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Researchers of the Month

December 2017

Maria Anaya & Wilson NievesMaria Anaya & Wilson Nieves

Maria Anaya - Biology major (Neuroscience specialization), Class of 2018 - Research Mentor: Dr. Stella Tsirka, Pharmacological Sciences

Wilson Nieves - Biochemistry & Physics major, Philosophy minor, Class of 2018 - Research Mentor: Dr. Jarrod French, Biochemistry & Cell BiologyChemistry

Maria Anaya & Wilson Nieves, our URECA Researchers of the month, have a lot in common. Both are passionate about research, and have had transformative summer research program experiences, both on and off campus. Both recently presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Both began their Stony Brook research experiences in the summer of 2016, as participants in I-STEM’s BioPREP program as well as the NIH-funded Initiative for Maximizing Student Development: Maximizing Excellence in Research for Graduate Education (IMSD-MERGE) Program administered through CIE. Both previously attended Queensborough Community College (QCC). Both are immigrants; both are first generation college students.

Maria AnayaMaria Anaya. Maria is a Biology major (Neuroscience specialization). She started doing research at SB in the summer of 2016 working in the laboratory of Dr. Stella Tsirka (Pharmacological Sciences) where she has been examining whether Pluronic F-127 can be used as a drug delivery agent to deliver Pifithrin-µ (PFTμ) and improve Spinal Cord Injury. In addition to IMSD, Maria also participates in LSAMP; and has served as a TA in Anatomy for CSTEP. Maria plans to pursue MD/PhD degrees, and this summer participated in the Pre-MSTP Life Science Summer Research Program at the University of Minnesota where she did research and neonatal care training under the direction of Dr. Michael Georgieff and Dr. Phu Tan. Maria has presented at numerous conferences, including the ABRCMS national Conference, the Columbia Undergraduate Research Symposium, and Sigma Xi North Eastern Regional Symposium. She moved to the US from Colombia at age 6 and attended the High School of Fashion Industries prior to obtaining an Associates degree from Queensborough Community College as a Forensic Science major.

Wilson NievesWilson Nieves
. Wilson is a Biochemistry & Physics double major, with a minor in Philosophy. He started doing research at SB in the summer of 2016 under the mentorship of Dr. Jarrod French (Chemistry, Biochemistry & Cell Biology Departments). His research involves building novel spectrophotometric assays for the in vitro study of pyrimidine transporters, and is currently supported with funding from IMSD-MERGE and from LSAMP.  In summer of 2017, Wilson participated in the Amgen Scholars program at Washington University in St. Louis, working with Dr. Michael Gross (Chemistry) on developing broad-based labeling reagents for protein footprinting. Wilson has presented at numerous conferences, including the ABRCMS national Conference, the SACNAS National Conference, the Amgen Symposium, and CSTEP Conferences. Wilson plans to pursue a PhD in biophysics after graduating from Stony Brook. Wilson immigrated to the US from Ecuador at the age of 16.  After graduating from John Adams HS in Ozone Park, he completed an Associates degree in Math and Science at Queensborough Community College

Both Maria and Wilson credit the IMSD program & their recent summer research experiences with changing their lives, helping them to not only discover their path but giving them the confidence to pursue it.  Maria describes how her aspiration for an MD/PhD became more real, more attainable after this past summer, and notes: “A lot of people who are first generation college students never even knew  the possibilities that are out there…I am so grateful that in college I was exposed to all the things that I could do so that I could say: “I have a passion for this and therefore I can do that…”  Wilson adds: “I had so many amazing experiences. And before the program, I wasn’t really even sure if I was able to pursue this path of research. But over the summer, the whole program made me believe in myself… and gave me more confidence of where I can actually go to graduate school.” Below are excerpts from their interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 

 The Interview:

KarenWhat do you enjoy about doing research?

Wilson. There are many things. Sometimes you go through months where you continuously fail – and then, all of a sudden after months of trying the same experiment or the same approach, something just works. That keeps me happy. It keeps me going.  

Maria. For me, being able to piece together things in a way someone before hasn’t is why I enjoy research. Being able to read papers, put things together, talk to Dr. Tsirka about what I see in lab – that’s what’s interesting. And also actually doing the experiments. I think it’s so fun doing a western blot!…Also, the research has not just taught me career wise what I want to do but has also taught me patience, perseverance, and that it's okay to not know everything. It teaches more than just techniques.

KarenSpeaking about techniques... when you first joined your respective labs at SBU, did you have any background in research?  

Wilson. When we transferred, we both had experience in fields similar to what we were going to work on.

Maria. That’s what was incredible about Queensborough Community College (QCC). They push you to do research. And the mentors know that coming in, you have no research experience. So they teach you as much as they can. My mentor there taught me how to think, and to ask: “Why are you doing this? Why are you not doing that?” That background helped me a lot with transitioning here to my lab at SB.  

Karen. What role have your SB mentors played for you, during the last year and half?

Wilson. In my case, Dr. French has really helped me to work more independently. He’s not standing over me watching every step I do. But at the same time, he’s there when I have some sort of difficult question about anything… I sometimes start a conversation with saying “this doesn’t work” and he’ll say “Try this…” I also know I can go to him to ask about the things I’m going through, the classes I’m taking. And I think in those terms, he really helps. Sometimes we speak for hours – and about random things too. We end up speaking about life in America--how we’re both immigrants. Or about philosophy and science in general. It’s so much fun. This is how the whole mentorship comes in too: at times, he randomly drops advice to me and it gets recorded in my head.

Maria. Dr. Tsirka has really helped me with figuring out more about my future my plans and how to get there. She’s definitely helped me figure out what it is that I want to do by asking me: “Why do you want to do that?” I can have that conversation with her.  

Karen. I want to ask about your recent summer experiences.

Maria. I was part of a Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program's Pre-MSTP cohort at the University of Minnesota. And I got to shadow a physician scientist, a neonatologist. I worked in the NICU. I also shadowed him at a follow-up care center and I worked in one of his labs. What I got out of it was seeing how you can love research, and still be able to love your patients and be completely involved with patient care, and not have to choose between one or the other. Dr. Georgieff made me realize that I can do both, I can have both of those things….There were so many incredible moments during the summer. There was a one-day getaway with the MSTEP students -- one specific day where we met the incoming students-- and it made me realize that I’m no different than they are and I can attain the same things. My aspiration of doing an MD/PhD is not something that’s impossible. I can do that too.

Wilson.  I was at Washington University this summer, in an Amgen Scholars program. And as with Maria, it was an incredible experience that completely changed my perspective of the world. Before the program I had thought about wanting to do MD/PhD. But then, after working with Dr. Gross doing some chemistry research, I realized that I don’t have the same passion for taking care of patients as I have for assembling mass spectroscopy machines, or for learning about math and physics and how you can apply it to biomedical research. That was so amazing just to realize: I need to do this forever. I want to keep doing biophysics research. During the program, they also took us to the AMGEN headquarters in California and we had a demonstration of what supercomputers could do …that was another moment of me saying “I want to do this forever.” I had so many amazing experiences. And before the program, I wasn’t really even sure if I was able to pursue this path of research. But over the summer, the whole program made me believe in myself. The professors I spoke to--they made me believe in myself and gave me more confidence of where I can actually go to graduate school.  

Karen. Tell me about recent experience at ABRCMS.

Maria AnayaMaria. Both of us won an award at ABRCMS ~two years ago so we can’t be judged or win awards any more. So it was interesting to have that edge off this time when we went to the conference. I found it so much more fun just being to talk about my research without having the anxiety of winning an award … There was also a talk by Dr. Q which we both attended – he’s a neurosurgeon at Mayo Clinic. To see him at one of the talks was so incredible. He was undocumented and an immigrant (which I also was). Hearing him tell his story of having gone from a community college (like I did) to being a professor at the Mayo clinic –that no matter what struggles you go through, you can do whatever it is that you want to do –to push that message of “this is what I can attain in life if I want it”—it was just amazing.

Wilson NievesWilson. Yes, it was a very emotional speech. …Also, at the conference, I found that just being able to talk to people was very exciting. At one point, I had several people listening to me, lined around me just listening to me talk about my protein structures….and they were so into it. I spoke for probably 15 minutes to each group. I still can’t believe I spoke for so long! I also got to talk to graduate program directors, from various schools…That also made me believe in myself. There was also the alumni event that Dr. Gergen organized. They were some pretty interesting people that we met there.

Maria. The main thing that comes out of the conferences is that it’s not just about presenting your poster; it’s about meeting individuals that you wouldn’t have the chance of meeting otherwise. Meeting directors of programs who can tell you what will make you competitive – or about your chances of getting in to their program.  There are so many schools that are represented at these conferences. Hundreds of booths. Also summer programs. And you have the chance to meet all these people that can impact your future.

Karen. By now,  you must both be pros at presenting!

Wilson.   I remember the first time I presented. I was freaking out… I still sometimes get stuck with words. And yet, when I think about it, it was only 6 years ago when I moved here, and I had no idea how to speak English. I was 16 when I came here from Ecuador. I didn’t speak English until I graduated HS. But then, this one chemistry professor at QCC had me go to the front of the class and made me explain a problem. And from that experience, I just learned somehow…..  

Maria. I also remember my first conference was at Sigma Xi Northeastern regional conference. It went so bad. That experience taught me that each time you can learn how to express yourself better. The flow of how to present to your audience gets better. I told myself there and then, that I just need to go to another one and next time it‘s going to be better.

Karen. Have both of you been interested in science for a long time?

Maria.  I liked science as a child. I remember when my mom bought me this 3D anatomy book from the Discovery Channel store. And I was amazed by it. I’ve always thought the human body was so beautiful. But I never knew what I could do with that interest. My mom didn’t go to college. My father also didn’t go to college. It wasn’t engraved in me as a child what degrees I could or couldn’t pursue. I didn’t know what a PhD was, when I was younger. That was never even an idea for me. So I went in other directions. I majored in the arts at Fashion HS. It wasn’t until sophomore year where I thought about possibly doing other things – that possibly that I could be a doctor, I could help people. But until I met my professors at QCC, that was just an idea. It wasn’t reality. I think QCC pushed me--and Dr. Tsirka here at SB-- to make it reality. To think that, “Yes, this can be your future.” It’s not just some crazy idea that you have that you can’t obtain.

Wilson.   When I was a kid, my mother once gave me a catalog to choose a book from. There was a Google Encyclopedia that I picked. I didn’t know what it was but I knew I wanted that one. It had a summary of all the sciences from space, electromagnetics, anatomy, etc…and  I remember thinking, “this is amazing.” But at that time, no one was there to nurture that idea that I was going to go into science. Then I came here and everything fell into place. To think that I could get a PhD in science, and pursue a career in doing what I love doing, and work with these things that I have always liked doing--that is still somewhat incredible to me.

Maria.   A lot of people who are first generation college students – and friends also that I’ve met – they never even knew the possibilities that are out there. It’s not that we can’t obtain it. It’s that we don’t know it’s even there or available for us. I am so grateful that in college I was exposed to all the things that I could do so that I could say: “I have a passion for this and therefore I can do that” instead of “I love science and I like reading about this and so on… but that’s it. It’s just a hobby--on the side.” It’s not even knowing the possibilities you could have for your future-- that research could be an actual job, for example-- that can keep you from attaining what you might attain otherwise.

Karen. What advice would you give to other students regarding research?

Maria. Don’t be intimidated by research because you think you don’t know enough. I went in as a freshman not even taking bio or having any type of science background. Everything I learned, my mentor taught me. I learned how to read papers. Everything I needed to know for lab, I learned in lab. When I hear my roommate say something like ”I don’t think I’m smart enough,” I tell her that it doesn’t matter. Just be prepared to be challenged. You just need to throw yourself and immerse yourself into research, and you’ll learn what you need to learn.

Wilson. I've taught a general chemistry workshop. And many students I see are just scared of asking questions, of even going to office hours. The professors seem scary. So I say “just go” – if you find something is interesting, just go and ask about that. If you have enough curiosity to ask that question, the answer you get will create more curiosity and you’re going to be able to do something with it.  

Maria. Also, when you do get into a lab, in the beginning, you might be doing tedious work, where you feel like what you are doing is not important. You might think: I’m doing something that doesn’t really matter, or I’m working on a project that no one cares about. But if you stick with it long term, you’ll get something out of it.  

KarenTell me about how IMSD – what role that has played for you at SB.

Wilson. At QCC we had different mentors that shaped us, focused our interests. When I came to the IMSD interview at SB, the first person I spoke to was Dr Gergen. He seemed to be a pretty involved person…And he has proven to be that, helping us achieve from the start.  There have been times when he calls out my low voice, for example, or asks me to speak up….I think those actions are the things that makes me see that he actually cares about students. The whole program is geared towards helping people develop and aspire to bigger things … The program  does a lot to help us connect with other students – we meet graduate students and hear their stories. It’s pretty amazing. If it wasn’t for the IMSD program, I wouldn’t have had that amazing experience at the last conference I went to, or the summer experience I had that Dr. Gergen recommended to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it. He’s a big part of the idea of making me personally believe in myself—to know, “Yes, you can do it. “

Maria. The IMSD program really opened doors. IMSD is a program that is well known nationally. When I would walk by booths at ABRCMS, I would see IMSD at this college or that college. People know where I’m coming from, they know what kind of program I’m involved in. And Dr. Gergen has been so incredible. Before we applied to summer programs, we made lists of where we wanted to apply. I think I sat with him for about 2 hours, talking about what I wanted to do, my struggles. He’s a person who helped me figure out what programs I really wanted to apply to. The fact that he wrote me a recommendation letter I’m sure is one of the reasons why I got into a summer program. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have had the experience that I had over the summer. I wouldn’t have met those people that I did meet…it just opened so many doors for me, and will continue to open doors, because of the people I’ve met and that I will continue to meet …it’s a domino effect.