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Researcher of the Month
Chemistry major, Class of 2013
Research Mentor: Dr. Stanislaus Wong, Chemistry
Dara Bobb-Semple has many accomplishments at Stony Brook – from twice being recognized for achieving a 4.0 GPA, to receiving the MARC award in fall 2011, to being elected to Tau Beta Pi Honor Society (December 2011), to recently being named a recipient of a national award, the 2012 UNCF Merck Undergraduate Science Fellowship! But looking back, the path has not always been straightforward or easy: “Five years ago, I would have never dreamed of doing what I’m doing now. Getting involved in the Wong group has been a great opportunity for me. It’s given me a lot of experience and has opened the way for me to become involved in many other things. My MARC fellowship is partly due to my research. I also believe that the skills and experience I acquired in the Wong group gave me an edge toward the Merck scholarship.”
As an 11-year old, Dara Bobb-Semple remembers deciding that she wanted to be a scientist—in part influenced by a Scholastic Biography of George Washington Carver. As a high school student, she remembers being captivated by the study of chemistry: “…it was one of the subjects that I had to work the hardest at in high school. I just gravitated towards it early on, and I grew to love it and understand it better than most other subjects.” But her goal of pursuing science as a career/profession seemed more than remote in the years following high school when Dara took a job as a bank teller to help support her family. After a few years in banking, Dara decided to re-direct her focus back to her love of chemistry, and set out north by northwest from her home in Georgetown, Guyana (South America), to arrive at Stony Brook in spring 2010, motivated to pursue her studies of in the field of chemical engineering. Looking back on that time period, Dara reflects:"... the time I spent in that job helped me to clarify my goals, and to realize exactly what it is I wanted to do. When I arrived at Stony Brook, I had a clear goal and I was more driven towards it."
To help support herself, Dara worked as a lab assistant (10 hrs/week) in theFurie Laboratory
at the Center for Molecular Medicine from her first semester here onward. When she
took the initiative to get involved in Chemistry research in sophomore year, she contacted Dr.
Stanislaus Wong of Chemistry and counts herself fortunate to get an opportunity that
she acknowledges changed her life. For over a year now, Dara has been working in the Wong
lab together with her graduate student mentor, Chris Koenigsmann, preparing crystalline
metallic ruthenium (Ru) nanowires and getting invaluable training in the nanotechnology
field, including exposure to physical characterization methods such as transmission
electron microscopy (TEM) and powder X-ray diffraction (XRD). Currently she is at
work on developing a more optimized, reliable synthesis for high-quality Ru nanowires,
with control over their size and morphology. On April 25 (Student Activities Center,
Ballroom A), be sure to talk Dara at the URECA campus-wide symposium!
Dara’s research was supported in summer 2011 through AGEP-Summer Research Institute, a summer program hosted by the Center for Inclusive Education (CIE). Following the advice of her LSAMP mentor Paul Siegel, Dara subsequently applied for and received a MARC fellowship from the Center for Science and Mathematics Education (2011-2012) which has allowed her to dedicate more time to research/scholarship. This past February, Dara was awarded the UNCF-MERCK Undergraduate Science fellowship, a nationally competitive award which will provide additional internship opportunities at Merck for upcoming summer(s).
In her spare time, Dara enjoys singing, dancing, badminton and reading. She is the corresponding secretary of the Stony Brook Gospel Choir and the secretary of the Essence of Praise dance group. She is also an active member of Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program (CStep) and Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP); as well as the American Institute for Chemical Engineers. Dara speaks appreciatively of all her SB mentors and advisors, including: Dr. Dan Moloney of CESAME; Kathryne Piazzola and Nina Maung of the CIE; Paul Siegel of Technology & Society; Christine Veloso of CSTEP; Dr. Devinder Mahajan and Dr. Miriam Rafailovich of CME; and Chris Koenigsmann and Dr. Wong of Chemistry! Dara also credits her mother and grandmother as motivating forces in her life, and fondly remembers her grandmother's recitations of the poet Longfellow as she extolled the merits of hard work and dedication: "The heights by great men reached and kept, were not obtained by sudden flight. But they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night." Below are excerpts of Dara's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Dara. I started in the spring semester of 2011, my sophomore year, in the laboratory of Dr. Stanislaus Wong, in Chemistry. In my research group, we focus on the synthesis of nanomaterials which have a variety of applications, from fuel cells and solar cells to biological application such as cancer treatments. We make both nanowires and nanoparticles. This semester I specifically focused on the synthesis of nanowires: preparing crystalline metallic ruthenium (Ru) nanowires using an ambient template-based methodology.
How did you first find out about Prof. Wong’s lab?
I had a job starting in February 2010 as a laboratory assistant, working at the Center for Molecular Medicine in Dr. Furie’s lab. But I knew I wanted to do research in the field of chemistry. One of the graduate students there, Cindy Thomas, advised me to check departmental websites. So I did, and when I came across the Chemistry Department, and the description of Dr. Wong’s research and his work on carbon nanotubes, I was very interested. I emailed him and he called me in for an interview.
Tell me about your experiences. Do you interact with graduate students in the lab,
and go to lab meetings?
We have lab meetings on Fridays where we get to talk about different things, not only the research we’re doing in our group, but other research as well. And most of the grad students will usually present their current work or discuss some of the current literature.
I’ve been working with Christopher Koenigsmann, a graduate student, since I started there. Chris is a very good teacher. He ensures that he explains everything, and that I understand the procedures: why we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing. He explains each step before we start. He’s a really good mentor!
Did you participate in research through the summer too?
Yes – last summer I participated in the AGEP SRI program. And they were able to fund my stay in Dr. Wong’s lab over the summer. And I basically continued working on and building on what I started doing in the spring semester.
What are the advantages of doing research in the summer?
Doing research in the summer is much more relaxing because you don’t have to worry about classes or homework. You can fully immerse yourself in your research and really get to understand what it is you’re doing. You get a chance to do a lot more reading than you would during the semester because you have so much time. You get a glimpse into the life a graduate student because you’re there full time, all day. So it kind of prepares you. During a summer research program, you can decide if you like research or if you don’t. At the end of the program, AGEP had a symposium where each student presented their work. And I presented a poster of my work. We also did a lot of workshops.
That sounds good for professional development.
Yes – they had a writing workshop which I thought was very useful. It helped you to prepare a personal statement as if you were applying to graduate school. It was tough at first ...but some of what I included in my Merck application developed from ideas that I came up with over the summer for that writing workshop. I followed the points they listed for preparing a successful personal statement. Every week we went over where we were in our draft, so we were constantly writing and fixing our statements. I think that was very helpful. . . Another advantage to being in a program is that you are among people who have similar goals. And who are interested in somewhat similar things. So it was really fun, a good experience!
Has Chemistry long been an interest for you?
I like chemistry because it kind of explains everything. It’s the basis of life. …. It helps you to understand how everything works. I’m not sure how best to explain it but. . . I just love it!
I have been interested in chemistry for a long time because it was one of the subjects that I had to work the hardest at in high school. I just gravitated towards it early on, and I grew to love it and understand it better than most other topics. And so coming here, I always wanted to do something along the lines of chemistry although I wasn’t sure exactly what that would entail. I initially chose Chemical Engineering as a major because I thought it was very versatile. I later added Chemistry as a second major. And then – I found the Wong lab. Before coming here to Stony Brook University and getting exposure to research, though, I don’t think I ever discussed the topic of nanotechnology! That was never something that I was exposed to before!
And prior to coming to Stony Brook....?
I grew up in Guyana, South America. Before coming to Stony Brook, I worked as a banker for a few years. It was not necessarily what I was looking for or wanted to do, but it was what was available. Looking back, I think that the time I spent in that job was still valuable, though, because it helped me to clarify my goals, and to realize exactly what it is I wanted to do. When I arrived at Stony Brook, I had a clear goal and I was more driven towards it.
What are your plans for this summer?
This summer I will be doing an internship at Merck [through the UNCF-Merck Undergraduate Science award]. I’ll be in the Medicinal Chemistry department. I hope to be able to apply some of the things I’ve learned in the Wong lab and in my engineering and organic chemistry classes. I’m really looking forward to the experience.
And your long-term future plans?
I am thinking about graduate school now. It’s strange because, before coming here, I knew I was going to come to university and get a bachelor’s degree, and further my education. But I wasn’t thinking along the lines of grad school. But all the things that I’ve been exposed to here – my research, my classes- have led me to be sure that I want to pursue a PhD in the future.
What are the benefits from doing independent research?
When you take a lab course, you’re just following the instructions in the manual. Sometimes you don’t really explore beyond what they tell you to do. And that’s the difference with research. There’s no manual. You have to come up with what it is you’re going to do, the method, how you’re going to follow through with the project. It’s more independent. You get more freedom and you develop problem solving skills, analytical skills.
If you stumble and something doesn’t go right in your organic chemistry laboratory, you might go talk to your TA and they’d tell you what to do. But if something comes up in the lab where you’re doing independent research, you’re actively trying to come up with ideas of what could have happened, how you could avoid it happening at another time. You really get to understand the science behind what it is that you’re doing.
Is there a big learning curve when you join a lab?
Gradually you become better at doing things. When I started out in my lab, the first thing they did was to give me some of the literature to read. I really didn’t understand half the stuff in it. But as I got into the lab, and I was doing it…I understood more and more. Now I can relate to it and I can go back and look at those papers and I understand what they’re talking about! It takes a while for you to develop that. It doesn’t happen in the first month or the first semester.
And the presentations really helped me too. Because I had to explain and relate my work to other people—not just people in the field but perhaps people who didn’t know anything about it. I had to understand the little things about it and anticipate questions that they would ask to be able to answer them as well.
Yes, sometimes when you teach or explain, it makes you really learn the material well.
That’s what happened to me. Also, when you’re involved in research, you’re always reading the literature to keep abreast of what’s going on. In addition to seeking advice from your mentor, you are always reading to help you to get a better understanding of what it is that you’re doing. …to understand the science better. It’s more active learning.
Do you have advice for other SB students, regarding research?
I think you should take advantage of the research opportunities available as soon as you can, for the experience. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But if you do, you’ll be ahead of your game. It is an advantage to start early. You get to build on the experience. You can also acquire different experiences. Also you know early on if it’s for you or not for you. So I think it’s good to get started early on, just so you get an idea of where you want to go, what you want to do. . . And it’s really fun!
Also, I’d add, when you consider research, you should think of it as a class. You may want to cut down on the amount of classes you’re taking so you can devote enough time to the research. You want it to be a learning experience. Not something you rushed to and just did.
It’s wonderful that you got this opportunity to work in the Wong lab!
Five years ago, I would have never dreamed of doing what I’m doing now. Getting involved in the Wong group has been a great opportunity for me. It’s given me a lot of experience and has opened the way for me to become involved in many other things. My MARC fellowship is due to my research. I also believe that the skills and experience I acquired in the Wong group gave me an edge toward the Merck scholarship.…Nanotech is the big thing now. I think I went in the right direction!