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Researcher of the Month

March 2010

Elizabeth Joy Millings 

Chemistry major, Class of 2010 
UNCF-Merck Scholar (09-10), BNL-CCI (07) & SULI (08) Programs

Research Mentors: Dr. Peter Tonge, Chemistry; Dr. Jacob Hooker, Dr. Trevor Sears, Dr. Joanna Fowler , Brookhaven National Lab; Robert Tynebor, Merck Research Laboratories

EMillingsElizabeth Joy Millings loves learning, research & chemistry. And it shows! “Chemistry intrigues me because it is the foundation for life. Behind every living process lies a chemical reaction. Chemistry breaks everything down to its most fundamental components. . . .  I want to conduct scientific research, to discover things for myself, things that are not known or understood. One day I will have run out of courses to take… By pursuing a research career, I will always continue learning and teaching myself.Born in Brooklyn, raised in Central Islip, Long Island, and home-schooled until she entered Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) at age 19, Elizabeth credits her singular education with preparing her tremendously well for college, and for teaching her to take responsibility for her learning. 

Much credit too goes to Brookhaven National Labs (BNL) where she discovered the joys of research — first in 2007 as a Community College Institute (CCI) intern in the Gas-Phase Molecular Dynamics groupof the Chemistry Department with Dr. Trevor Sears; and subsequently in the Radiotracer Chemistrygroup as a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) participant (2008) where she worked under the mentorship of Dr. Jacob Hooker and the team of Dr. Joanna Fowler. SERChpostercompetitionElizabeth’s poster on her 2008 BNL summer research project, “F-18 Fluoride for Peptide and Protein Labeling,” was awarded second place (and $1500) in the category of physical sciences [chemistry] at the Science and Research Challenge, at a ceremony Elizabeth attended together with SCCC mentor, Dr. Candice Foley, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Earlier in 2008, Elizabeth also participated in the annual Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) Conference and was awarded second place in the physical sciences division for her poster, "Analysis of Some Near-Infrared Spectra of C2Br." She also presented a research talk at theACS Mid Atlantic Regional Meeting (2008), prior to transferring to Stony Brook in fall 2008, having completed an A.S. degree in liberal arts, Chemistry, with highest distinction at SCCC. 

As a chemistry major at SB, Elizabeth has made the most of her opportunities — even in the relatively short time she's been here on campus. In spring 2009, she was awarded a national UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholarship (2009)—to date the 8th SB student to be honored with this award. As a UNCF-Merck Fellow, Elizabeth had the opportunity to work in summer 2009 as an intern at Merck Research laboratories, West Point, PA in the neuroscience program; and looks forward to returning there again as a researcher for summer 2010. In 2009, Elizabeth was also awarded the Chemistry Department Emerson award and Lap Chen scholarship, as well as the S-STEM II (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ) NSF-funded scholarship. This past fall, Elizabeth joined the laboratory of Prof. Peter Tonge where she has been working with a graduate student mentor and investigating the mechanism and kinetics of the MenB enzyme in Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Be sure to see Elizabeth's upcoming research presentations on her work in the Tonge lab at the 2010 URECA Celebration (April 28th, SAC Ballroom A) and at the Chemistry senior symposium on May 10th.

Elizabeth is applying to graduate Ph.D. programs in nutritional biochemistry and will be graduating from SB this May—together with her sister, Sarah Millings, a political sci major (another high achiever!). Elizabeth Millings is a participant in the CSTEP & LSAMPprograms offered through the Dept. of Technology & Society; serves as secretary of Campus Crusade for Christ SBU Chapter, and is a member of the the West Islip Symphony Orchestra (violin), the Choral Society of the Moriches; and also enjoys playing piano. Reflecting on the last 4 years, Elizabeth reflects: "When I look back, I see the effect of all the mentors I’ve had, at Suffolk Community College, here at Stony Brook, and at BNL. I had excellent professors & advisors who pointed me in the right direction."Elizabeth Millings is one of 14 SB graduating seniors whose integration of academic excellence with other aspects of their lives is being recognized by the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence. Below are excerpts of Elizabeth's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: Tell me about your current research. 
Elizabeth: I’ve been in the Tonge lab since October 09. The lab focuses on looking for ways to combat tuberculosis, novel therapeutics for tuberculosis. One of the problems is that the tuberculosis bacteria become resistant to the tuberculosis drugs. So our lab is working on designing a new target that could be a possible therapeutic that could then be turned into a drug. It’s very interesting work. I’m working very closely with Nina Liu, one of the graduate students. And I enjoy getting to see what the graduate student’s life is like. I plan to go to graduate school. So I really like that.

How did you acquire research experience? 
It was at BNL. I spent 2 summers at BNL on 2 different projects actually when I was a student at Suffolk Community College. The first summer, I was working with the gas phase molecular dynamics group in the Chemistry department. They look at molecules in the gas phase, and they study how they rotate & interact. … They had discovered this spectra, and they didn’t know what it was but had begun to characterize it. It was really fun because it was the first time anyone had analyzed that particular molecule. And because of the analysis we did, we were able to confirm it was what we thought it was. . . . 
The following summer, I was working with radiochemistry, designing radiotracers for PET imaging. That second summer at BNL was one of the best experiences I’ve had. That was with Dr. Joanna Fowlers’ group —which is so dynamic. I had a really wonderful mentor too, Dr. Jacob Hooker, who was really fun to work with. He was young, just out of graduate school, and very excited by what he was doing. He really imparted that to me and to the other undergraduate student. He really inspired us, taught us a lot. And that was one of the experiences where I could see the direct application of what I was doing. The previous summer, I had been primarily doing data analysis, and I was at the computer all day. I enjoyed that research but I like the hands-on work much better.

That’s great that you had these opportunities at BNL.
BNL is a really unique place. I really love it. You have all these researchers, from all over the world, and what drives them is the love of discovery. They love what they do. They love discovering things. The atmosphere itself is very welcoming. They have a great program for their undergraduate students every summer. And the office that coordinates education programs — they’re really nice, helpful. I worked with Mel Morris, Noel Blackburn, Ken White, Kathy Gurski… They really treat you like you’re family. They were great!

So when you were a student at Suffolk Community, had you previously done any research?
I had taken a lot of chemistry/physics courses, but hadn’t done research prior to being at BNL. Actually, I was a little bit apprehensive going in. But they were very understanding. They taught me everything. I asked lots and lots of questions. And I really enjoyed the experiences. I think that’s what turned me onto research. It showed me the difference between where you have a question and you’re doing something no one has ever done before, in contrast with lab courses where it’s more that you’re doing something that’s been done so many times, but you’re proving it to yourself. With the research, you’re on your own, you’re discovering something new. Usually it has a very significant application. You’re actually working towards something. That’s important for me.

What did you do last summer?
I received a Merck fellowship and had the opportunity to work in the neuroscience program, basically synthesizing potential drugs. The Merck research experience was a little different from the other ones, because I was working in industry. There’s a little less autonomy than with the other research experiences. But I gained a lot from it. I’m looking forward to going back again this summer.

You’ve certainly had the benefit of a variety of programs and experiences. 
I know that there are advantages with joining one lab and staying there (getting more in depth into a project, getting a publication out, etc.). But I really needed to explore. I really never could concretize what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. So it’s been really helpful for me to do different things, see what other opportunities are out there.

When I look back, I see the effect of all the mentors I’ve had, at Suffolk Community College, here at Stony Brook, and at BNL. I had excellent professors & advisors who pointed me in the right direction: At Suffolk, Dean Nina Leonhardt with the CSTEP program; and Dr. Candice Foley, a chemistry professor, helped me a lot. Here at Stony Brook, Prof. Koch has been so supportive; he was the one who told me about the MERCK scholarship and encouraged me to apply. Dr. Tonge has been very helpful too. And Kathy Hughes in the chemistry office… lots of other chemistry professors too.

How has being involved as an undergraduate researcher enhanced your education?
I’d say it’s been the major, driving force of my education. Once I discovered research, I was able to see that it was something I liked, and look for opportunities. The amazing thing has been to see how the coursework translates into the lab work. It’s been extremely helpful seeing how the coursework and the research relate to each other. It’s also defined, or tailored, the direction in which I’m going. It’s helped me to choose courses, and to think about what things to do, whom to talk to. It’s really just opened the doors in every way I can think of!

What advice do you have for other students ?
Start early. That’s my biggest advice, to get started as soon as possible. I wish I would have joined a lab sooner. It takes time to get into the lab, to adjust your schedule, to learn where things are and to get started on your research. …Now I know lots of other students who are in labs, and we can talk, share, collaborate. Getting involved in research opens a lot of opportunities to meeting people — attending talks, seeing how things work.

Do you find it difficult to manage your demanding schedule, balancing academics, research, etc.?
I schedule specific times to do my research. I usually look at my schedule and see where the gaps are and where I’m going to be able to devote time to research… I find that not too difficult. With the research, too, there’s also down time, where you’re waiting for things to happen. That’s when I do my homework.

Do you like doing science fairs, presentations? I know you’ve participated in CSTEP conferences, and also got 2nd prize at the national DOE- competition for chemistry in Oakridge.
Yes, that was exciting. And I do enjoy them. I’m a little nervous beforehand, always. But I like presenting my work. I think it’s important and I like to talk to people about it. . . Making a poster is not an automatic thing. You can’t just put what you did and leave it at that. It has to be visually appealing. It has to show what you did in a way that people can really understand it. …sometimes, it’s so easy to take things for granted because you’ve understood it for so long. So when making a poster presentation, you have to break that down, think about what needs to be explained, and how to relate the foundation behind the research.

What qualities make for a successful scientist/researcher?
I would say one of the most important things is cooperation, being able to work with other people, not just other scientists in your field, but with graduate students, undergraduate students. Being able to relate to people across educational levels & disciplines. As I look at graduate programs, I see that they all stress interdisciplinary collaboration. That is important. And being able to communicate what you do is also important.

What are your plans after graduation?
I’ve been applying to different graduate schools. I want to go into nutritional biochemistry where you study nutrition from the molecular perspective—looking at a particular nutrient, and how that affects the body bio-chemically.

Graduation is not that far away... 
When I look back over the last 4 years, I really have to marvel. I know when I started out I had no idea even what I wanted to do or why I was in college. As opportunities opened up and I pursued them, I began to define what I was really interested in. So I guess that’s another thing. You don’t really have to know what you want to do when you start. I was able to discover that along the way. Teachers opened my eyes to see what else was out there, different opportunities to pursue.

Are you well prepared for grad school?
I think I am. Being home-schooled prepared me excellently for university, to take responsibility for my learning, to know how to teach myself. And I’ve had a lot of opportunities here. Now I’m ready to go to the next step.

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