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Researcher of the Month
Ramon Octavio Cabrera
Biology Major, Class of 2015
Chhabra Fellow (Summer 2013); MARC Fellow (2013-2014); BioPREP 2012
Research Mentor: Dr. Mary Kritzer, Neurobiology & Behavior
also: Dr. Dan Moloney, CESAME
One year ago when Ramon Octavio Cabrera joined the BioPREP program (“Biology Participation in Research and Education Program")—an NIH-funded program run by the Center for Science and Mathematics Education/CESAME, he had no experience in research, no laboratory skills, and “no idea that I would love this so much!”
One year later, Ramon has been happily immersed in doing research on regulation of dopamine in the pre-frontal cortex, working under the mentorship of Dr. Mary Kritzer (Neurobiology & Behavior) —and things couldn’t be going better: “… once I was introduced into the atmosphere and the amazing activities you can see in the lab, the feeling you get when something goes right – I knew this was the right choice for me. … When you see a protocol that you did yourself, and it comes out and you get result that you didn’t expect to be that good—it’s a whole different feeling, a whole different ballpark. I never felt that before...”
Ramon presented a poster on “Sex Differences Distinguish Intracortical Glutamate and GABA Mediated Regulation of Extracellular Dopamine Levels in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex of Adult Rats” at URECA’s campus wide undergraduate research symposium in April, and was selected from the pool of 2013 URECA summer applicants to receive support for his research this summer through the inaugural Chhabra Fellowship.* Just last week, Ramon got additional good news: he was one of a handful of SB students selected for the NIH- Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) award which will provide further support for him through upcoming academic years to continue his research. Ramon’s long-term goal is to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree.
Ramon was born and raised in Long Island, and attended Copiague High School (where he was a percussionist in the Marching Band), prior to going to Nassau Community College where he received an Associates Degree in Liberal Arts (2012). While attending Community College, Ramon supported himself as an office manager from 2008-2012 using his bilingual skills in assisting with translating Spanish documents for marriage and immigration proceedings. Now pursuing a biology degree at Stony Brook (expected 2015), Ramon is an active member of Neuroscience Axis (a student organization) and plans to present his research at future off-campus meetings this fall, including the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me how you got involved in research.
Ramon. The Bioprep Program (CESAME) was what brought me to Stony Brook. I was attending Nassau Community College at the time. I had finished my classes and saw the opportunity to do research here with the Bioprep program. And when the 10 week program was finished, they asked students who were interested in continuing on in research to apply for an extension of the Bioprep program (another 10 weeks). We had to choose 3 researchers that we would like to work with. Then they pair you up based on your choices-and try to match you up with a faculty you would work best with. I got matched up with Dr. Mary Kritzer. And I love working in her lab! When the Bioprep extension was finished, she asked me to stay and continue doing undergraduate research with her.
So you applied to SB?
Yes. As soon as I was introduced to campus life and the environment here, I knew it was somewhere I wanted to be. I had already started the application process to Stony Brook even before the Bioprep extension opportunity came up.
So you had no background in science research?
None. A year ago - I did not think I was going to end up doing research, or take the Bioprep program as far as I did. But once I was introduced into the atmosphere and the amazing activities you can see in the lab, the feeling you get when something goes right —I knew this was the right choice for me. In courses, when you get a good grade, you feel excitement and pride. But when you see a protocol that you did yourself, and it comes out and you get result that you didn’t expect to be that good—it’s a whole different feeling, a whole different ballpark. I never felt that before. That’s a majority of the reason I decided to continue doing research.
What are your current goals?
I’m working now on my Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and will continue in the Kritzer lab. After my BS, I’m going to apply for the MD/PhD program at Stony Brook -- the Medical Scientist Training program.
What is your research about?
We work on understanding the circuitry which regulates dopamine in the forebrain limbic regions—the laterodorsal tegmental nucleus (LDTg), the lateral habenula (LHb), the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in an adult male rat. Studying this is important. It is essential for understanding the progression of treatments of many dopaminergic disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. It’s hard to get a treatment for a disorder if you don’t know how the brain works, the wiring. We’re working on determining which cells in the LDTg, LHb, PFC, and VTA are single, double or triple labeled-consequently revealing the structures of the respective neuronal pathways. Prior to this project, I worked on understanding the sex differences that exist in normal prefrontal cortex functions, such as working memory, behavioral flexibility and planning, as well as in the dysfunctions of PFC that occur in diseases like autism and schizophrenia.
You mentioned that when you started last summer in BioPrep, research was all new to you. Was it difficult getting started, becoming comfortable in the lab?
I started from square one. But I have had so much hands-on learning and help from both Dr. Kritzer and the graduate student Mallory Locklear; and from Dr. Moloney with Bioprep; and Dr. Bynum. Any time I needed help, they’re always willing to extend their hand for me. It’s been a novel environment which I never pictured myself immersing myself in. And the research-- I had no idea that I would love this so much!
What do you think are the main benefits of participating in summer research programs-like Bioprep?
One thing I can speak on is the Bioprep workshops. The workshops that we attended were not always even about laboratory research or training. For instance, we had Dr. Gergen talk to us about how to successfully get our degree. Another time, we had a MARC fellow speak to us about that program. Someone from Admissions came down to give us information (that was before I applied)…For me, those workshops were valuable for exposing us to different opportunities. It showed me what steps are needed to apply (for medical school, or graduate school). Those workshops were useful for getting me ready for the application stage, of knowing what I had to do while I was here. They’re so much preparing that goes into it. You have to really want something – and know that you’re going to work hard for it.
It was also good meeting other peers going after the same goals. It was really nice that they had former participants from BioPrep and from the MARC program talk with us. It wasn’t only authority- you feel your peers as well giving you feedback, what you’re going to encounter.
Getting the funding was important too. Before I started doing research, I worked as a manager at an immigration agency. Having the funds enabled me to put that to the side and just focus on my career.
What s the hardest part about doing research?
Managing your time, balancing your time with school and your home life. It’s difficult …but my mentors (Dr. Kritzer and Mallory) are always there to give me suggestions on how to better manage my time. When it comes down to it, I think that as long as you’re putting in the hard work, you can do anything. I work hard in the lab. I work just as hard in my coursework. For me, it’s more of an exercise than a job– because I yearn for knowledge. I love what I’m learning through both the coursework and the lab. So even though it’s sometimes tiring, exhausting…. at the end of the day, when you see your results, and when you can get recognition for all the hard you put it, that’s what makes the difference for me.
Do you like presenting your work, participating in poster symposiums?
Yes – I love presenting. I had presented at Bioprep symposium at the end of last summer. And then this past April at URECA. It gives me a chance to show other people the excitement about what we’re doing. At the URECA symposium, it made me feel good to have other people share that excitement about the innovative treatments that can come from the hard work we’ve been putting in at the lab.
The first time I did the Bioprep symposium, though, I was shaking. Even at URECA symposium, the first two times I went through the presentation I was nervous. But after a couple of times, and being able to read people’s faces, what parts to say when…it let me calm down, I felt a whole lot more comfortable. I’m looking forward now to going to the Society of Neuroscience program in the fall. I’m really excited to present at a symposium specifically for neuroscience. I can’t wait to go there.
What advice do you have for fellow students?
Get involved in everything you can —including research or other activities on campus. That’s what drew me to research and opened doors for everything else that I’ve been able to accomplish and go after. It gave me a sense of pride of Stony Brook itself, of being a student here.
There are so many people here who are willing to help you. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Dr. Mary Kritzer who has been a huge support, or the grad student Mallory. Or Dr. Moloney and Dr. Bynum also —they’ve always been willing to sit down with me, talk with me, even when they have such busy schedules. That’s something very unique here at Stony Brook: the way faculty support you.
As someone who is relatively new to research, what is the most surprising thing about joining a lab? What didn’t you expect?
The most surprising thing is the science itself. The new things that you learn, the way you look things. You look at the whole world differently. Getting a better understanding of chemical reactions, to the inner workings of the brain, you think: Wow! How is this even possible?
The feeling you get from doing science research is not like other things you do. It’s a feeling nothing else can give you…This is what pushes me to continue my work, to keep trying to find out these things in the lab that can potentially help people. The fact is, you’ll never know enough about the world – but you can try. That is what will keep me going. No matter how far you go, there are always new things the world is ready to present to you, waiting to be discovered. I think that’s what pushes me.