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Researcher of the Month

July 2016

Rima MadanRima Madan

Biology & Anthropology majors; Honors College, Class of 2017

Research Mentors: Dr. Patricia Wright, Anthropology; Dr. Daniel Dykhuizen, Ecology & Evolution; Gena Sbeglia, Ph.D. student (Ecology & Evolution)

When Rima Madan joined the Madagascar Study Abroad program the summer after her freshman year, she had yet to discover how that one experience would transform the rest of her undergraduate education. “It was amazing because the rainforest became a classroom,” explains Rima, a Biology and Anthropology double-major in the Honors College. The hands-on learning, the exposure to tropical field biology, and the passion for conservation work she developed, were only part of it. Rima adds: “Research made material from my Biology & Anthropology classes come to life!

Rima’s study abroad experience also gave her the chance to do an independent research project on access to health care for local Malagasy people, a project which she had the opportunity to present at the US Embassy in Madagascar. In addition, the Madagascar Study Abroad experience introduced her to mentors who would eventually supervise her senior thesis in the Honors College; and motivated her to found a club called “Students Helping Malagasy Students” which raises funds for students in Madagascar who seek to pursue higher education.

Since October 2015, Rima has been involved in carrying out PCRs and gel electrophoresis, growing bacteria on plates, and extracting DNA as part of her laboratory investigation into "The effects of anthropogenic disturbance on lemur habitats by comparing the prevalence of pathogens in wild ringtailed lemurs inside and outside of Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve in Madagascar." She works under the supervision of Gena Sbeglia, a graduate student who was a TA for the Madagascar Study Abroad program in 2014; Dr. Daniel Dykhuizen (Ecology & Evolution); and Dr. Patricia Wright (Anthropology). Rima’s research is supported this summer by a Simons Foundation-sponsored URECA summer award

Rima has a passion for global health issues, has been involved in medical shadowing and clinical research internships, and has already been accepted to the Early Assurance Program at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Rima also participates in the Honors College Big Sibling program, is a member of Neuroscience Axis, was a teaching assistant for Statistics for the Life Sciences, and was selected to be a Student Ambassador for the 2016-2017 school year. She is the recipient of the 2016 Jeffrey Eng Memorial Scholarship in Environmental Science. A resident of Bethpage, NY, Rima's hobbies include tennis and cooking. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

What’s your research about?
Rima. My research project addresses fundamental questions about disease transmission in an endangered species, by comparing the prevalence of pathogenic bacteria in wild ringtailed lemurs inside and outside of a protected area. Basically I’m using fecal samples (collected by my graduate student mentor Gena Sbeglia) to compare the prevalence of certain pathogens such as enterotoxigenic E. coli and Shigella inside and outside of a reserve that my mentor worked at called Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve. The area outside of the reserve is arguably more disturbed by human influence. So it’s important to help us understand if the lemurs outside the reserve will test positive for enterotoxigenic E.coli in greater numbers than those located inside the reserve. This knowledge can help us better understand what is affecting the health and conservation status of lemurs.
The reason I started this project was because there was recent evidence that anthropogenic disturbance affects the prevalence of pathogens. In studies done around the area of Ranomafana National park (the reserve established by Dr. Wright, my faculty mentor), the enterotoxigenic E. coli was only present in lemurs that were residing in disturbed areas of the forest. So I wanted to see if that pattern exists in other areas of Madagascar. . . Because conservation funding is limited, it is important to know where the problems really are.

I know your current project is being done in a laboratory here on campus, but I understand that you have been to Madagascar as well.
Yes, I participated in the Madagascar Study Abroad program in the summer after my freshman year. That experience shaped the rest of my undergraduate education.  I went into college knowing that I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone and diversify my experiences, and Madagascar was the perfect place to do that.

What classes did you take while studying abroad?
I was there for 6 weeks and we took classes on the ecosystems of Madagascar; on the culture and language of Madagascar; and we also did an independent research project. And it was amazing because the rainforest became a classroom. It was very hands on. The Ranomafoma National Park is very close to Centre Val Bio. So a lot of the time we would leave the research station to go on hikes, and see what we were learning about in classroom in real life.
The hiking there was really, really intense (especially because I had no hiking experience before Madagascar!). Adjusting to that was difficult, and while it was the most challenging experience of my life so far, it was also the most rewarding. I learned a lot about myself. I was able to grow and build a lot of character throughout the entire trip.

What was the research project you did there?
The focus of my project was determining how distance to a modern health care facility impacts the medical choices of local people in villages surrounding the Ranomafana region in Madagascar. I had the opportunity to present my research on this at the US Embassy in Madagascar, which was intimidating at first. But then, when I saw other members of the study abroad program present their research, I immediately became more comfortable because everyone seemed genuinely interested in learning about projects that could benefit Madagascar as a country.

For your current project, was there a connection to your earlier experiences or research in Madagascar?
Gena Sbeglia, my graduate student mentor, was my teaching assistant on my study abroad trip in summer 2014. When she came back after working in Madagascar for a year, she got in contact with me about doing laboratory work. She knew I was very interested in the topics of health and disease transmission, and that there was a lot of overlap with what she was focusing on in her own studies. Once the opportunity presented itself, I was so excited to remain involved with Madagascar in some way, and I jumped at the opportunity to work with her.
I started working with her in the lab last fall – and after I read some papers, and continued to be interested in learning more about how human disturbance affects disease transmission in lemurs, I realized that this would be a great topic for my senior honors thesis.

Tell me about your mentoring relationship.
My graduate student mentor Gena Sbeglia is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. From Madagascar to Stony Brook, I have always felt comfortable asking her questions about anything. Gena and her advisor Dr. Dyzkhuizen have offered some great suggestions regarding my project, while also making me feel confident in my ability to make decisions by myself. They have instilled the value of persistence in me by reminding me not to get discouraged when things don’t go as planned. My faculty mentor, Dr. Wright, really makes me feel like anything I want to do is possible. When I told her I wanted to start a club aimed at helping with higher education costs in Madagascar, she was on board right away. She assured me that I had her full support for both my club and this research project. I am so grateful for all of the advice and guidance my mentors have given me. I don’t know where I’d be without them!

Tell me about the club you started.
After studying abroad, I realized how fortunate I am to have access to higher education. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many of the children and adolescents in Madagascar.  I’m hoping that my club will be able to raise money and provide resources for students who wish to pursue higher education but can’t afford to do so.
During Fall 2015, my supportive E-board and I were able to help an organization called Madaworks raise enough money to fund a student’s last year of high school. It was very rewarding to make that type of difference in someone’s life.  In addition to our ultimate goal of providing scholarship funds to students who wish to go to high school, we plan to raise money for supplies – things like pencils, or even shoes ( can be up to a 10 kilometer hike to the nearest high school). There are so many basic things that we take for granted. 

What are your long term plans?
I plan to go to medical school. I hope to continue in engaging in public health research as a physician. And I definitely hope that I’m able to give back to Madagascar at some point in the future. 

How would you say research has transformed your educational experience?
Research made material from my Biology & Anthropology classes come to life. There is a huge difference between learning something in a lecture and actually applying that knowledge to real world situations. Research helped strengthen my critical thinking and problem solving skills. And uncertainty is what makes research so exciting. You don’t know what you’re going to discover next. And sometimes, you don’t even know what to do next. But you come up with something. That level of independence is something you can’t experience in the classroom. It’s what makes research so challenging, yet so rewarding when you’re finally able to see results. I have been interested in science since I was a little girl, so this research project makes me feel like I’m having my moment.  When I plan and perform experiments, I’m in the zone. I forget about everything else for a while.  Research has taught me skills and lessons that I will carry with me throughout the rest of my life.

What advice would you give to other students?
I highly encourage students to go abroad. In addition to learning about an entirely different culture, you also learn a lot about yourself! And as far as the research goes, I'd say it’s really important to realize that not everything goes the way that you planned and that mistakes and setbacks are a normal part of the research process. It’s easy to feel like you’ve wasted time when an experiment doesn’t go the way you planned, but it’s essential to realize that you’ve gained experience and are less likely to repeat that same mistake. I strongly believe that you’re more likely to accomplish something if you’re willing to learn from your setbacks rather than let them hold you back. A positive attitude does go a long way in research. It’s also important to realize that research is a work in progress and it takes time to achieve results. As a researcher, you need to be patient and persistent.

Tell me a little more about your experience of being in the Honors College.
As a member of the Honors College, I’m surrounded by a group of incredibly diverse and intelligent students who truly motivate me to step outside of my comfort zone and achieve big things. Before entering the Honors College, I never pictured myself starting a club or becoming a student ambassador. Being in an environment where students constantly want to learn and grow inspired me to hone my leadership skills. I’m really grateful for the people that I’ve met, the help I’ve received from my advisors (such as Ms. Jessica Klare) and all the amazing opportunities the Honors College has given me.

For your Honors College thesis, will you have the opportunity to present it next year?
Yes – and I’m actually looking forward to it! My whole project has been so interesting– so I’m really excited to communicate that to other people who don’t really know the conservation status of lemurs. A lot of people don’t know how endangered they are – and how important it is to act now.  

As a URECA summer recipient, you'll also have the opportunity to present your project at the annual symposium.  
Yes, I'm looking forward to that. And I am so grateful for the support that URECA has given me. With the URECA grant, I am able to fully immerse myself in a project that I’m really passionate about without having to worry about other summer jobs. I can just delve into my research and work towards my goal of writing my senior thesis. It has been really helpful to work on my project full-time, as opposed to a couple of hours a week during the semester. Because it takes time to plan experiments and to troubleshoot and figure out solutions to the problems that you’re facing. I’ve already learned so much within the past few weeks, and I’m looking forward to learning more. . . Plus it’s really fun!