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Researcher of the Month
Biology major, Minor in English, Class of 2014
URECA-UBAR recipient, summer 2013
Research Mentor: Dr. Lonnie Wollmuth, Neurobiology & Behavior
Melissa Daniel is a senior majoring in Biology who has been doing research since fall 2011 in the
laboratory of Dr. Lonnie Wollmuth of Neurobiology & Behavior. The Wollmuth group studies
glutamate receptors, the nerve cell proteins that receive activating chemical signals
from other nerve cells at synaptic connections. Memories are created and stored in
our brains when specific synapses are strengthened by changing glutamate receptor
properties and expression. Last summer, Melissa received the URECA-Biology Alumni Research (UBAR) awardto support
her work on the structure and function of NMDA receptors (a type of glutamate receptor) —
a project that integrates molecular biology, patch clamp electrophysiology, and detailed
single molecular analysis techniques. She presented a poster on “Coupling ligand binding to opening of the ion channel in NMDA receptors” at a summer undergraduate research symposium sponsored by the Center for Science
& Mathematics Education (CESAME) this past August, and will be doing a poster presentation
in April at the upcoming campus-wide URECA undergraduate research symposium on April
30th. Melissa is very enthusiastic about her lab and her research, and has participated
in a peer panel for the Undergraduate Biology "Entering Research" workshop. Her advice?: "Do not give up pursuing a lab, and do not give in the lab! ...The rewards are so
much better than the initial bumps in the road, so be persistent!"
Melissa is a graduate of the Clara Barton High School for Health Professions - Gateway honors program (Brooklyn, NY). While at Stony Brook, Melissa has served as a Public Relations Officer for Operation Smile, as an AIDS Peer Educator, as a Resident Assistant (since fall 11) and as an undergraduate teaching assistant for Organic Chemistry. She has been a member since fall 2010 of the Ballroom Dancing Club; she has also been active with the Undergraduate Collegesas a Teaching Assistant - College Fellow and SSO intern. Indeed, Melissa first met her research supervisor, Professor Wollmuth, in a freshman seminar (SSO 102) class where she explored topics related to neurobiology and learning/memory. This past spring Melissa was admitted to Phi Delta Epsilon (a pre-med fraternity). She has participated in numerous hospital volunteer/outreach experiences, and plans to pursue a medical degree with a focus on emergency medicine. Below are excerpts of Melissa's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Melissa. So basically I’m investigating the mechanisms involved in memory and learning. My research in the Wollmuth lab focuses on the structure function of ionotropic glutamate receptors, specifically the NMDA receptor. The NMDA receptor gating is important for regulation of the flux of calcium ions, in addition to memory and learning. Gating is the process where a ligand binds to the ligand binding domain, and the energies produced by this process cause a conformation change in the protein resulting in the channel opening. Understanding the gating mechanism and the role of these receptors may be important for understanding neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. My project specifically looks at how electrostatics in the NMDA receptor protein modulate gating. In the lab, I do site directed mutagenesis, and analysis of mutations through patch clamp single channel recordings.
How difficult is the learning curve for this type of work?
To be honest, it was challenging in the beginning. I didn't have any prior research experience and it took me a full year to learn how to use the machines, and how to do these mutations, where to look...I also spent a lot of time learning about prior studies, reading papers that our lab or other labs produced regarding the NMDA receptors. But everything went more smoothly because of my graduate student mentor; he talks with me, discusses the project, and helps me to learn. He’s an excellent mentor and has helped me with research, and the classroom. My PI also helps me greatly as well!
What got you interested in neuroscience?
I had an aunt who passed away from a brain tumor. ...But also, I have long been very curious about learning and memory. When Dr. Wollmuth used to talk about his lab in the SSO 102 class, and I learned that he worked with proteins involved in memory & learning – that sparked my interest further.
The SSO freshman class: is that how you met your mentor?
Yes, exactly. In my sophomore year, I was interested in getting involved in research, and I spent some time emailing /contacting professors (...and getting rejected!). When I was looking up faculty in Neurobiology, I came across Dr. Wollmuth’s name and thought, “Why didn’t I try this before?” So I asked him and he allowed me to join his lab.
Do you enjoy lab research?
I love it. I really do! I think it’s the investigation. When you research so much about a topic, you start to formulate questions. The gratification of going through with your hypothesis and testing it and actually getting results is the best thing ever. To be honest I also like it when the results you obtain contradict your hypothesis, because then it sparks more questions; you think, "Wait a minute – what else is involved?" I love that too. And my lab has such a great atmosphere.
Did you come to SB knowing you wanted to do research?
I wasn’t focused so much on research at that time. I knew I wanted to go to SB because they had a great curriculum and would be excellent in preparing me for medical school. But once I was here, I realized there were so many research opportunities and so I decided I wanted to get involved in research.
Has being involved in research helped you with your classes?
My concentration is neurobiology. So many of the things I have to research for the lab have helped me in neuroscience classes and vice versa. Everything I learned in class I am able to apply to lab. It's a perfect match!
How do you manage your time?
I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I go to lab whenever I can --before classes, after classes, in between breaks…It depends on how intense the project is at the moment too. If we find a new mutation and we’re getting interesting results of course I go in a lot more frequently. Sometimes there may be a lull in the project when I can cut back on lab hours to spend time on other activities.
Was it helpful to have a summer research experience (as you had with URECA)?
With the summer when I just had to focus on the project, I learned so much more, literally by leaps and bounds! I was able to do more in the summer than in the whole year! I noticed the change in how much I was learning, and so did my graduate student mentor. Now, we have a different relationship because I know the project better and he asks me more questions, and I’m able to give a lot more input to the project. I didn’t realize how much classes and those other activities were taking away from my ability to submit my input for the project.
What are your future plans?
I’m applying right now to medical programs. I’ve had opportunities to watch surgeries live and be in the operating room. In high school I participated in a program where I was able to work one on one with some doctors, and I got to see a lot of surgeries. It was life-changing, and it cemented my passion for medicine.
When you talk to other students, what advice do you give?
My number one thing: Do not give up! Do not give up pursuing a lab, and do not give up in the lab! Research can be a slightly intimidating thing to be involved in. When you try to get in, you will get a lot of rejections but you have to be persistent. And then when you’re in the lab, sometimes the workload can be overwhelming especially with classes, extracurriculars. But the rewards are so much better than the initial bumps in the road, so be persistent!
Also, you’re not going to do well on something that you’re forcing yourself to go into. So first ask yourself: are you going into it just because of a resume or because you like it? If you go into it because you like it, you have to think really hard about what topic you’re passionate about. It's similar to when you have a job you love: you progress much further I think. So with research too, you have to make sure it’s for you, and that you're really interested in it.
Sounds like good advice!
Also, be sure to read up a lot of articles on what you are researching. When you’re reading these papers, don’t just gloss over what you read. Make sure you look up all the jargon. Ask the question, ‘why?’ Once you figure out the why, you’re able to apply it to your project. I realized that when I was reading these papers, I wasn’t reading it as comprehensively as I should have. And I did not ask the question ‘why.' Once I asked the question 'why?', it stuck and I was able to concentrate more on my projects.
What are some of the obstacles you have to overcome to succeed in research?
Whenever I’m doing mutations, it involves a lot of steps. If you mess up on one step, it can skew your results. The result from the mutation takes a couple of days –and you won’t know until you get your results back whether you did everything correctly. Sometimes I catch something way too late – and then I feel terrible for holding up the project. But then you have those other days that are so gratifying. . . Part of the project involves taking a pipette and attaching it onto the cell and isolating one NMDA receptor so we can measure. I love it when I’m able to seal off one of the proteins and actually record the activity. That is the most gratifying. I love this so much. Or if I get a mutation correct, I love that. Whenever something goes right, I love it. The more you do something, the more confident you are and the less likely you are to make mistakes. I definitely feel more confident now!