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Researcher of the Month
Biology & Applied Math majors, Honors College, Class of 2015
URECA Summer 2012, Simons Fellow 2010
Research Mentors: Dr. Dale Deutsch, Biochemistry & Cell Biology & Dr. Martin Kaczocha,Biochemistry & Cell Biology; Dr. Alan Turner, Anatomical Sciences
Two years ago, Brian Ralph was named an Intel semifinalist for his work on “The Evolution of Body Mass in Basal Dinosauria,” a project he conducted under the mentorship of Dr. Alan Turner of Anatomical Sciences as a high school participant in the Simons Summer Research program. Now a sophomore in the Honors College, Brian Ralph has just been published as a co-lead author (together with Dr. William Berger and Dr. Martin Kaczocha) in the PLOS ONE journal for his work in the laboratory of Dr. Dale Deutsch, “Targeting Fatty Acid Binding Protein (FABP) Anandamide Transporters – A Novel Strategy for Development of Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Nociceptive Drugs,” the result of a collaboration between the research groups of Dr. Dale Deutsch (Dept of Biochemistry & Cell Biology), Dr. Iwao Ojima (Department of Chemistry) and Dr. Robert Rizzo (Department of Applied Mathematics & Statistics).
It’s easy to see that Brian loves research. It’s what he devoted much of his time to during his high school years at Smithtown HS West —when he was distinguished as an Intel ISEF presenter winning honorable mention from the American Statistical Association. And it is in large part why he came to Stony Brook: “The Simons program was a big, big factor. That was a fantastic experience…Coming to SB, I knew there would be countless opportunities to keep doing research.”In the summer between high school and starting in the Honors College at SB, Brian got a jump on finding a research placement in the field of Biochemistry—joining the laboratory of Dr. Dale Deutsch, with support from the Harvard Lyman award for Summer Study. The following summer, he was one of 3 freshman awarded a URECA summer fellowship (2012) and will be presenting at URECA’s annual campus symposium on April 24, 2013.
Brian is double majoring in Biology with a specialization on Quantitative Biology & Bioinformatics, and Applied Mathematics & Statistics. To enhance his understanding of the ongoing work in the Deutsch lab, he has been also working closely with Dr. Rizzo, this fall auditing a graduate level course to develop his understanding of computational modeling and drug design. In fall 2011, Brian presented at the Institute of Chemical Biology & Drug Discovery (ICB&DD) Poster Symposium and regularly attends ICB&DD meetings. Other campus involvements include being a member of Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Biochemistry Society where he serves as Vice President; a member of the Undergraduate Biology Advisory Board; a member of Catholic Campus Ministries; a member of the Stony Brook Running Club; a Martial Arts Instructor for the Toscanini quad; and a cellist in the Undergraduate Orchestra. Brian Ralph is actively involved with the Pre-dental Society, has shadowed pediatric dentists and oral surgeons, and plans to pursue a DDS degree, possibly a DDS/Phd, upon graduating from Stony Brook in 2015. Below are excerpts of his conversation with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your research.
Brian. I’m in the Deutsch lab. Our research focuses on the pathway leading to the breakdown of anandamide—essentially a natural painkiller produced in our bodies. We are studying the inhibition of Fatty Acid Binding Proteins (FABPs) which are the transporters that bring anandamide from the cell membrane to the endoplasmic reticulum. My work has focused on performing the biochemical screening of compounds selected by virtual screening techniques—and investigating whether or not these compounds we have selected actually bind to FABPs through fluorescent assays. I’m responsible for determining the IC50 and Ki values of these compounds (a measure of binding affinity of ligand to protein).
Soon after I started in the Deutsch lab, and got familiar with some of the equipment and procedures, our lab ordered about 50 compounds that Bill Berger (a PhD candidate in the Ojima & Rizzo labs) had screened virtually. Then it was my turn to do the high throughput screening with the biochemical assay. I found the work to be really very exciting. . . And just recently, we’ve had a collaborative paper come out with Bill Berger, Martin Kaczocha and myself as co-authors. In the paper that came out, I had worked on producing binding studies for 3 different compounds, including the α-truxillic acid 1-naphthyl. We documented a class of compounds that are now in our laboratory being further explored for their properties.
That’s very exciting! Going through the process of submitting a paper and getting
it published must have been a learning experience as well.
Yes, I learned a lot from the experience! It goes beyond learning the proper format of papers in a scientific journal….When you work with collaborators, .there’s a lot that goes into it. We must have had 13 or 14 revisions of the paper by the time we had submitted it. It was a very good experience for me to be able to work with the different labs, with Dr. Deutsch, Dr. Ojima and Dr. Rizzo…and now I’m even able to attend the monthly IC&DD meeting in Chemistry. I get to go to the meetings and partake in the discussions of where the work is headed.
How did you get your start in the Deutsch laboratory?
My involvement in research at Stony Brook began in high school. While I was at Smithtown HS West, I participated in an independent research program working with Dr. Alan Turner in Anatomical Sciences and my Smithtown HS research advisor Dr. Joanne Figueiredo. It feels like forever ago now. My project with Dr. Turner dealt with evolutionary biology, and anthropology and I continued to work on it during the Simons Summer Research program here in 2010. After all that exposure to research, when I matriculated here to the Honors College, I really wanted to stick with doing research. But I wanted to do try doing research in a different area, and was interested in Biochemistry. Soon after contacting a few professors, Dr. Deutsch asked me to come in for an interview. And after that one interview, he said “When can you start working?” So the summer after high school, I was able to start right away, and was also fortunate to be given a stipend through the Harvard Lyman award with the Honors College to support my research over the summer.
That whole summer was my equilibration period—just getting used to all of the different procedures in lab, getting used to all the equipment that I’d be handling. Then over the period of the next year, my freshman year, I had much more time to work on the project. It was really great. We were able to finish up most of the experimentation by the beginning of July, last summer, and then I had the chance to be Dr. Deutsch’s right hand man on piecing the paper together--writing and incorporating the revisions from all the collaborators.
What do you enjoy most about research?
Research can be the most frustrating thing in the world & the most rewarding thing in the world. The best feeling is having worked on one piece of an experiment —maybe doing a fluorescent screening, and getting wacky results (results that don’t make sense, results that are all over the place) . . . and then being able to figure out what the little problem is. It may be tweaking the filter on the fluorescent wheel. Or being able to find the right wavelength, or exactly that one little piece you’re missing. Just being able to get just a few pieces of data, even one little test to work out, after having previously failed at doing it … being able to figure it out…and produce it properly- that’s a great feeling!
What is your lab environment like?
I seem to have an affinity for small laboratory groups. Both of my research experiences, with Dr. Turner in high school, and now in Dr. Deutsch’s lab, have been working in really small groups. In my lab now, there’s only one other undergraduate. And that turns out to be a benefit because you learn so much in a small group—it teaches you to work on your own, how to work independently. An important part is asking questions not to others but to yourself so that you can see what direction you’re headed with your research, and so that you can plan out how you as an individual are going to advance the work of the group.
Tell me about your current mentor.
Dr. Deutsch has been phenomenal. He’s also without a doubt one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There are two of us undergraduates in the lab along with our lab technician, Liqun. Last summer, Dr. Deutsch took our lab on a trip to Fire Island. It’s really nice having that mentor-student relationship. I know I can go to him even with scheduling issues or problems with classes. Also, I have to mention Dr. Martin Kaczocha, a research professor in Biochemistry who started out in the Deutsch lab. If there’s any problem in lab, if we have any question on assays we’re running, or chemicals we’re using, Martin knows what’s going on and is always willing to help us.
Have you had any experience with presenting research?
I presented at the end of the summer with the Simons program and was able to present that research too at the International Science & Engineering Fair in senior year—an amazing opportunity where I travelled to LA to present to people from all over the world. Shortly after joining the Deutsch lab, I presented at the ICB&DD symposium here at Stony Brook. And I’ll be presenting at URECA this April!
What are your future plans?
My plan is to go to Dental School. I’ve had a lot of experience with dentistry as a patient: I had stitches, I had a mucoseal, wisdom teeth complications, various issues. So I feel like I can give back to people like me who have had problems. A lot of the research I’m doing in the Deutsch lab, dealing with pain, certainly has applications in the dental field.
For Honors College, I’ll be doing a thesis in my senior year. Dr. Deutsch has been pushing me to expand more into the quantitative biology aspect of the project. So hopefully I’ll be able to get on a level where I can virtually screen those compounds myself and can then be responsible for the biological screening of the compounds as well…
Was the opportunity to do research a major factor in coming to SB?
Yes, definitely. The Simons program was a big, big factor. That was a fantastic experience, being able to research here on a stipend. Coming to SB, I knew there would be countless opportunities to keep doing research.
How difficult is it to balance coursework and research?
It’s definitely a challenge. But you learn time management skills as you go. Dr. Deutsch is also very understanding about when I need to devote more time for classes.
Does doing research help you academically too?
The amount of exposure I’ve had to protein ligand complexes and binding has helped with all the courses that deal with molecular structures. It just helps all around, the exposure from lab. Working with the collaborators in the Ojima lab has certainly helped me with organic chemistry. And this fall, I audited a graduate course, AMS 535, with Dr. Rizzo doing computational modeling and drug design in biology. It was really an enjoyable class. Even though it’s very high level material, I’ve been able to hang on in that class, just because of the exposure I’ve had in research.
What advice do you have to other undergraduates about doing research?
One concise point is: don’t give up. Keep searching. A lot of labs are full. That’s inevitable ...but there ARE openings out there and there’s so much interesting research going on . You just need to be open to possibilities. I know students who intended to do cancer research who ended up in plant biology labs who absolutely love it and can see connections…Then once you’re in a lab, it’s about pursuing, working hard, and being diligent.
What were your best and worst research-related experiences?
I can tell you my worst experience right off the bat. The summer that I started working, the main test we do is high throughput fluorescent screening. I had to become used to using the spectro-fluorometer. When I first started out, the fluorescent counts that I was producing were not working out. I didn’t know what was going wrong. And that was certainly discouraging at first, producing so many negative results. I had to ask myself questions. How can I adjust the machine or adjust my assay to work this out? It takes a little while. After about a month, I was able to normalize my data and then I was able to start testing. That’s part of the process, part of learning how to work independently.
And your best research experience?
Finishing editing this paper for the first time! (Not counting the revisions.) I remember being able to sit down with Dr. Deutsch, go through the entire paper, all the citations and remarks and finally hit that submit button to PlOS-ONE. And then seeing it published. Actually seeing my name written in an article was very exciting. It was one of the proudest moments in my life to be a published scientific author. It still feels unbelievable.