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Researcher of the Month

May 2011

Yan Leyfman 

Biology major, Class of 2011

Research Mentor: Dr. Galina Botchkina, Department of Pathology, Institute of Chemical Biology & Drug Discovery 


YanLeyfmanWhen Yan Leyfman makes up his mind to do something, there's no stopping him! . . . When Yan wanted to convey his optimism about what's going on in the stem cell field with emerging cancer therapies to fellow students, he published the cover feature story in Young Investigators Review! When he wanted to inspire fellow SB students by exposing them to leading researchers in science, he established "The USG Lecture Series: Pioneers in the Field" which brought Drs. Ralph Steinman, Barry Coller, and Darrell Irvine to campus to deliver lectures to students. When he saw that Sigma Xi was looking for a new venue to host the Sigma Xi Northeastern Research Symposium , he decided: Stony Brook University is the place! Yan enlisted the support of university administrators within the Provost, President and Dean of Students offices, and the Stony Brook Research Foundation; put together a proposal; and then assembled an extraordinary student team that on April 9th, at the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, ran one of the most successful student-driven conferences ever! Dr. Kestutis Bendinskas, NE Sigma Xi Associate Director and Prof. of Chemistry at SUNY-Oswego, reported:

"I am most pleased to report that 2011 North Eastern Sigma Xi research symposium at Stony Brook was phenomenal in many different ways. First, the entire effort and organization was student driven, with Mr. Yan Leyfman leading the effort. The support provided by the SBU officials to this group of young science professionals was exemplary. Second, student poster presentations were of exceptional quality. Not less importantly, having 3 outstanding speakers was very exciting. The Nobel Laureate Dr. Paul Greengard described his current research dealing with Alzheimer's and depression; the former Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John H. Marburger shared his opinions about the science in general and made several excellent points about the role of Sigma Xi in our society; also, Dr. Grigori Enikolopov of Cold Spring Harbor Lab delivered an excellent talk about stem cells in the adult brain. The sincere thank you's of all participants go to Stony Brook students, the Sigma Xi Chapter at Stony Brook, and Stony Brook University's administration for hosting this event."

Yan's passion for stem biology would be hard to miss. He considers himself very fortunate indeed to be working in the cancer stem cell field under the transformative mentorship of Dr. Galina Botchkina of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery: "I owe a lot to Dr. Botchkina. She instilled the skills to make me think like an independent scientist. She is not only a great PI or a mentor, but an amazing friend who truly believes in me, as well. " Yan also finds much to be inspired in the field, with heroes such as Drs. Galina Botchkina, Shinya Yamanaka, Shahin Rafii, George Daley, Konrad Hochedlinger, and Derrick Rossi, and truly loves to connect with exciting cutting-edge researchers wherever possible. In fact, he's already presented his research at some 15 meetings, including many off-campus forums such as the New York Stem Cell Foundation's 5th Annual Translational Stem Cell Research Conference, the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy, and the Columbia University Research Symposium. Yan was a keynote student presenter at the recent Sigma Xi Conference, at Stony Brook's Young Investigators 2nd annual symposium(2009), and has also proudly presented on campus at URECA's annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research, at Chemistry Research Day, and at President Stanley's inaugural research exhibition. Yan's contributions to the Botchkina lab have been recognized with co-authored publications. Yan's awards include: the Parcell Laboratories Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Award, the Sigma Xi Excellence in Research award and the national Goldwater Scholarship. He has also received support from URECA summer and travel grants throughout his college career. 

Yan Leyfman was born in Belarus, immigrated to Brooklyn at age 5, and first gained research experience working on such topics as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and congenital heart defects during high school and through summer research programs. Yan will be graduating this May with a biology major, and is a recipient of the Provost's and the SUNY Chancellor's Awards for Student Excellence. He plans to continue with his research interests in stem cell biology, and to pursue a medical degree in the near future. Yan's hobbies include swimming and photography. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: What is your research about? 
Yan: I have worked in Dr. Botchkina’s lab since my first semester at Stony Brook. Our lab is focused on cancer stem cells, which are the rare, low proliferative, highly drug resistant cells that are responsible for tumor initiation, metastasis and resistance to treatment. In 2008, the American Cancer Society released a study chronicling cancer mortality rates from 1950 to 2005. The results of that study showed that mortality rates remained more or less constant, indicating that standard anticancer therapies were not entirely effective. In fact, recent experimental studies have shown that standard therapies may actually increase the number of cancer stem cells. Our collaborators in the ICB&DD, headed by Dr. Iwao Ojima, have recently synthesized a new generation taxoid, SB-T-1214, that showed promising results in mice induced with human tumor xenografts. We wanted to assess the effectiveness of that drug on cancer stem cell gene expression in prostate and colon cancers. SB-T-1214 successfully shifted a majority of the cancer stem cells toward apoptosis and significantly downregulated stem cell gene expression in both cancer types, after just one treatment. Thus, SB-T-1214 shows great promise as a potential anti-cancer stem cell targeting drug.

How did you get started in research?
I began my research journey in high school studying atherosclerosis and have continued ever since. My whole perspective changed the day that I stepped into the lab. For some reason, I knew that was what I wanted to do. When I came to Stony Brook, my main goal was to find my niche in a research field. I wanted to try something new. The Botchkina lab caught my eye. Stem cell biology was starting to garner mainstream attention at the time and there were few labs studying these cells. I saw this as a great opportunity to grow and I was honored that Professor Botchkina allowed me to join her lab when I was only a freshman. I have been in her lab ever since.

So when you came to SB, and were looking to join a lab freshman year, you had already developed significant lab skills? 
I had, but as a researcher, you can always improve. There is always more to learn.

Have you learned a lot since joining the Botchkina lab?
I owe a lot to Dr. Botchkina. She truly instilled the skills to make me think like an independent scientist. Since my freshman year, she has given me immense responsibility. Although I was unsure if I would be able to handle it at the beginning, I wanted to prove to myself that I had the knowledge and could do it. Thus I pushed myself and rose to the occasion. I am very honored that Dr. Botchkina believed in me.

Were you the only undergraduate in the lab?
Actually, at the time, I was the only other person in the lab. It was just me and my mentor.

That must have been a good learning experience.
Because of that, I was able to acquire skills and responsibility that maybe I would not have otherwise learned. When you’re in any lab, much of what you learn is from doing autonomous work. I appreciate the responsibility that I was given and feel that it helped me to grow. I am extremely grateful for the interaction I had with my mentor. Dr. Botchkina has been very supportive of all my research and academic endeavors and I feel honored to have been a part of her lab.

Tell me about some of your positive research related experiences. 
I enjoy learning about stem cell biology, and presenting my research before the scientific community. Recently, I presented my research at the New York Stem Cell Foundation’s 5th Annual Research Symposium, where I was able to present my research to the world’s top stem cell biologists, who are the current pioneers and leaders of the field. In addition, I was fortunate to have met several scientists who had initially inspired me to study stem cell biology. This was a great honor!

What are your current goals?
I wish to further my research endeavors and enhance my research knowledge, before applying to medical school.

Has being involved in research enhanced your education at SB?
Being involved in research has helped me to connect to my science classes better. When you are performing research, I believe you appreciate much more the new knowledge that is being presented—the new slides, the novel research being done, and the work that went into acquiring that knowledge. In lab classes, you will often be asked to read scientific literature and publications. Because I have been accustomed to doing that for a long time through my research, I essentially know when I read a publication what to look for, how to analyze it and how to extrapolate information from it and then apply it. My research experiences have really honed my writing skills as well.

This last year, you’ve taken on another project: bringing the Sigma Xi conference to Stony Brook.  Tell me what motivated you to do this.
In my junior year, I saw that the Sigma Xi Northeastern Research Conference was looking for a new venue to host the event in 2011. I instantly thought that Stony Brook University would be a perfect choice. I put in the proposal, and was thrilled when SBU was selected. The director, Dr. Kestutis Bendinskas, asked me to be the student coordinator of the event. I knew it would be a large scale endeavor but I felt that I knew what it took to create a great research symposium. I was also lucky that I was able to find a great staff of students at SBU who selflessly devoted their time to making this event extremely memorable.   After I expanded the conference to the whole nation with the help of my staff, we achieved a phenomenal turnout- over 200 abstracts this year!

What did you learn from being on the organizational side of a conference? 
This was the first time that the Sigma Xi event was completely student-run, student-driven. My staff and I were fortunate to have had the help of Dr. Marburger (VP for Research), Kathleen Green, Dean Stein, Susan DiMonda, Navneet Singh, and USG. I am very grateful to USG, NYStar- SensorCAT, and the Offices of the VP for Research and the Dean of Students for their gracious support of this event. I was happy that students enjoyed it as well, based on the positive feedback we received. One of the judges from Monmouth University, Dr. Mack, said that in his 25 years of being a Sigma Xi member and attending various symposia, this year’s conference was one of the most organized that he has ever attended. It was a great honor to hear such praise. The Sigma Xi event has helped to establish friendships and future collaborations. In addition, it provided students with a medium to interact, network, and learn about each other’s work.

You also organized a lecture series through USG this year.
Yes, the "USG Lecture Series: Pioneers in the Field." I was grateful to USG for their support of this endeavor. We had a great turnout for these events. The students were happy to meet these amazing scientists. It was an honor to bring these people to Stony Brook, learn more about their research and to listen to their advice. We are very grateful to these individuals for taking time out of their lives to speak to next generation of students, and answer questions about science education, or being a scientist. I feel that such events really inspire students.

This week you presented at URECA. You have presented several times at URECA, haven't you?
Yes, this was my third year presenting and it was a great experience as always. URECA is extremely important for students who are just getting into research as it allows them to practice their presentation skills in a low pressure environment, learn from other students who have presented in the past, and is also a place for students doing research to meet other researchers. If you are put into a big research symposium where you are being judged, it is nerve wracking the first time you do it. You might not be entirely sure how you are supposed to present, or what you are supposed to say. URECA provides a great first step for students just beginning in research and gives them the confidence, knowledge and experience to then go onto to national/international research symposia and showcase their work. Presenting your research is a skill, and any opportunity that a student has to present, they should take!  

Is it hard to talk with a general audience after participating in very specialized conferences/symposia? 
Even when I present at national symposia, not everyone is an oncologist or a stem cell biologist. If you truly understand your research, then you should be able to explain your work in such a way that anyone can understand it. URECA is a great venue to teach you that anyone can come up you: from those with lots of expertise to those with no research experience at all. At any research conference, the same thing can happen.

What are some of your most favorite experiences connected with research?
I have enjoyed every second of my research journey, from the tough times when experiments fail, to the happy times when everything is going well. It is all a part of the journey. Every day you are evolving, and learning something new. Research is not something you can “master”. There is always something new to learn.

Do you find it difficult to balance academics with research?
You learn to balance everything. One’s day can sometimes be dictated by an experiment and that may require coming into the lab very early and leaving extremely late. There are times when you need to stay in the lab finishing up an experiment until the late hours of the night. The key is to enjoy what you are doing. Looking back now on my four years in the Botchkina lab, I see how time has really flown by. It seems like just yesterday I began. That is because I truly enjoyed what I was doing, and I am very appreciative to have had this opportunity to do research throughout my time here at SBU.

Any advice for incoming students?
It is important to do research that you like. About 95% of time, experiments may fail. If you are not happy with the research, you may get easily discouraged or find it difficult to be inspired to pursue and to fine-tune your research. It is just easier on both you, your lab, everyone if you are truly passionate about what you are doing.

Sometimes students find their initial work in the lab to be tedious, or repetitive. How do you get beyond that stage?
I find the work that I am doing to be extremely interesting and worthwhile. Everything that is done has an ultimate purpose and it is important to look at those things as a learning opportunity. Although it may seem tedious at first, the goal of this stage of the study may be to acquire samples so that the lab can move on to the latter stages of the study. Every stage has a purpose and it is vital to appreciate it in the overall scheme of the project’s purpose. Ultimately, just enjoy your time in the lab and appreciate the lab's contributions to science.

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