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Researcher of the Month

David HararyApril 2015

David Harary 

Music major, Chemistry minor, Class of 2015

Research Mentor: Dr. Mary Kritzer, Department of Neurobiology & Behavior


At 6’6”, David Harary stands out in a crowd, and has distinguished himself in his time at SB as a musician, scholar, and athlete. You can’t miss him, even when you enter a crowded room full of poster presenters at the upcoming URECA research symposium on April 29th. Be sure to seek him out, to discuss the fascinating research he has been doing in the Kritzer lab.

Currently a senior majoring in Music with a minor in Chemistry, David Harary entered SB 4 years ago with a deep fascination in both neuroscience and music, having been influenced by the work of Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin. Within the close-knit community of music majors at SB, David has thrived as a Clarinetist/Bass Clarinetist, and will soon be performing an honors Senior Recital, with a preconcert lecture on April 12th, at 12 PM in the Staller Center for the Arts Recital Hall that he prepared for under the mentorship of Professor Emerita Sarah Fuller and Doctoral Candidate Taylor Massey. David was a finalist in the 2014 and 2015 SB Undergraduate Concerto Competitions, and has developed his musicianship throughout his time at SB from his involvement with chamber and orchestral music ensembles.

David also is a rower (and current secretary) with Stony Brook University Crew, routinely practicing at 5:30am on Stony Brook Harbor (or at the the campus recreation center). In his freshman year, David was named a Leadership and Service (LDS) Undergraduate College fellow. He has served as a Teaching Assistant for Organic Chemistry (Fall 2013); and as a Student Advisor to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (since Fall 2014). It was in his junior year that his inquisitiveness about neuroscience led him to join the research laboratory of Dr. Mary Kritzer, where he began to focus on understanding the contributions that sex hormones make to the motor and non-motor deficits of Parkinson’s disease. Funding for David’s project, “Non Motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease: roles for sex and sex hormone effects on subthalamo-prefrontal connections” was provided in summer 2014 by URECA. David has previously presented at the annual URECA campus-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium (2014). Recently, David also began shadowing Dr. Jill Miller-Horn, a pediatric neurologist, in the outpatient clinic and Stony Brook Children's Hospital.

For David, the experience of learning by being in a small interactive community is a key part of his undergraduate research experience: “it was through research that I was able to have a kind of parallel to the nurturing experience I had in the music department. Taking premed classes in large lectures is not the same experience as learning by talking to people, being in a lab environment. I wanted to have more experience in the sciences where I could ask questions that would lead to conversation. And so joining a research lab gave me that opportunity, that community to learn from. “

David was born in NYC, and attended New Rochelle High School in Westchester. His hobbies include Podcast listening (The Moth, This American Life), biking, and cooking. After attending a one-year Master’s in Neuroscience at King’s College London,  he plans to go to medical school. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 


The Interview:

Karen. Tell me about your current research.
David. I work with Dr. Mary Kritzer in the Dept of Neurobiology & Behavior. Our lab’s common goal for a long time has been trying to understand how sex hormones can influence motor circuitry and dopamine neurons in the brain. Since I’ve joined the lab, our focus has primarily been on Parkinson’s Disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the depletion of dopamine neurons in a part of the brain called the Substantia Nigra. …We want to understand where and how these hormones are interacting with the system and to study the effects of these hormones in a rat model of Parkinson’s Disease. Sex hormones have been thought to interact with a specific pathway between two areas: the Subthalamic Nucleus (STN) and the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The communication between the STN and the PFC is a potentially important and overlooked connection in motor circuitry that we want to know more about — and that may lead to a better understanding of PD and related disorders. By mapping the connections between these two areas using tracer chemicals to indicate where sex hormone receptors are, we can identify the relationship between brain cells influenced by sex hormones and the ones present in this pathway.

I know you are a Music major. So what initially motivated you to get involved in neuroscience research?
I love both neuroscience and music. And what really what got me into neuroscience initially was reading a book by Oliver Sacks called Musicophilia and a book by Daniel Levitin called This is your Brain on Music. I learned about all of these different cases where something was wrong with a person and their disorder or treatment somehow involved music. Either they became unbelievably good at music out of nowhere after having a crazy neurological experience— some sort of stroke or lightning strike (literally); or in other cases, a patient lost their ability to speak and music therapy helped them gain speech in a way they were incapable of previously. I became really interested in this … At the same time in high school, I was playing music in at least 4 different ensembles at any given time and listening to Classical music was my primary leisure activity.  

So when I entered college, I knew I wanted to continue to study music. And I chose music as my major. But I also was interested in learning more about science, and was taking premed classes. A professor from the Music department knew my PI, Dr. Kritzer, from a group called the Center for Embodied Cognition, and suggested that I should try to get involved with her research group. And so initially, I just knocked on Dr. Kritzer’s office door and said “Hey I’m interested in learning about your lab … what’s the best way to get in touch with you to continue this conversation?” A couple of months went by after I’d sent a follow-up email … but later, over the summer I got an invitation to start working there at the beginning of my junior year. I found out more about Dr. Kritzer’s goal as a researcher and the lab’s goals, and read more papers. Then I started off doing different tasks to aid in tissue collection and development from rat brains. And that was how I got my start!

Was there a steep learning curve like for you, coming in to the lab as a non-science major?
Even though I’m a music major, I have a minor in Chemistry. I had pretty much taken all the same classes as a biology major would have taken at that point. I’d say I had a strong background in introductory biology. At the beginning when I joined the lab, we had to read quite a few papers. The PhD student who was helping us had us read papers every week. Becoming familiar with the approach of analyzing a paper and understanding what the goal of our lab was, though a challenge, helped a lot with the transition to the lab environment.

That’s a great way to learn.
Definitely. And now I’m the one in our lab who is in charge of leading our journal club. My responsibility this semester is making sure that everyone that works in our lab (undergrads and masters’ students who are rotating) are all on board with what our lab is about and are informed. I work with Dr. Kritzer to pick out papers weekly, and we talk about a lot of different papers together as a group. I’m having a lot of fun training new people, and being involved with the journal club.

I found that the experience of hearing people speak about various papers in a group has been very instructive.  Dr. Kritzer usually ends up showing us how to be more critical of the literature— how to analyze papers and be skeptical. We all take it as fact way too often. And then she’ll say, “See how they presented that graph…or look at that sample size, or look at how there’s no error reported for that or how they manipulated that to show contrast… “  And that has been really valuable. In my music classes as well I have found myself reading assigned primary literature and thinking, “wow that is a great idea. I can’t see how one could prove this wrong.” And then my professor presents a completely contradictory paper equally convincing!

What do you enjoy about research?
I really like doing something right. A lot of times things don’t go the way you might want them to. A lot of the procedures take several days. But when you understand why we’re doing something and you succeed in getting the next step (e.g. getting a slice of tissue that has a marker in it–that has something that is significant to move forward and make a new decision about what to do next), that is a nice feeling to walk out of lab with.

I also really enjoy being part of the community, and having conversations both about the research and about the life style. It’s been extremely enriching to be in this environment where we’re all working together. I get to talk to graduate students and faculty members and learn about their decisions in life that made them get to their current position and reflect on how I might want to move forward as an undergraduate.

What advice would you give about research?
I would say get involved early and don’t be scared to talk to a professor. Don’t be discouraged if someone says no right away or if someone doesn’t respond. Because both have happened to me. Showing someone why you should be with them is really important and don’t be picky about the specifics. If you want to work on a certain type of project (like I did with neuroscience), you should be open to learning about something you might not be as familiar with.

And never be scared to ask a question. It’s much more efficient to figure out what you’re supposed to do vs. keeping silent. It is good to try to figure it out yourself, but there’s a point when it makes sense to find the answer and to ask. You have a whole floor of people who might be able to help you. It’s a social environment and you have all these people who know a lot more than you. You can talk to them and learn from them. It’s a very different, more nurturing way to learn about science.

Tell me a little about your experiences as a music student.
It’s been wonderful. The music department here has a very well-known music graduate program…So as an undergraduate, you get to be part of this community where everyone is better than you because they are older than you and you have high standards set all around you. You get to grow, without the same competition say you would have at a conservatory where there are 20 clarinetists who are all the same age as you … It’s very warm and welcoming.

I’ve had such a fantastic experience in the music department–and though initially I found that I didn’t enjoy the environment in my science classes as much just because of the size of the intro classes, it was through research that I was able to have a kind of parallel to the nurturing experience I had in the music department. Taking premed classes in large lectures is not the same experience as learning by talking to people, being in a lab environment. I wanted to have more experience in the sciences where I could ask questions that would lead to conversation. And so joining a research lab gave me that opportunity, that community to learn from ... I think I’ve grown up a lot from a lot of experiences I’ve had at SB. I’ve become more organized because of the research and responsibilities.

Have you had the chance to do formal presentations, or to do science communication?
I was a TA for Organic Chemistry—that was one of my favorite things I’ve done at SB. I really like communicating with people and explaining something I’m excited about. I was surrounded by people who were very good at teaching and the TAs were helpful to me when I took the class so I did well and then got to be in a position where I could help other people. It feels good to teach people and see that they respond to me communicating an idea.

Celebration2014And also, I presented my research last year at URECA. That was a fun experience. A highlight of the day was having a great conversation with Dr. Collins. He works closely with Dr. Kritzer but at the time, I didn't know him that well. He started asking me questions while I was presenting my poster about the way we model Parkinson’s in a rat brain, questions I’d never thought about before. I had a nice time. And I was proud of what my team had put together for the poster.

I know you’ll be presenting at URECA again this April!
Yes, I’m looking forward to it. I have an appreciation for the interactions you get at these events – from being a part of the community. I’ve been to a few other conferences too. SB has a festival on interdisciplinary research in language, music and emotion, called LaMERG… I went to it two years ago. It definitely inspired me to want to continue learning in the sciences…In my freshman year I also went to this event at Columbia, “Brainbeat: Frontiers in the Neuroscience of Music” where there was a full day of lectures on music and neuroscience designed for the public. The language was very approachable – with people coming from all over the country to present what they do. A couple of people blew my mind away. Listening to Gottfried Shlaug speak, I got the shivers the way I do from listening to music.

I’ve learned a lot also from informal interactions, just talking to grad students from other labs who I see at the end of the hall lounge… and to other faculty.

Sounds like these experiences have been very motivating.
Can I tell you about one more experience? ... When I first started doing research, I was here over winter break, auditing a class that Dr. Kritzer was teaching for first year PhD students. I had a whirlwind of information about neuroanatomy blown at me. That was a really an awesome thing I got to do. The overarching theme at the end of it was that we don’t really know about lots of things in each area we had talked about. There’s a still a lot of ground to cover. "You are all entering a very blossoming field," was what Dr. Kritzer said to us all as we were sitting there. And to hear that we still have the potential to make discoveries and to innovate by a highly experienced researcher, that’s very exciting – a very cool thing to hear. Very inspiring.