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Researcher of the Month
Biology major; Minor in Mathematics, WISE, Class of 2014
Research Mentor: Dr. Kevin Czaplinski, Biochemistry & Cell Biology
Ariana Levin is such a dedicated talent in the lab that it might surprise those who know her to learn that she had to be coaxed initially to try research: “ I thought that I was going to hate research. But I kept hearing that if you’re a science major, you should do research, you have to try it. . . So the summer after my freshman year, I gave it a shot." What Ariana discovered was that she absolutely loves doing research—and hasn’t stopped doing research since!
Ariana is from Storrs CT, and participates in the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) program at SBU. Now in her junior year, Ariana is majoring in Biology, with a minor in Mathematics. In summer 2011, after completing her freshman year, she volunteered in Dr. Christopher Hammell’s lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she learned to do genetics, completing a large-scale RNA interference screen using the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Eager to continue hands-on research, Ariana joined the laboratory of Dr. Kevin Czaplinski (Biochemistry & Cell Biology) the following September, and began work on the role that type III Neuregulin1 plays in mediating localized translation in neurons. She continues to dedicate many hours to her work in the Czaplinski lab — and plans to work there this summer, to make headway on her senior honors project. Last summer, Ariana participated in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s summer undergraduate research program on Human Oncology and Pathogenesis where she worked in the laboratory of Dr. James Fagin on thyroid cancer investigations and was one of 4 summer students honored with the Schaps Scholar award.
While a student at SBU, Ariana has participated in Study Abroad in Rhodes Greece and Talamanca Costa Rica. In her freshman year, she was an Admissions Blogger; more recently she has served as a Teaching Assistant for Organic Chemistry (2012-2013) and Genetics (2013); and has also been employed through her undergraduate years as a mathematics teacher/tutor for a private company offering online courses. Ariana plans to pursue a medical degree, and to incorporate her love of research, as well as mathematics, into her future career as a physician-scientist. Asked to name one of the most valuable aspects of her combined research experiences, Ariana reflects: “That, I think, is what undergraduate research really teaches— creativity in the sciences. … As an undergrad, going into lab and seeing these new problems, and standing at the white board trying to come up with my own solutions—that has really taught me to think more creatively as a scientist.”Below are excerpts of Ariana's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: What kind of research do you do?
Ariana: For the past few semesters I’ve been working with Dr. Kevin Czaplinski. My project is focused on localized translation in neurons. I study a specific protein called Neuregulin that’s involved in some of the signaling pathways that turn on when neurons form synapses with other neurons. The project also has medical relevance because mutations in Neuregulin have been found in a significant number of schizophrenia patients.
How did you get started in doing research?
As a freshman, for some reason I thought that I was going to hate research. But I kept hearing that if you’re a science major, you should do research, you have to try it. . . So the summer after my freshman year, I gave it a shot.
I made arrangements to work as a volunteer in the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Hammell at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I wasn’t expecting to get compensated for my first opportunity in research. I offered to work as a volunteer and he gave me so much in return. … Because after 6 weeks of doing research at a lab at Cold Spring Harbor, I realized that I love research! When I came back my sophomore year, I started in Dr. Czaplinski’s lab. Since then I’ve also interned in a lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering. During all my semesters, I continue to work in Dr. Czaplinski’s lab.
Why did you think you wouldn’t like research initially?
I had this fictional image of researchers isolated in a cold, white lab…. I’m not sure where I picked that up... but it turned out to be completely wrong. I love working in my lab! The topic really interests me. And the people in the lab are as interesting as the topic itself.
I’ve learned so much both from my mentor, and from the graduate student in my lab. During my first summer, at CSHL, I worked with a grad student and post doc who discussed Latin American politics and film while their experiments ran. Inspired by their conversations, I studied abroad in Costa Rica the following winter.
Describe the lab atmosphere, and the teaching style—how you learn.
We talk about the research, and there’s a lot of back and forth. My mentor expects me to take a guess about the reasons behind my results, and then of course I learn from his response to my guess. I do a lot of troubleshooting with the graduate student as well. . . My mentor, Dr. Czaplinski, has high expectations. When I go in with a question, he often expects me to try to answer before he explains in detail. And that’s really helped me become a better scientist. He has a white board in his office. Sometimes we’ll go up to the whiteboard, and he tells me, “Draw what you think is going on…Draw the results you expect.” The process forces me to think really deeply about what I’m doing at my lab bench. In retrospect, when I started doing undergraduate research, I wasn’t asking enough questions. I was very focused on learning the techniques in lab (which are important as well) but I wasn’t asking enough questions about the broader connections. Dr. Czaplinski has forced me to ask those questions and make predictions.
Has doing research enhanced your understanding of coursework?
My classes require a lot of necessary memorization, but I try to avoid memorization by understanding how concepts fit together. Lab research has shown me how the concepts fit. But it’s also important to develop a creative way of thinking. And that, I think, is what undergraduate research really teaches—creativity in the sciences. A group of scientists can get together and all see a problem from the same perspective but it will take a really creative scientist to come up with a brand new solution. So as an undergrad, going into lab and seeing these new problems, and standing at the white board trying to come up with my own solutions—that has really taught me to think more creatively as a scientist.
Tell me about the Sloan Kettering summer program you participated in last summer. What was that experience like?
Last summer I lived with 20 students interested in science from all over the United States. We all spent 10 weeks in different labs at Sloan Kettering. I worked in a lab studying drug resistance in thyroid cancer. Working in the summer is very different from working in the semester. The advantage of working in the summer is time: I spent all day in lab, and then I attended other research-related events. We had lunches with faculty from Sloan Kettering during which we heard about the most recent research that was being done at the Cancer Center. That’s really exciting. I learned so much science outside of my own lab. At the end of the 10 weeks, I presented at a poster symposium. It was one of my first experiences learning to communicate my research to the public.
Do you think communicating science is something that gets easier with practice?
Definitely. I always get nervous about public speaking. Even in class, it makes me a little nervous when I raise my hand. At Sloan Kettering we practiced with “chalk talks.” I had to use a white board to explain what my project is all about in 5 short minutes. So I’ve done that and I’ve done the poster presentations. And I practice at lab meeting. Lab meeting is the most intimidating, because I’m speaking to scientists who know exactly what my project is about, so they ask the toughest questions! Every time I get better at speaking, and I also understand my own project more in depth because other people are asking me questions that I haven’t thought about. … I believe that I don’t fully understand a concept until I’m able to teach it. I need to be able to explain what I’m doing to other scientists, my peers and my friends. Without comprehension, who’s going to be interested?
Tell me about your experience as a WISE student.
One of the main reasons I came to Stony Brook was that I learned about WISE. WISE is a great program. Freshman year, I thoroughly enjoyed the tripled room I shared with two WISE students. One roommate was a CME major. The other roommate was an Applied Math major. It’s important to meet students in related fields. Taking classes with both of those roommates, I have seen how we approach organic chemistry or mathematics differently because we have these different backgrounds.
So you can see connections, then, in how you learn or think about certain problems, based on the discipline you study?
Yes. I’m a math minor. But I also take DECs that interest me. I’ve taken philosophy, I took a great art history class. Right now I’m taking African American rhetoric... All these classes teach a new way of thinking. Math, and philosophy too, require a thinker to take different pieces of a puzzle and put them together to reach conclusions. And science research requires that process as well. If biologists are studying a problem, I think a mathematician can approach the problem from a different angle. And hopefully the mathematician and the biologists could collaborate to come up with a new solution. I have some background in a lot of areas. I’m hoping to figure out how to put these all together in my career. I’m definitely going to find a way to fit math and biology and medicine together.
What is the most difficult aspect of doing research as an undergraduate?
During the semesters, the scheduling is difficult. That’s why it’s very important to commit some summers to make progress. This summer I’m planning to stay in Dr. Czaplinski’s lab and work on my senior thesis. I always have a full schedule, and I also have a job. So there are a lot of evenings that I come into lab—or early mornings. In my particular project, I do a lot of Western blots. Anyone who’s done a Western blot knows they take a long time!
What was the best research-related experience you’ve had to date?
I can think of many times that I’ve taken a moment to sit and think about my project, think about the results I got this week, think about what it means. And suddenly I have all these questions about the science. These are the interesting questions that really motivate me to keep working on the topic. And when I have so many questions that I feel like I need to go out and get these answered …. that’s when I feel that there’s really a purpose to what I’m doing. Foremost for me is the curiosity. That’s what drives me as an undergraduate researcher.