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Researcher of the Month
Biomedical Engineering major, Honors College, Class of 2011
URECA Summer program 2009, 2010; HHMI Summer program 2008; Goldwater Scholar 2010
Mentor: Dr. Helmut Strey, Dept of Biomedical Engineering
In several weeks, half a dozen of SB’s top biomedical engineering undergrads will be journeying to Austin, Texas to present posters and/or talks at the annual BMES 2010 meeting. Among this elite group of students is our Researcher of the Month, Rob Kimmerling — not the least of whose impressive accomplishments is maintaining a 4.0 GPA in the demanding BME major, going into his senior year.
A member of the Honors College (class of 2011), Rob began doing undergraduate research under the mentorship of Prof. Helmut Strey, of the Biomedical Engineering Department, in his freshman year. In Summer 2008, Rob was awarded the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowship; the following two summers, his research was supported with funding from URECA. In his junior year, Rob was one of ~278 students nationally named a Goldwater Scholar. Rob has continued to be very productive in the Strey lab, gaining experience with microfluidic technology, photolithography/soft lithography equipment and protocols, as well as clean room experience at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Labs. He is a coinventor (40%) with his mentor, Prof. Strey, on a patent involving a novel microfluidics technology to extract magnetic mRNA binding beads from droplets containing the contents of individual cells. The project he will be presenting at the national BMES meeting in Austin Texas is titled: “Droplet Based Microfluidics for Single Cell Genetic Analysis." Rob has also presented at URECA’s annual campus-wide research symposium (2010).
Rob has also served as an Emergency Medical Technician with the Stony Brook Volunteer Ambulance Corps for the past 3 years; and is a member of Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society, and the Golden Key National Honor Society. During his spare time, he enjoys playing frisbee at the beach.
Rob’s first research experience occurred the summer after he graduated from William Floyd High School, through a BNL summer research program. Rob worked with USFWS biologist Jeremy Feinberg on a study of the local extirpation pattern of Southern Leopard Frog populations on Long Island. Reflecting on this experience, Rob comments: “That one summer, I got stung by wasps, hornets…every other day. There were also ticks . . . It was fun, but it’s nice to have the climate control and lack of bugs in a lab!” Rob is certainly at home in his BME lab now, as a senior, and is a great advocate for the BME major and the BME department generally; he is particularly looking forward to senior engineering design classes this year. This fall, Rob plans to apply to Ph.D. programs in Biomedical Engineering, and hopes to continue working in the interdisciplinary field of microfluidics technology. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your current research, what kind of work you do.
Rob: I started in research during the winter of my freshman year. Right now I’m working on a microfluidics device for single cell genetic analysis. Specifically, we’re trying to work with functionalized magnetic beads to isolate and concentrate the genetic material of a single cell. The idea is to incorporate all the various stages of gene analysis into one chip, for a stand-alone device.
How did you find out about your lab initially?
I had looked at the BME website and thought that Prof. Strey’s work on microfluidics was really cool. I was pretty lucky because Prof. Strey was also my academic advisor. When I went to schedule classes, I told him I was interested in his research. He mentioned to me then that there was room in his lab and that’s when I started working for him.
Did you have any background when you started in the lab?
It was pretty much square one for me. Previously I had done a summer internship at BNL, the summer after senior year, working on a field biology project.... I was all over the island looking for frogs. Shelter Island, Montauk, a few county parks out west.
How do you compare what you do now to doing field research?
Well....there’s not as many animal attacks! That one summer, I got stung by wasps, hornets…every other day. There were also ticks. . . It was fun, but it’s nice to have the climate control and lack of bugs in a lab!...
What is it that you like about lab research?
With the lab work I’m doing now, I really like that every day is completely different It’s nice to know that even if you don’t have a very successful day, it’s still useful. You know what not to do the next day. There’s a lot of experimentation, different procedures that I try. I can then go to Prof. Strey for advice, how to alter it, fix it, make it more robust…
What were your best and worst days in your lab?
Most recently, I had a difficult time trying to make droplets with even concentrations of magnetic beads. It sounds like a really simple task but it’s taken me ~6 months now. And just in the last week, I’ve been able to make these droplets consistently over and over again. It sounds small, but when it happens, it’s pretty nice to get that result!
Do you think you've become better over time at problem solving?
Trouble shooting is a lot quicker when you know what’s going wrong, or what’s probable to go wrong. Sometimes you have the same issues or difficulties over and over again. We’re working with channels the size of microns. Clogging is always an issue. .. But it definitely makes the thought process much quicker once you get some hands-on experience.
What are your plans for after graduation?
I’m be applying to grad schools soon. My plan is to get a PhD in biomedical engineering because I’m really enjoying everything to do with microfluidics. There are lots of exciting labs that focus on microfluidics and diagnostic technologies.
Has being involved in undergrad research has helped you prepare for graduate study?
It’s a really good way to apply your knowledge. You get an idea of what you can expect in grad school. It’s also helped me with time management. With the research, it’s really important to keep focused on what to do when. That will help, I think, in grad school also. You also get to interact with the grad students in the department. I’ve worked with a lot of first year students in their rotations. And that’s been a good experience. I think I have a sense of what to expect.
So how do you manage your demanding schedule?
With the research, it’s something that I just enjoy. It’s easier to loose track of time when you enjoy what you’re doing.
Are many other students you know also involved in research?
A good amount. The BME professors are really open to having undergrads. It helps that the research is really interesting. You want to be part of it. I really like the department. There are no boundaries. The faculty are very approachable and everyone is interested in the same ideas.
It's a great major, so interdisciplinary.
Yes, that’s been great. I’ve taken biology classes, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. It’s nice to get an idea of what’s going on in a range of fields.
What other hobbies do you have?
Going to the beach, playing Frisbee. Hanging out with friends.
Have you had chances to present your work?
I’ve done the presentations on campus for URECA and Howard Hughes. I recently sent in an abstract for the BMES meeting. We’ve also been working on a patent. That’s been a cool experience and has been what I’ve been working on mostly for the last year and a half. We’ll also be working on a publication.
Do you enjoy the process of putting together a poster?
That’s always fun. You don’t even realize all of the results you have until you put them down in a logical outline. It’s nice to see it on one page and explain to other people who are interested. You get a snapshot of all you’ve done….Also, when you’re working on the same thing, you don’t think of other applications. At the URECA Celebration, for instance, I got to talk to other people in Atmospheric Sciences working on droplet formation which I enjoyed. It’s good to take a step back and see the overall picture, see how what you do fits into broader areas of science.
Does being involved in research help with academic course work?
Definitely. It’s not so much specific information, but rather with the thought process that goes into science work that helps you understand similar thought-processes…Understanding how things work, why it’s important to know how they work. ...
I think it would be much more difficult to do my major if I weren’t so involved with the research. It sets a good frame work for how to think of things, how to organize things. To me, it’s important to make connections between classes. Otherwise it’s tough to learn the material and actually understand it. The research gives you a background on how to do that, how to connect things that may seem totally unrelated on the surface. Doing the research is actually a good way to tie everything together– it makes it easier to grasp what you’re learning in class. That’s what I think anyway.