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Researcher of the Month

January 2011

Erica Palma 

Biomedical Engineering major, WISE, Class of 2011
BNL-SULI (2008/09) and URECA (2010) Programs 

Research Mentor: Dr. Oleg Gang, BNL, Center for Functional Nanomaterials 

EricaPalmaWhen your line of work happens to be assembling gold/silver nanoparticles and/or quantum dots with a DNA toolbox, it’s handy to have a working knowledge of laboratory equipment and protocols necessary for nanomaterial research (e.g. use of UV-vis spectroscopy, dynamic light scattering, fluorometry techniques). But what is also vitally important is the ability to connect, to communicate and to convey what you are actually doing! And that is a talent for which Erica Palma, our Researcher of the Month, seems to be particularly well suited!

A BME major (class of 2011) and member of  WISE, Erica has been a dedicated member of the laboratory of Dr. Oleg Gang, at Brookhaven National Laboratory's Center for Functional Nanomaterials since her freshman year. Her research on optimizing the fabrication of nanoparticle assemblies which use DNA as a building block for self-assembly has been supported by the DOE-Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (Summers 2008, 2009) and URECA (Summer 2010). Erica Palma first conducted research at BNL through a high school program, gaining valuable experience at the National Synchrotron Light Source and also volunteering at the lab’s “Summer Sundays." Born in Port Jefferson, NY, and raised in the environs of BNL, Erica was the valedictorian of her class at William Floyd High School, Mastic Beach, NY. But her great head start in science goes back further, to her parents —including her dad who was an SB graduate in medical technology. Erica reflects: “I was always interested in science. My mom was a nurse. My dad is a medical technologist, and was the director of the laboratories in one of the local hospitals, Good Samaritan Hospital. When I was little, my dad used to bring me in for “Take your Daughter to work” day. He would let me look at the microscopes. So I got to see pathology, what a cancer cell looked like under a microscope. Just that whole exposure to science when I was really young made me know that I really like science. … It’s no surprise that I’m still interested in science!"

Since coming to SB, Erica’s interest in science has been further reinforced by her research experiences at BNL in Dr. Gang's laboratory. In November 2008, she was a finalist in the DOE Science and Energy Research Challenge and presented a poster at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the following year, Erica placed second in the physical sciences category of the Science and Energy Research Challenge. Recently, Erica presented a poster at the BMES National Conference on “Characterization of gold nanoparticle-quantum dot assemblies and their potential applications as biosensors” in Austin, Texas (October 2010) with support from a URECA Travel grant.  Within the array of opportunities Erica has assembled in her undergraduate career, perhaps the one with the most long-lasting impact was participating in a pilot “Communicating Science Workshop” at BNL (August 2009) where she and other scientists learned how to communicate science effectively by means of improvisation exercises led by Alan Alda. Erica explains: "If you convey that passion, then they’ll be drawn to you, they’ll listen to you, and they’ll be engaged. It was really cool, and it has helped me alot! Now, whenever I speak about science, I try and connect with the people whom I’m talking to. …." Being able to connect with people has also made her quite effective as a WISE mentor, a teaching assisant, and in the lab—effective as someone who can train new personnel in lab protocols and optimal nanoparticle assembly. 

Erica is a member of Golden Key National Honor Society, Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society; and is the current vice president (former treasurer) of SB's BMES. Erica is currently enjoying her team work on a senior design project with several other BME colleagues on "an optical pace-maker"; and is applying to PhD programs in biomedical engineering with a focus on biosensor technology. She is interested in future work which will emphasize scientific communication/public policy. Below are some excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: How did you become involved in research?
Erica. In December of my freshmen year, I went on the Brookhaven (BNL) website. I was very interested in the Soft / Bio Nanomaterials laboratory at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials. I contacted Dr. Oleg Gang, told him I was interested, and we had a meeting. And that was pretty much how I got started in his lab. When I met with Dr. Gang, my current PI, I told him then that that I really liked the research field based on what I had read; that I was committed to it, and that I would want to keep working there throughout my undergraduate years—which is what I did.

What’s your research about? Has your focus changed over the years?
My projects have definitely evolved but focused on the same concept of self-assembly. Because you can’t assemble nanomaterials by hand, and nanoparticles are not visible, you have to figure out a way to rearrange them while they’re in solution. So we use DNA to accomplish that. DNA becomes a programmable molecule that we attach to the surface of these particles. My first year focused on the functionalization and purification of gold nanoparticles for use in self-assembled gold-DNA crystalline structures. The second summer built on this knowledge of gold-DNA aggregates and focused on the efficient fabrication of nanoparticle heterodimers consisting of gold and silver nanoparticles assembled together using a DNA linker. My third year, when I did my research for BME 499, we switched to linking gold nanoparticles with quantum dots. That was a really cool experience, because quantum dots are very cutting edge in the optical sensing field … and what we found is that when you link them, it either enhances or quenches the fluorescence of the quantum dot. The overall goal of my research was to develop a reliable method for the fabrication of quantum dot-nanopartiparticle assemblies for future biodetection applications. Part of what I have spent a lot of my time on has been optimizing the procedures, developing protocols using higher concentrations to avoid problems related to reduced quantum efficiency at low concentrations….

That’s great that you were able to start freshman year at BNL!
I had also been involved in a high school research program at BNL, at the National Synchrotron Light Source. ..But I must say…my WISE peer mentor was a big factor in my starting so early on, during freshman year of college. Also, my undergraduate program director, Prof. Frame.  If it wasn’t for someone saying: “It’s a good idea to do this…now!,” I ‘m not sure I would have started right away. And it really was helpful for me to get that research experience working over a span of a few years. It kind of does make sense to start as a freshman, for both the student and the lab. Because even though I had no prior lab experience/skills, all that time they invest in training you eventually pays off.  I was able—down the road—to train other people. Just this past summer, I trained another undergraduate student doing similar basic laboratory protocols. And I learned that I do know how to do it on my own because, look, I can show someone else. That builds confidence. If you’re able to explain it, you actually do know what you’re doing!

Do you ever go through rough patches when things don’t seem to work, where you have a lot of obstacles to your research?
Last summer was a big learning experience for me. Something I had gotten to work all year my junior year stopped working over the summer for no explainable reason. My quantum dots just didn’t work. They were unstable in solution. A problem with working with nanomaterials is that there are a lot of factors you can’t see that contribute to the way they work, they way they function in solution. We’d had this standard protocol in the laboratory and I'd worked with quantum dots a whole bunch of times….and then, this time, for whatever reason, they just weren’t stable. Those were frustrating days!

So how do you keep yourself motivated when things don’t work?
Things aren’t linear in the laboratory. It’s a game of a little progress, then maybe a couple steps back—something you have to learn if you want to work in a lab. I think if you like what you’re doing, and you like that puzzle of figuring out what’s wrong….(I was a big puzzle person when I was little. I like problem solving!)…then you keep on going because it’s still a puzzle you have to solve. And when you solve it, you get this really, really great feeling of achievement. Knowing you will eventually solve the problem gets you past the initial frustration of not figuring it out. There’s always the next day. It’s a re-occurring process. You’ve got to live day by day in the lab.

What’s been your best day of research so far? 
One of the most rewarding experiences was when I got to do some SEM scanning on my samples. A lot of the time, you don’t actually get to see anything when it’s in solution. So when we did SEM and I got to see my particles bound together in solution—I felt a real sense of achievement. Before that moment, part of me almost didn’t believe what was actually happening. To have the visual that it did work, that it did form this assembly, made me so happy. It was definitely one of the best days in the lab!

What do you think is the most challenging thing about doing research as an undergraduate?
Knowing how to start is challenging — figuring out how to do something that’s completely new to you. In research, you do a lot of background reading. You read papers. You discuss your plans and procedures and test it out. …but then the biggest thing is learning how to work through something, learning when to work on your own, and when to ask for help. It’s difficult. It’s not always the easiest thing to ask for help. At the same time, you do also need to try to figure things out on your own, and be independent. So …it’s a balance.

When I first started in the lab, I was a little too dependent. You’re thinking, you don’t want to do anything wrong. You don’t want to break equipment which costs money. You’re unsure. So for the first year, I think I asked questions every 5 minutes probably to make sure I didn’t break anything. I was anxious. I had to get comfortable with what I knew and what I learned and what I had been taught. I also learned that it’s important to take good notes in your lab notebook. You can use that to guide you when you’re working alone.

What’s the lab atmosphere like? 
I love being at BNL! There’s a mentality there that you could feel. A lot of the work that’s being done is being done for the general public. There was that motivation there that I was able to tap into — that kind of pushed me. You knew why you were doing the work. And that’s a big motivation for me, to know what you’re working for, what your goal is.

I also really love my lab. It is very multidisciplinary. You learn a lot from different people who are experts in their fields. We had Ph.D.s in physics, Ph.D.s in chemistry. It wasn’t all biomedical engineers or everyone from one field…It was also a mature lab environment. For the longest time, I was the only undergraduate researcher. I worked mostly with post docs at the lab. I got to talk to with them about how they get there, and what the process was like…and what they like about research.

Sounds as if you really learned a lot from the other lab members.
Andrea Stadler, one of the postdocs, has been an important mentor for me. There are a lot of questions you have as a woman in science. Andrea has a family; she was pregnant one of the years she was in the laboratory. So I got to se how she balanced having a life with being in the laboratory. It was good to see someone able to balance the two, because, as much as I love my scientific life, I also want some day to have a family life. So being around her, talking to her about different experiences, that was very motivating for me.

Tell me about your mentor.
I was a little bit intimated when I first met him. He’s the group leader for the entire soft biological nanomaterials group at Brookhaven. He has a lot of responsibility. But he’s actually very down to earth. We have meetings, about once a week, and we sit-down and talk about progress in my research. He is very open and very willing to help me learn and explain concepts and put it in perspective. I really admire his ability to run a lab. I’ve learned a lot from him.

What are your goals after you graduate?
I’m applying to graduate schools right now. I’m trying to find laboratories that specifically do biomedical nanotechnology, or biomaterials research. Most of the research I’ve done at the CfN has been basic nanomaterials research, with some focus on biosensors and biomedical technology …. I’m trying to find laboratories that focus on using nanotechnology in medicine. There’s a lot of research in biosensors/biosensor technology that interests me. I also really like the aspect of science where the scientific community meets the general public. I can also see myself, once I get my Ph.D., maybe doing something with scientific communication or public policy. …

Do you feel you’re well prepared for graduate school? 
I would say that the research I’ve done is probably the most valuable thing as far as preparing me for graduate school because I’ve learned how to work independently and I’ve learned how to problem solve. I’ve learned how to figure out when it’s time to talk to people, and to figure out how to solve your problems. And a big driving force for me is: knowing that I enjoy doing research. I knowthat I have a passion for it. Knowing that makes me feel more confident, more prepared for graduate school. I’m excited to begin…

Tell me about the presentation experiences you’ve had. 
When I make posters, I try to envision them as talking points. So I frame posters with a view to how I would want a conversation about it to go. The best part of being at a conference, such as the BME meeting we went to in Austin recently, is having a dialogue. You ask them what their field is, and what their research is. You contextualize your research in terms of their interests — and it becomes a discussion rather than you talking at them about what you did.

Sounds like your last conference went well.
I loved it. You’re talking to people from California, Florida, Texas— all over the country. It was definitely interesting to see what other people were doing. Sometimes they pointed out, “Oh, there’s another poster over there doing something similar.” So that was great; it’s a really good networking opportunity to figure out what’s going on in your field.

And you’ve also participated in poster competitions?
I had some prior experience with poster competitions from my SULI internships. We could enter for the Science and Energy Research Challenge. The two years I went, they held it at Oak Ridge National Laboratory which has one of the sister nano-facilities there. (There’s 5 nanomaterial centers in the DOE.) So I got to see what the sister institution looked like, and what they were doing there. That was a very interesting experience...

From presenting, I learned that it’s very important to be able to contextualize your research. It’s so abstract, the concept of nanomaterials and nano particles. So when you talk about it, if you don’t put in perspective, no one will know what you’re talking about. The second year I participated was the year after I had done the Alan Alda workshop on “Communicating Science”, and the first thing I did was ask the judges what their field was in. Some of them laughed…It’s funny in a way. You think scientists know everything about science. But even if you’re talking to a brilliant scientist, it helps to have that context. If you’re talking to a physicist about DNA, or a biologist about x ray scattering, you might have to explain your project in a different way.  . . . That year, I placed second in the physical sciences category. A lot of it was because I was able to have the connection with the person, put it into perspective, and explain why the research is relevant, and what it’s trying to accomplish.

Tell me a little more about that BNL workshop/program on communicating science.
The Communicating Science workshop I participated in was very small. It was a test group. Only 10 or 12 people. It was run through the Office of Educational Programs. Scott Bronson, one of the people I met there when I did the high school program, and another mentor for me—he knew of my interest in communication and he recommended that I do this program.....I was the youngest there, and probably the only person who really didn’t know who Alan Alda was (!) which was embarrassing. Alda used improvisation techniques to get you to come out of your shell. So we stood up and gave a one-minute discussion or summary about what we do in the lab, and then we did those techniques. At the end, he had each of us do our discussion again. And after doing all these improv exercises, and learning to connect with the audience and connect with each other ….I can’t tell how much people improved— myself included! I still use these techniques. It’s about showing people what makes you so passionate about your research. Because if you really attempt to convey your passion, people will be engaged with you. If you just give a laundry list of scientific ideas, concepts, & theories, then no one is really going to have that connection with you. What makes people drawn into you is the human element, it’s what makes you alike with them. If you convey that passion, then they’ll be drawn to you, they’ll listen to you, and they’ll be engaged. It was really cool, and it has helped me alot! Now, whenever I speak about science, I try and connect with the people whom I’m talking to. ….

I know you’ve presented off-campus several times. ...but you've also presented on-campus. How did you find the URECA campus-wide poster day experience?
URECA was nice! Because after doing the national stuff, I had little idea what was going on in the university—even what the people who were working in the biomedical engineering labs at Stony Brook were doing. So URECA was a good chance to compare notes, and see what was going on at Stony Brook, and think about, if I had more time, what I would also liked to have experienced and try out. It’s also just motivating to see other people passionate about things. You feed off of that energy.

At URECA, too, you can also bring people into research. I presented at URECA, after my junior year when I was a WISE mentor, so I got to speak to some of my mentees and show them my research. You’re able to push them, get them interested in research. I was also a TA in one of my BME classes that year. Some of my students came to URECA and I got to talk to them about my research. You pay it forward. The people who taught you research and what to do and how to approach it… you can teach it again. So that was a good experience.

What advice would you give to incoming students about research?
It's just this: Don’t be shy. The only way you get into a laboratory is by being willing to talk to people, and to know that scientists are human beings too. Just because they run a laboratory doesn’t mean they’re not human. You CAN talk to them. So my biggest advice is: be outgoing! If you see someone doing research that you’re interested in, figure out how to talk to them. What’s the worst that could happen? You have to take that first step otherwise you’ll never get into a lab. And don’t just do it to get into graduate school. Do it to figure out what you’re passionate about, what you like…..

Has doing research helped you in your classes?
I’m taking a biomedical engineering class now on biosensors. We’re learning about quantum dots in the class. I already know about quantum dots because I’ve been frustrated by them in the laboratory for months now! So it helps. Having experience with research helps especially with those classes where the concepts are so foreign that you probably wouldn’t know about them unless you were inside the class or the laboratory. It’s easier to wrap your mind around it if you actually have some context to bring it back to .  . . And also. when you learn in the laboratory, it’s a better learning experience because you learn by doing. So it’s embedded because you have actions and experiences tied to this knowledge. It’s more deeply ingrained in your mind. It’s easier when you have to use this knowledge in classes, because you have this deep-rooted knowledge that you gained from the lab.

That’s a strong recommendation for research! 
I love it. It’s helped me a lot.

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