Researcher of the Month
Physics major (Optics specialization), Class of 2017
Research Mentors: Dr. David McKinnon, Neurobiology & Behavior, Dr. Barbara Rosati, Physiology & Biophysics (current). Previous mentors: Dr. Yuefan Deng, Applied Mathematics & Statistics; Dr. George Sterman, Institute for Theoretical Physics; Dr. Kazimierz Gofron, BNL; Dr. James Pinfold and Dr. Albert deRoeck, European Organization for Nuclear Research at CERN.
For Jessica Flores, the collaborative nature of doing science is compelling — something that’s motivated her from the day she first joined the Mckinnon-Rosati research lab in her freshman year through her subsequent research experiences on campus and at BNL. As a result, Jessica was very much in her element this past summer as an REU intern at the European Organization for Nuclear Research at CERN, Switzerland, where she had the opportunity to work alongside scientists from all across the globe, characterizing the spatial trajectories of particles in the Monopole and Other Exotics Detector at the Large Hadron Collider (MoEDAL) experiment: “There were also people from Finland…from London…I worked with a student from Singapore, met another student from Madagascar…. I got to meet a lot of cool people!”
Jessica is currently a senior majoring in physics with a specialization in optics, and is a member of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, as well as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). As a freshman, she jumped at the opportunity to join the laboratory of Professors David Mckinnon (Neurobiology) and Barbara Rosati (Physiology & Biophysics) in spring 2014 to work on transcriptome analysis of gene expression changes in an in vitro model of cardiac hypertrophy. In her first three semesters of research in this molecular physiology laboratory, Jessica gained expertise in recombinant DNA techniques, was selected for a NY NASA Space grant award in summer 2014, and won a Best Presentation award at a CSTEP conference. Now in her senior year, Jessica has returned to work under the direction of Dr. Mckinnon this fall to gain some experience with a medical physics oriented project and complete the requirements for her optics specialization.
Over the span of her undergraduate career, Jessica has sought out multiple research opportunities to explore her diverse interests. In summer 2015, Jessica interned at the National Synchrotron Light Source II at BNL, working with Dr. Kazimierz Gofron, on “X-Ray Microscopy Development for Beam Characterization at the Inelastic X-ray Scattering Beamline.” In the 2015-2016 academic year, she began working under the mentorship of Professors Yuefan Deng (Applied Mathematics) and George Sterman (Institute for Theoretical Physics), applying herself to “Global Exascale Supercomputing for Studying the Functions and Structures of Platelets” and “Adapting Mori-Zwanzig Formalism for studying the Phase Transition of Platelets.” Earlier this spring, Jessica was selected for the prestigious University of Michigan CERN-REU program which gave her the opportunity to work over the summer with Dr. James Pinfold and Dr. Albert de Roeck in the CERN laboratory in Switzerland on particle trajectory visualization and identification with Timepix detectors—a project she continues to make contributions to remotely working with her CERN collaborators.
Reflecting on her diverse experiences in research, Jessica states: “… all these experiences are all very good. I’ve had coding experiences, I’ve had wet lab experiences. By the time. I start a graduate program, I believe that the various skills I developed, even though they weren’t all directly related to medical physics, will help me.” Jessica plans to pursue a PhD in physics, and a career in medical physics. She recalls the pivotal decision in freshman year to switch her major from biochemistry to physics, a decision influenced by attending an American Physical Society (APS) Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics conference. Jessica would later on enjoy the opportunity to present one of her own projects—her BNL project on X-ray microscopy development—at the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (Wesleyan University, January 2016). She has also presented talks and posters at the URECA annual symposium, and at BNL and CERN.
Jessica has been inducted to the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Honor Society, and also was selected to be a part of the Women’s Leadership Initiative which matches high potential women undergraduates with top philanthropic leaders in the SB community. Jessica graduated from William Floyd HS in Mastic Beach, Long Island and is the first in her family to attend college. Her hobbies include hiking, running, cooking, gardening and violin. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. What research are you currently involved in?
Jessica. I just recently rejoined the laboratory of Dr. David Mckinnon to work specifically on a project involving studying the brain function of stressed rats using PET because I wanted to get more exposure to medical physics. This will also help me fulfill a requirement for my optics specialization. I'm also working on another bioinformatics project to analyze RNA sequencing data using different pipelines. The goal is to find a systematic and more efficient way of analyzing this data.
In addition, my supervisors and mentor at CERN, where I worked this past summer, also asked me to continue the work I did over the summer, so I'm still working on that project as well.
Tell me about your experience at CERN!
I had applied to an REU program at the University of Michigan which sends a couple of American students to CERN in Switzerland each year. And I had the opportunity to work on an experiment called MoEDAL, the Monopole and Other Exotics Detector at the LHC. Basically what I worked on was looking at, analyzing, and categorizing particle trajectories that they would get from their Timepix detectors…
I enjoyed being in a place where there was so much global collaboration. My mentor was based in Canada. But there were also people from Finland…from London…I worked with a student from Singapore, met another student from Madagascar. It was very nice. I got to meet a lot of cool people!
They also had summer student lectures every morning on different topics in physics. There were 3 on the topic of medical physics and I attended all of them. I really liked it. That’s where I learned about proton therapy. And that has in part motivated me to apply to PhD programs in medical physics.
I know you’re a member of the WISE program. Was it during freshman year that you got
your start in research?
Yes, we had rotations in labs. They were simple projects –but I think it gave you an idea of what PIs are looking for. Prof. Lyman, who was one of my teachers for a rotation, also gave us helpful advice on how to ask to join a research lab, and find something on your own.
It just so happened that in that spring semester of my freshman year, one of the senior WISE students was a member of the Mckinnon-Rosati group and wanted to bring someone new into the lab which she would be leaving upon graduation. She sent out an email to all the WISE students and I happened to be the first to respond to the email letting us know there was an available position. So after being interviewed and accepted to the lab, I then started off in the spring semester of freshman year working with Dr. Barbara Rosati of Physiology & Biophysics and with Dr. David McKinnon of Neurobiology.
What kind of work did you do?
In that lab, it was more biology-focused than the work I’ve been doing recently. We were looking at different transcription factors, trying to figure out which transcription factor had the greatest effect or greatest contribution in cardiac hypertrophy.
I was there for about 3 semesters. I changed my major in my sophomore year to physics but stayed working in the Mckinnon-Rosati lab for awhile because I liked the people there. But I still thought I should get experience in something more physics related. So I started working on a project with Prof. Yuefan Deng with supercomputers. After I got comfortable with my initial project (which involved benchmarking), Prof. Deng asked me to help with the platelet simulations project that they were doing. So with that, I worked on the theoretical framework for those simulations and tried to figure out what would make these simulations more efficient. For that project I consulted also a lot with Prof. Sterman.
As someone who has taken advantage of many opportunities to do research, how do you
think research has enhanced your education?
I think a lot of the things I’ve done through research are things I wouldn’t learn in class. I would probably never have learned as much about molecular cardiology and how these different genes work had I not started in the McKinnon-Rosati lab. That gave me experience working with bacteria, plating, wet lab techniques…Then after that, the research experiences I had helped me to become a better programmer, especially through the projects I worked on at BNL and CERN. And in general, learning how to tackle various problems in research, and trying to figure out things on your own helps you learn how to become more independent, and helps you develop.
I think it worked out well that I was able to have experiences in different places--and with different types of projects, from hands-on to more computational, theoretical projects.
When you first came in to Stony Brook, did you plan to become a physics major?
No – I started out as a biochemistry major. But I became attracted to the physics major. I liked it that we would really be learning the fundamentals. And what opened my eyes to physics as a possible major was a conference for women that I attended in my freshman year, the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. I decided to go and volunteer to help out. And I got to sit on some of the lectures. I also spoke to Prof. Deshpande about switching my major – and he was supportive.
I know you’ve had the benefit of having many good mentors. Has there been one in particular
who’s really shaped your undergraduate experience?
I think the most influential is probably Prof. Rosati who was my mentor since freshman year. She’s always been supportive and had my best interests in mind--even when I decided to leave the lab to explore other areas of interest. Even now, I still go and visit her. …I know that she is always there for me and is available to listen to me and give me advice.
What advice would you give to a freshman about research?
I would say, don’t be afraid to change your mind or be too scared to try something different. You shouldn’t be afraid to put yourself out there. A lot of the time, you may not be confident to apply for this or that, and you might think you’re not good enough. You just need to move those thoughts away.
You also need to remember when you’re doing research that there are times when you will get stuck and you don’t know what to do next. But going through those times also leads you to those rewarding moments, where you figure things out and can see results.
So do you still go through these frustrating phases even though you are not new to
Yes, this summer I was writing a program for this categorizing project. And I had a syntax error. And I didn’t realize it for 2 weeks! Once I figured it out, though, everything started working again.
Almost always, when I join a new group, it is difficult in the beginning because you’re trying to catch up. You don’t really know anything. And while you’re trying to do all this background reading, you’re trying to do work and make progress. But after the first month or so, you kind of know what you’re doing. And it gets easier. And you start to enjoy it after that.
Has being involved in research prepared you well for your future plans?
I think so. I want to get a PhD in medical physics. And by being involved in a variety of research groups, it has given me an idea of what I want and don’t want to do.
The field I’m going into is very interdisciplinary. And so I think that all these experiences are all very good. I’ve had coding experiences, I’ve had wet lab experiences. By the time. I start a graduate program, I believe that the various skills I developed, even though they weren’t all directly related to medical physics, will help me.
It sounds like you’ve really benefited from having an array of experiences.
Yes, and I think it also has helped me that there are programs out there that are interested in bringing in more women to science and STEM fields. When I first started here, being in WISE was really helpful for me …as was going to that APS conference for women in physics. I went to another APS conference just at the beginning of this year, where I was able to present my own work instead of just volunteering.
I’ve had many positive experiences. And I have always felt that when I’ve reached out to faculty, they’ve responded quickly. By now, it helps that I now have a lot of research experience to offer. Still, I always lead with “I’m in WISE.”