or simply a loss of cholinergic identity of neurons in the NBM, the region of the brain most dense with cholinergic activity projecting to the neocortex.
How long have you been in the lab?
I joined the lab in the spring of my freshman year. I’ve been undertaking various small projects, most of them independent and geared towards allowing me to learn neurobiology techniques specifically for work done in this lab.
Was it difficult to transition to doing research here at SB?
It helped that I had done research before at NYU, in a lab studying Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Sigurdsson welcomed me to the world of research and the experiences I had there really set a good foundation. Most importantly, it taught me how to look at scientific papers/articles that I was previously intimidated by and understand what I could learn from them. I think this skill is essential for anyone who wants to expand their critical thinking or their ability to interpret detailed information which is necessary for a career in science.
Have you been interested in neuroscience for some time now?
Ever since 8th grade of junior high school. I liked seeing how the brain worked and I was also very interested in computers and circuitry. My dad is an electrician, and he would show me these electrical concepts early on … So basically, seeing how the brain parallels a computer when neurons relay messages throughout the whole mind complex was what initially fascinated me about neuroscience.
How do you think being involved in undergraduate research has enhanced your education
as a whole?
There is a big difference between learning things in class and learning things in lab by actually doing them. To truly understand anything in science, you have to have the ability to learn from reading and also to understand how what you learned applies to real world practice. There is also something remarkable about seeing the concepts you’ve learned applied in real life.
I was learning a lot before, but I didn’t appreciate the knowledge as much until I saw the concepts in motion. For example, we had talked about the immune system in biology courses, but it wasn’t until I got into a lab using antibodies that I saw how we could use their specificity to stain and mark other proteins… I didn’t fully appreciate the concepts until I saw them applied to real life. Until I saw actual mouse brains…until I saw amyloid beta plaques… I didn’t fully appreciate the science behind what I was learning until I saw it all in front of me.
What advice do you have for other students?
It’s never too early to get involved in research because the opportunity is something that can change your life dramatically. If you want to expand your perception of scientific information, and really appreciate what you’re learning in class, then research is essential to your future endeavors. A lot of people think that doing research implies that you're taking on a lot by yourself, or working in isolation. They may not understand how supportive an environment the scientific community really is.
In what way? Can you explain further?
There’s such a great dynamic between everyone I work with in my lab. By incorporating me into that lab family, and allowing me to be a part of weekly lab meetings where we practice our presentation skills, I get a strong sense of support from Dr. Talmage and Dr. Role. I feel that it’s been a great step towards my future in terms of how I conduct research and communicate my knowledge.
I am so appreciative of those who have helped me, or taken the time to explain things to me, to teach me. And I think that having a mentor is something that is very special because it makes you feel like you aren't alone when you’re on a path to discovering something interesting; there’s someone to share the experience with you and help you when you may feel a little lost. From my first day in the lab, Dr. Talmage has supported my interests. He explains things to me in a way that I can comprehend when I don’t understand them and he allows me to explore these interests in the lab. At first, I practiced techniques that would help me learn things in the lab ... but after I showed that I was proficient at handling lab equipment and being responsible with valuable microscopes, he gave me a lot of freedom to explore the area that I’m studying now. And introducing me to Liz (she’s the MD/PHD student I work with) was a pivotal moment for my recent endeavors. She’s basically at the next step of where I want to be, pursuing a career in medicine and science. She has helped me hone the critical thinking I need in this project that we’re working collaboratively on.
Tell me more about your lab meetings.
We have lab meetings twice a week. The first meeting is usually where someone from the lab will present when they’re preparing for a big meeting/conference. At this meeting, we’re free to ask questions and interrupt them at any time. We hit them with as much criticism and input as we can just to help prepare them for giving their actual presentation. At first I didn’t understand why we were so hard on them during presentations…but after talking with people in my lab, I realized that when you have a family of people giving you constant input and forcing you to reevaluate your work, and how you can explain it better, it really gives you an in-depth knowledge of what you’re talking about. You won’t run on auto pilot. You’ll truly understand your material and feel more comfortable being on the spot, in the moment.
At the second lab meeting, we all talk about what we’ve accomplished throughout the week. That’s the meeting I usually present at. We get 15-20 minutes to talk about our work. It's good practice for taking ideas and expressing them vocally which is essential for good scientific communication. The knowledge isn’t useful if you can’t communicate it effectively, and the skills that I’m learning in communication are skills I hope to use as an aspiring physician.
How do you deal with the challenges of doing research –when things are not working
Research does require a degree of patience because not everything goes smoothly all the time. But that’s what makes them a great learning opportunity-- to see how you can handle a complicated situation. Recently for this project, we had to develop a quantification protocol for how we would analyze the ratio of cholinergic to total neurons in the NBM, the region of the brain that we’re studying . . . We’re using antibodies to stain neurons and for some reason, the staining process wasn’t working for quite a while. It took a lot of effort to be perfected. We had to figure out what was going on. I had ideas. Liz had ideas. We would aggressively try different things. We spent a few weeks just modifying our staining protocols in different ways to get things working. The moment that we saw the neurons finally on the screen perfectly ... it was so satisfying! The hard work we had put in to figure out what was going wrong had finally paid off! …That is a testament to why you should persevere. Some people may be tempted to give up and think research is not for them because things may not have gone as smoothly as they hoped in lab. But I think that research is rewarding in these situations because if you persevere to reach your goals and to truly understand what happened, you’ll walk away appreciating the struggle and time you spent to make things work right.
How has being in the Honors College shaped your undergraduate experience?
The Honors College has been a phenomenal experience in itself. From day one, I was immersed in a community of like-minded people, many of them pursuing science . The support is great; Ms. Jessica Klare has been so helpful whenever I have questions or if I need some support. And the classes themselves have been very interesting. We’ve debated about controversial topics and explored areas that I probably wouldn’t have thought much about if I hadn’t been in this unique curriculum. I also got the chance to meet a lot of great people. Personally meeting President Stanley by taking one of his classes was a fantastic experience . . . These are some of the best things about coming to college, and you definitely acquire a lot of knowledge that is relevant to where you will go in the future. Being in the Honors College has been an influential part of my college experience.
It's great that you were able to get involved in research right away.
That’s the thing about Stony Brook. If you look for opportunities here, you will find them. I’ve done so many things from volunteering, to shadowing an orthopedic surgeon, to being a teaching assistant, to doing research. I've been able to do everything that I’ve wanted in terms of setting a foundation for my future endeavors.
Before college, I was a little more reserved around people I didn't know. But now I feel a degree of confidence when I’m talking to others coming from the experiences that have shaped me. I feel comfortable talking about what I’ve done, and talking about how much I appreciate the school. I love Stony Brook and I’m excited to be a future ambassador and to meet people so that I can express my appreciation for the opportunities that I’ve had here. SB is a great university and I’m so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had at this school. I really am.