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Researcher of the Month
Biochemistry major, University Scholars, Class of 2013
Research Mentor: Dr. Daniel Raleigh, Chemistry
You may wonder how a routine lab tour could change your life. But when Chem 141 students participated in this required course activity two years ago, it turned out to be a significant event for Olesya Levsh, who recalls being simply “astounded” by what was happening in the Raleigh lab: “After that experience, I just really wanted to be involved!” Right after the class tour, she talked to Professor Daniel Raleigh about joining his lab and getting involved in the lab’s ongoing studies of protein folding, protein structure and the mechanism of amyloid formation.
Currently in her junior year, and a major in Biochemistry with a minor in Chemistry, Olesya is happily synthesizing and analyzing proteins, and getting invaluable training in the use of HPLC and TEM while studying IAPPs — as a member of the Raleigh lab! “It is a great experience. For me, it’s not work at all. It’s something I enjoy doing,” states Olesya, who plans to pursue a graduate (Ph.D.) degree after completing undergraduate studies. “It was being involved in the lab that made me make up my mind about what I wanted to do. And I want to work in the lab. I want to discover things, and contribute.”
Olesya is a member of the University Scholars Program, and in 2010 served as an Undergraduate College Fellow for the Undergraduate College of Human Development, and a Teaching Assistant in General Chemistry. She is also active in the Undergraduate Biochemistry Society, and currently acts as managing editor for the Stony Brook Young Investigators Review. Born in Uzbekistan (fluent in Russian), and a graduate (salutatorian) of James Madison HS in Brooklyn, Olesya is very happy with how things are going at SB, particularly her involvement in research: “I am very lucky!” Below is her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research. What do you work on?
Olesya: The Raleigh lab focuses on IAPP which is islet amyloid polypeptide. What this peptide does is aggregate in certain parts of the body and it kills beta cells in the pancreas which ultimately leads to type II diabetes. I’ve had several projects at this point regarding IAPP. This semester, I’m starting a new project which involves finding small molecular inhibitors. EGCG the antioxidant found in tea has been very promising. It totally inhibits aggregation….Last year, I helped make a mutant peptide which had a mutation at one point and that peptide aggregated very quickly. So I helped track the kinetics of that as well as the structural change as it was aggregating. As part of my project, I got trained to use the TEM, a transmission electron microscope on campus. We take electron microscopy pictures to study the morphology of the fibers…
Overall, our lab is working to gain insight into amyloid formation/amyloid fibrils – which has implications for understanding how certain diseases (type II diabetes) develop, and what we can do to develop certain peptide inhibitors for it. We’re trying to learn more about how the aggregation starts, what kinds of things affect aggregation, and the kinetics of amyloid formation.
How did you first learn of the lab? When did you become involved in research?
I began doing research in the second semester freshman year. I took honors chemistry first semester and Prof. Daniel Raleigh was the chem lab professor. As part of the course, they took all the undergraduates to research labs. And so I wound up on a tour of Dr. Raleigh’s lab. I was so astounded by being surrounded by all this equipment! I remember the jokes he made regarding his HPLCs which cost 40 grand each. It was the first time I had ever witnessed being in a lab! ..After that experience, I just really wanted to be involved … So after the tour, I went up to him and talked to him about the possibility of working for him.
Did you have a strong background in research?
Actually, not at all! Prof. Raleigh tossed a bunch of research papers my way. I caught up a little and tried my best to understand what exactly it was that his lab did. Gradually I got more and more involved.
Tell me about the lab atmosphere.
It’s great! The grad students who work with me are very patient with me and I’m very grateful for that. Both of them are very, very nice people, and very accommodating. Everybody is very friendly. If you need help, you’re not afraid to ask for it. Dr. Raleigh is a very busy man but at the same time he’s also very approachable, and incredibly generous. When I started, he knew I had no biochemistry background as a freshman. He sat down with me, and took the time to explain what the lab does, how all this works.
What is the biggest challenge with doing research?
At first it’s intimidating. You’re working with machines that cost a lot of money, and you don’t exactly know how to use them. You’re scared to make the wrong move. But you get used to it. It becomes less scary too when you have somebody watching over you, guiding you, showing you how to do things the right way. You watch at first. Then you get a little hands-on experience. As it goes on, you do more and more on your own.
So there’s a learning curve?
Definitely. I’m lucky too in that the grad students I've worked with are really great. They will help me, they will continue to push me in the direction until I get it. I do sometimes feel frustrated at myself when I don’t really know what’s going on the first time I’m doing something new or I don’t understand it as well as I’d like to. And I don’t want it to be a frustrating experience for my grad students. But I also have to remind myself that one shouldn’t expect it to be immediate. Sometimes it just takes time.
What do you most enjoy about working in the lab?
The fact that everything is so real, that’s it’s actually happening — that there are these tests that I’m running that tell me that science is actually happening in front of me versus sitting in a class, listening to lectures, being handed a formula and saying “this is how life is supposed to work.” In the lab, you actually are able to observe it.
Does being involved with research give you insight into your coursework/course material?
This semester in Biochemistry it did, actually! I’ve been in the lab for a year and a half. So I’ve learned a lot about how peptides work. I have a lot of background information on what actually goes on. When I came into the course, I found that it was so much more interesting because I had real life experience with the material I was being taught. It was great. It makes education more interesting, more engaging.
What are your long –term goals? Are you pre-med?
I would like to get a PhD., after I complete my undergraduate studies. I’m a biochemistry major. I was undecided in my major when I first came here. Of course, every parent pushes their child to become a doctor or a lawyer, to pursue a career that is guaranteed to lead to a stable job or make a lot of money. But after working in the lab, I realized that premed is not what I want to do. … It was being involved in the lab that made me make up my mind about what I wanted to do. And I want to work in the lab, I want to discover things, and contribute.
As part of your research training/development, do you sometimes read scientific papers/articles?
All the time. It is definitely worth sitting down, taking your time to try and go through research articles and understand things on your own. That will accelerate the understanding/learning process and you’ll get more accomplished in the lab.
How do you manage your time in lab?
A lot of it depends on when the machines are free. If we need to run an assay, for example, people sign up for the machines and sometimes they’ll be taken for days. So my graduate student and I – we try to coordinate our schedules. And then, a lot is determined by the machine’s schedule!
Is it difficult to balance your commitment to research with academics?
Sometimes. The fact that I don’t sleep might help!
You also are involved with Young Investigators Review. How does that complement your research & coursework?
Young Investigators Review is SB’s official undergrad science journal. I heard about them during fall semester of my sophomore year. I saw a notice that they were looking for writers, looking for staff. And I love to write! So I spoke to the editor in chief, they took me on to their staff, and I wound up writing an article on microRNA during winter break (it will appear soon on our website!). Writing about microRNA and its involvement in cancer was a tremendous learning experience for me. As time went on, I gradually became more and more involved with YIR. I do things like edit, help get writers involved, suggest topics we should write about.
YIR seems like a great way to interact with other students who have the same interests.
Definitely. It’s great.
What has also helped me to develop at this university immensely is University Scholars. Dr. Maynard has been a great guy to talk to. He’s always guided me in the right direction when I have questions regarding things such as:where should I go, what’s the right career path out of the ones I’m considering, how do I apply to graduate school, when do I start thinking about these things. All of that has helped me.
Do you think that research is something that more students should take advantage of
early on? What’s your advice?
Get involved as early as you can! Do not hold it off. It is a great experience! For me, it’s not work at all. It’s something I enjoy doing. It’s something that is such a great experience that everybody should have it.