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Researcher of the Month

February 2010

Andrew Tucci 

Psychology major, Class of '11

Mentor: Dr. Panayotis (Peter) Thanos,Behavioral Pharmacology & Neuroimaging Lab, Brookhaven National Laboratory


“If you were to ask me two years ago or tell me what I’d be doing now, I’d be thinking ‘no way!’”. . . , says URECA Researcher of the Month, Andrew Tucci. “It’s definitely an opportunity that fell in my lap that I just tried to take advantage of.” A resident of Islip, NY, Andrew attended the Tilton School in New Hampshire and played hockey there, during his last two years of high school. He subsequently made starts at 2 other universities, trying out business and economics as possible majors. What’s remarkable looking back now, for Andrew, is remembering those first frustrating forays to college life where his personal goals seemed to be so undefined. What he needed was a new arena, a better fit. And luckily, a friend who had just graduated from SB gave him some good advice about where to look: “You should think about Stony Brook. They have one of the best research programs!

Soon after transferring to SB (fall 07), Andrew intuitively knew a major in psychology would be the ticket. He also heeded advice about the benefits of research, and determined to find an opportunity. Serendipity intervened once more: after someone mentioned the URECA website, Andrew looked it up and discovered a unique opportunity at the Behavioral Pharmacology & Neuroimaging Lab at Brookhaven National Laboratories. Soon after meeting with his future PI, Dr. Peter Thanos, Andrew joined the lab in fall 08, and it has made all the difference for him—academically, personally, and professionally! “At first, when I joined the lab, I was narrow-minded and thought. ‘Why would I want to work with rodents, not people?’ …But it turned me onto the whole science of the brain, the neuroscience aspect … it turned me onto a whole different side of psychology that I had never investigated.

Tucci@SFNConferenceWorking under the mentorship of Dr. Peter Thanos, Andrew Tucci has since immersed himself in a life of research, on average spending approximately 25-30+ hours a week in the lab. Andrew’s  abstract, “Effects of Chronic Adolescent Forced Exercise on Cocaine Conditioned Place Preference in Male and Female Lewis Rats,” was accepted for poster presentation at the 2009 Annual Society for Neuroscience(SfN) meeting in Chicago (October 09)—and selected for inclusion as a ‘Hot Topic’ for the media packet. That same week, back on the Stony Brook campus, Andrew Tucci also participated in an undergraduate poster exhibition at the inauguration reception honoring President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. This spring, Andrew will be receiving URECA travel support for an upcoming poster presentation at the 24th National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), which will be held at the University of Montana on April 15-17.

Be sure to talk to Andrew about his ongoing research on April 28th, 2010 at the annual URECA Celebration & the annual Psi Chi conference, a Psychology Departmental/Psi-Chi organized symposium that's been held simultaneously during the URECA research poster event for years. Currently, Andrew plans to apply to PhD programs following graduation in 2011, and is seriously thinking about continuing on with a graduate program here at Stony Brook so that he continue working in the Thanos lab. “I love my lab. So maybe I’ll stay and do the Stony Brook route…. hopefully I’ll still be sticking around here for many years to come!” Below are some excerpts of his interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.

The Interview

Karen:When did you start doing laboratory research?
Andrew: I started to work at the Thanos lab in September 08. I went on the URECA website. And off the main page, under “For students / how do you get involved?”… I just clicked, and it had a list of opportunities. I found one at Brookhaven, read about the lab and the work on dopamine, D2 receptors, serotonin, all sorts of stuff. 

I sent an email and got a response back from Dr. Thanos right away. When we met, I was totally honest. I told Dr. Thanos I’d never done research and that I was hoping to one day go into clinical psychology. I really didn’t know much about biology. . .( I’d just transferred into SB the year before.). But it ended up working out very well for me!

Tell me about your research project.
I’ve just finished up an experiment on the Effects of Chronic Forced Exercise on CPP (Conditioned Place Preference) in Lewis strain Rats. Essentially what we’re trying to do is to see the effect of exercise (we ran them on a treadmill) on rats. We introduced them to a paradigm, called CPP, Conditioned place preference. …And we showed that the rats that receive exercise did not prefer the box that was associated with drugs:they preferred the non-cocaine-associated box. It’s a very basic, simple, experiment …but there hadn’t really been a lot of research done when it comes to forced exercise.

What was it like presenting at the Society for Neuroscience? 
I was so nervous at first. It was the first time I had presented anything to that effect. I was slated to be at my poster from 3 to 4:30… but I got there early, and stayed till 5 and had at least 100 people come up to me. Sometimes people would ask me questions that I didn’t understand. But that was good because I had never thought to look at the experiment results in that context. So when I came back, I was able to take all the comments and feedback that I received, and I was able to work that into my experiment.

I was also able to look around a lot during the week. I was able to go up to lots of people who were there from across the world, and ask questions: how did they do this? did they consider that?… I got more from looking at what other people were doing, and how they were doing it, and why they were doing it. That was when it really hit me…how great this experience was.

I noticed from your abstract that your project also involved collaboration with Prof. Anderson, from the Dept of Psychology.
She actually lent us the treadmill. I talked to her quite often. Anytime I have a question, or anything involving the treadmill, or if I just need some advice, I can call her. She stopped by to see my poster when I was out in Chicago too.

What have you learned from doing hands-on research?
It has been such an advantage, honestly! I learned to be systematic.  I’ve learned also how to write papers. That’s been a huge help. Another thing is learning things on the fly, not having someone who is going to spoon-feed you. There have been so many times where I’ve been in the lab by myself on the weekend. When I have a problem, it’s not like I can call someone up and have someone come in and just fix everything. These are all things that I have to do, it’s my responsibility to figure out to solve problems.

Does that appeal to you, having that independence?
Yes, I like that a lot. I really learned how to be able to work on the fly, how to troubleshoot and not get all freaked out or buckle under pressure. I’ve learned how to stay calm and figure things out. 

Has doing a research been any benefit for you academically?
For some reason, I just have a whole different outlook when I go to class, on how I take my notes, how I study. In the past, I never went to office hours. Now if there’s something I don’t know, I have no problem communicating with my professors…I have a whole different outlook. It really has helped me a lot in terms of just overall academic life, how to socialize in a professional setting.

What have you learned from your mentor?
Dr. Thanos is very big on sending emails, communication, where everyone is in the loop at all times. He’s also very fair, the way he runs the lab. He expects you to be on point, on top of your game. He really is the definition of a mentor for me. He teaches, he invited me into his lab and gave me so many opportunities… We still have tons of laughs all day in the lab, and I feel like I can call him with any problem that I have. But along with those opportunities, you have the responsibility.

How many hours are you there in the lab in a typical week?
Probably 25 hours to 30 hours. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’m in the lab at 9 and I’ll leave around 4 o’clock because I have a 5:20 class at night. There are times that I will come back at night, depending if I have to help someone or depending on what stage the experiment is in. There are certain weeks when I’ll have to be there 30, 40 hours-- which may seem like a lot but that’s what I want to do.

What keeps you motivated? How do you manage to balance your time? 
I’m the type of person who likes to stay busy. And research is one of those things that I don’t even think about. I really don’t look at it as a chore. For me, this is my life. This is what I love to do. But at the same token, it can be challenging and at times, it takes a toll. During finals, for instance , I definitely have to cut back on hours.. … Dr. Thanos is big on school work though, and he understands. He expects to see your progress. He wants to know how you’re doing in the classroom. He’s not just someone who cares only about what you do in lab. We actually have a meeting at the end of the semester to see where we stand academically, what courses we will take….

What are your long term plans?
Right now, I 100% want to spend the rest of my life doing research. I’d love to get into a PhD program. I’m thinking about whether I want to go down the biopsychology route… or maybe go into clinical psychology. …

How does having the research experience help you with your future plans? 
I think it will help me a lot. From the amount of people that I’ve met, and all of the research that I’ve done so far, it has worked out very well. I definitely learned a lot about myself. When I first started in the lab, I thought there was no way I was going to keep my head above water … I wasn’t sure about handling rats and rodents, I’d never done that before when it comes to injections. But once it came time to actually do it myself where it counted, where for the sake of the experiment and all the time that other people put into this planning it really mattered...I found out that I was up to it.

Is it stressful working with animals?
Now it is second nature, I don’t even think about it. . . I enjoy working with the rats. I teach all the new guys how to handle them and inject them. …They’re very social. And it’s very important that you handle them often. You don’t want them to be turned off to you. That could make the experiment not work properly if they’re stressed out.

What are some of the most challenging things you face doing research? How do you handle when things don’t work?
It’s the most frustrating thing in the world! But one piece of advice that one of the doctors told me, is "if you knew what you were doing, then it wouldn’t be research!" I’ve been having some trouble with the experiment that I’m running now. The most frustrating thing is that it’s something that our team can’t control. …but you just have to keep your head on straight and just look at the bigger picture of why you’re doing this. You never know what will happen tomorrow. Maybe you’ll be able to fix it. Or maybe it will work itself out…

What’s the most important quality that a scientist needs?
Patience.  . . From time to time, you’ll get discouraged, but then you finish the experiment and you can take a step back and look at all the work you did. You have people interested in your work… You need to have the will for it too. You’re going to have to love what you’re doing.  There’s a bigger picture too. In our lab, with all the work we’re doing on addiction, we’re hoping it is going to help people. That’s another thing that I also believe and am thankful for...

What advice do you have for other students who are perhaps new to research?
Get into research if you have the will to do it, and the time, and love it. That’s going to give you an idea of what life is going to be when you’re done with school. It’s also great because you’re able to get a hands-on look. You also need to be flexible….For me, at first, I was worried: why am I working with rodents, not people? But it turned me onto the whole science of the brain, the neuroscience aspect of it. It turned me onto a whole different side of psychology that I had never investigated. That’s why I’m now leaning on going down the biopscyh route.

For me, the research, and Stony Brook worked out very very well …I’m going to turn 24 in March. If you were to ask me two years ago or tell me what I’d be doing now, I’d be thinking “no way!”. . . It’s definitely an opportunity that fell in my lap and that I just tried to take advantage of. . . I love my lab. I’m thinking about graduate program here at Stony Brook so that I can still work in the lab. Maybe I’ll stay and do the Stony Brook route……. hopefully I’ll still be sticking around here for many years to come!

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