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Researcher of the Month

December 2013

Christina Roman 

Biochemistry major, Class of 2014
CSTEP & LSAMP Programs; 
MARC Fellow; URECA summer research participant 2012

Research Mentors: 
Dr. Ed Luk, Biochemistry & Cell Biology; Dr. Cynthia Wolberger, John Hopkins Medicine


Two weeks before Thanksgiving, a strong contingent of Stony Brook undergraduate researchers journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee to attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). Among the presenters wasChristina Roman,a senior majoring inBiochemistry who was back for a second time—loves the event, and has a gift for communicating her very evident passion for science and research:  “No one else knows the answer. You have the chance to create new information. You’re working hands-on. . . And you’re literally making science. It’s an incredibly empowering experience!”

Christina has been working since February 2012 in the laboratory of Dr. Ed Luk in Biochemistry & Cell Biology, investigating how chemical modifications help to disassemble nucleosomes, the packaging units of DNA, during gene activation. She considers herself most fortunate to have joined the Luk lab, which has deepened her motivation to be a scientist, built up the skills she will need for graduate school and beyond, and kept her curiosity alive: “I really enjoy the problem solving. I find that part fun. It’s like a puzzle. … I tend not to be discouraged by failure.”  Her research was funded in summer 2012 by URECA; and has been supported since then through the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, directed by Dr. Dan Moloney. In fall 2012, Christina presented her ongoing work at the ABRCMS 2012 meeting in San Jose, California; and last April, presented a poster here on campus at our URECA poster symposium on “The role of H3K56ac on the eviction of the H2A.Z nucleosome at gene promoters.”

Christina RomanAt the ABRCMS meeting in Nashville, Christina’s talk focused on the research she did this past summer as a HHMI EXROP fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the laboratory of Dr. Cynthia Wolberger. In this 10 week summer research mentoring program (which she learned about as an ABRCMS poster presenter last year), she investigated the role of sirtuins, which are NAD+-dependent deacetylase enzymes that play a role in a range of important biological pathways; and also gained experience in new protein purification methods, in performing enzymatic assays, and in X-ray crystallography. 

Early on at Stony Brook, Christina Roman experienced the benefits of participating in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP)and C-STEP programs in Technology & Society — benefits which included an introductory research experience as a research trainee in the laboratory of Dr. Hoi-Chung Leung in Psychology in the summer 2011. Christina is a graduate of Lindenhurst High School where she was involved in Science Olympiad and the Robotics Club, and was very motivated by her AP Bio teacher to pursue science. She has maintained this goal, and now as a senior at Stony Brook University, currently plans to look for a post-baccalaureate program or research assistant position for the coming year, and then to apply to Ph.D. programs starting in fall 2015. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Welcome back from the ABRCMS meeting in Nashville! How did it go?
Christina: ABRCMS is a fantastic conference! This is my second time going. Last year I gave a poster presentation. And this year I was selected to give an oral presentation. When you go to ABRCMS, you’re able to connect with other scientists. And they have an exhibitor’s hall where you can talk to representatives from graduate schools—you find out how to apply, learn about the strengths & weaknesses of various programs. . . And you can basically ask them anything. It’s much more informative than just going to a graduate program website. You can also get business cards and fee waivers for applying to graduate school (my favorite part!).  

Do you have a different perspective – presenting this year, as a senior?
Yes, I can see that I’ve changed a lot. My perspective is a lot clearer. Last year my objective was to figure out what’s out there, put out my feelers — see what science I enjoyed. I ended up finding out about other aspects of science that I wanted to pursue in research. And I learned about the HHMI EXROP program which I applied to and participated in last summer. And so this year, because I had participated in the EXROP program, I was invited to go to a dinner with HHMI funded scientists. It was a great opportunity to be able to talk to the main speaker and to get to meet some big names in the science world. And this time when I went, I was much more focused; I was asking candid questions about the graduate programs. I can really see how I’ve grown throughout the year with all my different experiences that ABRCMS introduced me to last year.

Tell me about the research you presented at the meeting.
I gave a presentation on the HHMI EXROP summer project I was involved with in Dr. Cynthia Wolberger’s lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I was investigating the substrates of sirtuins which were thought to be inactive. . . We have these sirtuins that we originally thought were lysine deacetylases. But research has shown that certain sirtuins do more than that:  they can remove other kinds of acyl modifications. And we wondered if these few sirtuins can do more than remove more just acetyl groups, are other sirtuins also able to remove different acyl modifications? The sirtuins we were interested specifically were AF1Sir2 and Af2Sir2.  We looked at the structure of AF1sir2 and AF2sir2. And we found that those have similar active site structures to the sirtuins that other research has been done on, showing that they remove an myristoyl group or a succinyl group.  So I designed an assay to test what substrates, what kind of acyl modifications these sirtuins would be best at removing. And as it turns out, the hypothesis that I made from the structure of these sirtuins turned out to be correct: AF1Sir2 is very good at removing  succinylated peptide; and Af2Sir2 is good at removing  myristoyl peptide.

Did you get any feedback on your talk? Were you nervous about presenting?
A little. But afterwards, the judges came to us and they talked to us about our presentations. What I need to work on is slowing down because I sometimes talk too quickly. My positive points, I was told, were that I was commanding, and assertive with how I was presenting data; that I was conversational and relaxed and used animations well. 

Was it helpful having previous experience in presenting posters?
Yes, definitely. Every presentation experience builds your presentation skills. It’s not something you’re taught to do on your own, or that you learn in one step. You have to go out and seek out opportunities to present your work, to get more practice. Plus it’s fun. I find it’s a lot easier for me than writing: I can go off of what I know, and speak with my passions about my work.

Was the project you worked on last summer related to the ongoing research you are doing on campus? What were some of the things you learned as a participant in HHMI EXROP?
The Wolberger lab is a biophysics laboratory. Up to that point, I had been working in a biochemistry laboratory (with Dr. Ed Luk). So there were a couple of things I had to learn, like how to set crystal trays . . . and some new protein purification techniques. But all in all, it was building on the base research skills that I had set up here. Overall, I learned so many things this summer! We had journal clubs regularly. So I was able to get used to reading papers, talking about papers, and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of figures. I learned a bunch of new biophysical and biochemical techniques. And I learned, about how to build on and improve my teamwork skills, and communicate more effectively with my labmates. 

Tell me about the research you do at Stony Brook.
I’ve been working in Dr. Ed Luk’s lab for almost 2 years now. I started out working on a research project involving the 56th lysine on histone H3. We’re trying to determine whether or not that lysine acetylation would contribute to nucleosome destabilizing activities like recognition by chromosome remodeling complexes. I mostly focused on optimizing the histone purification procedure that we had for the lab. I made a lot of the histones that make up the nuclesome; I reconstituted the nucleosome with a variant version of histone H3 that has a modification on the lysine ….We want to compare the stability of acylated mutant version and non-acylated version of those nucleosomes to see which ones would have a greater stability with the DNA and which ones might react better with the enzymatic complexes. We’re working on some new methods for doing this. 

How did you find get involved in this research?
I got very lucky. I like my lab a lot... At first, when I was trying to email a bunch of professors, I got frustrated that I wasn’t getting responses initially. So I went to the main Biochemistry office and asked if they knew of any professors who needed an undergraduate researcher, and someone mentioned that  Dr. Luk had been recently hired and might not yet have any undergraduates. Then when I met with him, he talked to me, asked for my resume/transcript, and said we’ll see if we can find a place for you. And it all worked out. I ended up doing research in the Luk lab –working on chromatin and epigenetics, the subject which was exactly where my interests lie. So that was a lucky turn of events!

What are your plans for the future?
I want to get more research experience in epigenetics. I want to get introduced to working with SiRNAs because I haven’t had a chance yet. I also want to do more structural studies because I enjoyed the work I did in Dr. Wolberger’s lab. I want to apply to a post bacc first, or find a position in a lab as a research assistant or lab tech for about a year. Then I plan to take my GREs and apply to graduate schools, and then get a PhD.

What motivates you? What do you like about research?
Research is really interesting  because it’s not like class where you sit down, read a book, study it, and regurgitate it on a test or problem solve with the tools you’ve been given. It’s more along the lines of: you think about a question that you want to answer, you think about how to answer the question, and then you go ahead and you answer that question. No one else knows the answer. You have the chance to create new information. You’re working hands-on. You’re picking up the solutions. You’re putting them into Eppendorf tubes. And you’re literally making science. It’s an incredibly empowering experience!
When you actually get your data, and you analyze your data and come up with conclusions as to why this experiment didn’t work but this is what we can try next and are deep into problem solving and getting into the processes—it’s fantastically empowering! You look back at yourself and you say, wow, I can do this. On my own. And I’m working towards a goal. It’s much more rewarding than a good grade on a test.

What are your strengths in research?
I really enjoy the problem solving. I find that part fun. It’s like a puzzle. I enjoy the grind of working towards a final goal. I tend not to be discouraged by failure. And I’m very good at visualizing shapes. That’s why structural biology appeals to me so much. 

Were you interested in science early on?
I come from a very nerd oriented family. My father has always encouraged me to learn and seek out knowledge. My uncles would take me regularly to museums in the city. We’d go to libraries together. Learning was just how my family was oriented. And science was for me an extension of this learning environment, and a  really fun way to express myself. In high school I had an AP Bio teacher who made a big impression on me: Ms. Bruno. She was so passionate about biochemistry. She filled her students with an excitement for biology and biochemistry that no other teacher I’ve ever had could do. She came to class exploding with excitement. I still remember the first time she talked about epigenetics:  Wow,  I thought. That interest, that excitement about science really stayed with me.

Are you glad you came to SB?
Definitely. I realize what incredibly valuable opportunities I have had at Stony Brook. After being involved in Dr. Luk’s lab, I was able to really get to know the professors and how the research system works. And also, I really like that the student body is so diverse. I find that fantastic--because I have made friends from all over. 

What advice would you give to other students?
If you are a student, and you want to get involved in research, the first thing is to get good at school because no research professor will take you if you have a low GPA. The other thing is to familiarize yourself with the field you want to get into. You have to read papers, ask questions that go beyond what is taught in lecture. When you find a research professor that does research on a topic you want to be involved in, when you talk to them you’ll be able to show your interest and say I know this, this and this because  I looked it up in a journal, or I asked my professor about it or I find it interesting for these reasons…. Professors are looking for you to have a passion for your science. So if you start feeding your passion now without anyone telling you to, then the professor will see that you’re really motivated and they’ll probably give you a position. 
Another thing you can do is to apply to summer programs—if you have a good enough GPA and personal statement, they’ll place you and then you’ll have a summer research experience. Once you have research, it’s a lot easier to find other research opportunities and to try new things.

Did you apply to a summer program early on?
I was able to get involved in research in the summer after freshman year doing research in a Psychology lab– and even though it wasn’t directly related to my field, it gave me exposure to doing hands on research and made it easier to get into Prof. Luk’s lab. My graduate mentor had participated in LSAMP. . . The CSTEP and LSAMP programs are great for getting you started, getting you on your feet. Paul Siegel originally encouraged me to apply. He is fantastic. I meet with him about once a month. He asks me about school, but asks me also how I’m doing in life — where I am, emotionally. He’s a person that really made me feel like this school cares about me more than my GPA.

It sounds like your involvement in LSAMP and CSTEP was extremely valuable. 
I came in to Stony Brook with a different major. They had workshops and meetings and classes to help us figure out exactly what we wanted to do. Through LSAMP, I had to take a career development class and that introduced me to different majors/pathways. And I realized Biochemistry was the best choice for me. They also had a mentoring program. So freshman year, I had a senior mentor who taught me how to study for classes, and taught me how to organize my time and prioritize things, so I wouldn’t be caught in the sudden transition from high school to college. That was a really helpful building block step. And then I got into the URECA & MARC programs, which have supported my research activities and were helpful in getting me to make a name for myself. I’ve been very lucky!

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