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Researcher of the Month
Biochemistry major, Honors College, Class of 2015
Research Mentor: Dr. Michael Frohman, Pharmacological Sciences
Elizabeth Ha, a Biochemistry major (class of 2015) in the Honors College, has certainly
hit the mark at Stony Brook. In her freshman year, she was one of two students awarded
the Sei Sujishi prizefor best performance in a freshman chemistry class. Early in
her freshman year, she joined the laboratory of Dr. Michael Frohman in the Department
of Pharmacological Sciences and as a sophomore was one of 6 undergraduates selected
for the URECA - Biology Alumni Research (U-BAR) award to support her research in summer
2013. Elizabeth works on the interaction between the protein kinesin (a protein involved
in microtubular transport) and phosphatidic acid produced by MitoPLD (a protein found
on the mitochondrial surface). On August 1, she will be presenting at aCESAME poster
symposium along with the summer fellows participating in the NY-STEM Cell, and HHMI
summer programs. Elizabeth plans to continue in the Frohman lab through her senior
year, when she will be completing a senior thesis on her work in the lab.
Born in Houston, Texas, Elizabeth is a graduate of Stuyvesant HS of NYC, and prior to starting as an undergraduate researcher in the Frohman lab had not to that point acquired any research experience. She knew she loved science (particularly AP Chem from high school) though, and was motivated to join a lab early on as an undergraduate at SB. The most difficult thing, Elizabeth found, as she worked hard to gain more skills/experience in the lab and find her footing in research, was learning patience: “Each experiment I do can take about a week. And then, when it doesn’t work, it can seem like it’s a week down the drain. You think to yourself: how can I make it better next time? And then you do it better, and then something else happens, and you have another problem to work through...Ideally, I would like every experiment to work so I can get conclusions, experiments to work—but it’s part of research from what I’m seeing to go through periods where things don’t work out. It doesn’t only happen to me, I realize. You need to learn patience.”
Elizabeth’s hobbies and interests include a love of medieval literature, archery, tennis and music (she plays piano, violin, and guitar). At Stuyvesant HS, Elizabeth earned such distinctions as the Gerald Baylin ’44 Award in Chemistry, the Dalia Bulgari Memorial award in Chemistry, and the Physics Department’s Highest Honors. At Stony Brook, Elizabeth has kept her academic focus strong while putting many hours into her research. She has also joined the SB Company of Archers (2011), SB Table Tennis (2012) and the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (2011-present). Elizabeth has a strong passion for both research and medicine, and is considering applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs. Below are excerpts of Elizabeth's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your current summer research.
Elizabeth: I work in the Frohman laboratory in Pharmacology. And my research pertains to the interaction between the protein kinesin, a protein involved in intracellular transport, and phosphatidic acid (PA). One of the functions of a protein known as MitoPLD, found in mitochondria, is to produce PA. In preliminary studies, it was found that over-expression of MitoPLD causes localization of kinesin to mitochondria, which is consistent with the fact that there is a binding site for PA on kinesin. So one of the goals of my research is to find the location of the PA binding site on kinesin that would allow for its interaction with mitochondria.
This was actually my first research experience. When I was a freshman, I contacted Dr. Frohman, inquiring about opportunities to do research on diabetes. I ended up doing research not on diabetes but on something that has come to fascinate me as well.
With no previous research experience, was there a big learning curve—getting used to the research environment and to doing all the techniques?
The lab technician, Yelena Altshuller, helped me a lot. She showed me techniques pertaining to cloning, PCR, immunostaining, etc. And I really liked the work.
What is the general atmosphere of the lab?
It’s a very friendly environment. I've had help basically from everyone in the lab at some point or another for some part of my experiment. We have group meetings too which I like: I get to see what everyone else’s research is about. One person prepares a powerpoint presentation. And everyone listens and comments on the techniques, and gives suggestions on how to improve things. I find those meetings very helpful—especially when I am presenting. You get advice, and get more feedback on what to do until something works.
Has being involved in research helped your understanding of classes?
A lot of what I do in research shows up in class. And I feel like I have a little more information than what I’m taught in class. In research, they don’t just say this is how it happens. They explain more in detail why you’re adding certain things to the mixture to make something work, what each component does…you get a much more comprehensive picture of what’s going on.
How beneficial is it to have a summer experience in research?
Time is the issue. During the school year you have breaks in between research, and you’re studying your schoolwork. In the summer I enjoy that I can read more science articles/papers. You can think more of where you’re going with all the experiments and try to put things together.
What are your future goals?
I’m considering MD/PhD programs very seriously. I’m trying to use my lab experience to find out if this is something I want to do for life. It’s been good so far. My only reservation about research is it takes a lot of patience! So I’m still trying to sort that out.
Tell me about one of your most enjoyable research experiences, to date.
It’s hard to pinpoint one particular time. But there are a lot of times when I do an experiment, where I find I am having technical difficulties with my cells. I may do an experiment – and get to the end-and realize I can’t really see much when I look under a microscope (e.g. the cell are not surviving well because of the conditions, etc.). But when it actually works, I really like being at the microscope and taking down observations, taking pictures, and forming conclusions. The process of being able to have enough data to form a conclusion is what makes for the most exciting moments in lab!
Before you can optimize conditions to make something work, though, you have to go through stages. Each experiment I do can take about a week. And then, when it doesn’t work, it can seem like it’s a week down the drain. You think to yourself: how can I make it better next time? And then you do it better, and then something else happens, and you have another problem to work through...Ideally, I would like every experiment to work so I can get conclusions, experiments to work—but it’s part of research from what I’m seeing to go through periods where things don’t work out. It doesn’t only happen to me, I realize. You need to learn patience.
Do you have any advice for other students?
I think for anyone who is interested in science, it’s a good idea to do research because of the perspective it will give you. It makes science more understandable to people, and at the same time--more extraordinary or amazing. When I think back on all the things I have learned about in science, I know I’m amazed at how certain discoveries were made. You realize that whatever you learn is the culmination of so many experiments over many centuries. Sometimes, it’s hard to fathom how they could have even figured it out—some of the most basic things that now we’re basing further experiments on. It gives you an appreciation of the process.