Researcher of the Month
Biomedical Enginering, University Scholars program, Class of 2021
Research Mentor: Dr. Jared Von Snellenberg, Psychiatry
For Philip Tubiolo, “ just the thrill of discovery is like nothing else. I remember saying just a few weeks ago, that nothing is better than working for weeks on a program--and then seeing it actually produce meaningful results. That's a euphoric feeling that you really can't get anywhere else!”
Since the start of 2019, Philip has worked as a research assistant & programmer analyst in the Multi Modal Translational Imaging (MMTI) Lab (Dept. of Psychiatry, Renaissance School of Medicine), under the mentorship of Dr. Jared Van Snellenberg and MD/PhD student John Williams. Building on his MATLAB skills, Philip has learned to analyze functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data and gained expertise in the generation of methods for the evaluation of novel motion artifact removal techniques in fMRI—work supported in summer 2020 through URECA funding. He has presented his research at the 2019 annual URECA Symposium, the national 2019 BMES conference in Philadelphia; and most recently the 2020 URECA virtual symposium ( “Identifying Neural Correlates of Working Memory Impairments in Schizophrenia through fMRI”) and will be a second author on an upcoming publication. A rising senior in the BME program with concentrations in bioelectricity and bioimaging, Philip has been accepted to the accelerated 5-year master’s program in Biomedical Engineering and plans long-term to pursue a Ph.D. and career in medical physics.
In summer 2019, Philip interned at the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, and assisted with tasks ranging from the safety inspections of residential and hotel pools, to fielding calls investigating dog bite incidents; he has also worked as a private high school STEM tutor . At SB, Philip has served as a Teaching Assistant for Biomedical Engineering courses (BME 120, BME 311), and is a member of the University Scholars honors program. Philip’s hobbies include: photography, music production, and fishing. Philip is a resident of Bayport and a graduate of Bayport-Blue Point HS. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Thanks for joining me today via zoom. How did you initially get involved with undergraduate research at SB?
Philip: I was a TA in sophomore year for BME 120, the introductory MATLAB programming class for Biomedical Engineering, with Dr Wei Lin. I was introduced there to the graduate TA, John Williams, who is also the MD-PhD student that works in my lab. When we got talking a little bit, I told him I was looking for research, and that I was interested in coding and neuroimaging, and he essentially said: “Oh boy, do I have the place for you!” He encouraged me to email Dr. Van Snellenberg and see if I could volunteer in the lab. And it was a matter of only a week or two before I became part of Dr Van Snellenberg's group, assisting on working memory behavioral studies, and learning about neuroimaging and fMRI. So that's how I got involved. I’ve been there for about a year and a half.
Tell me about your research.
My current research is centered around improving the dependability and reproducibility of data collected from fMRI studies. The reason that this is such a big issue is because fMRI is a real-time quantitative neuroimaging technique. We need to be able to extract salient quantitative information and compute salient statistics from this data. Any kind of data quality issues that could skew these measures need to be mitigated. One of the biggest issues in fMRI is in-scanner subject motion. If a subject moves their head just a little too much, it could throw off the quantitative results from a scan. So, the main focus of our research is finding and developing novel techniques to remove this motion artifact that shows up in the data; and also techniques to evaluate whether we're truly removing motion artifact or true brain signal.
There've been many attempts at this. But in the past, techniques for evaluating motion removal have not taken into account possible true differences in brain connectivity between subjects that may correlate with in-scanner motion, things like family history of psychiatric illness and history of substance abuse. So we're trying to find a way to optimize the removal of motion artifact while preserving true differences across our sample.
Did you have any prior research experience in this or other areas?
No, none. But that's the point of research…you learn as you go. My expertise going in was MATLAB programming. I was able to teach myself a lot about the psychology and neuroimaging studies that were going on because I was able to look at data firsthand and process it myself. I received a huge amount of help from Dr. Van Snellenberg and John Williams. They are extremely good mentors who know how to balance mentorship with independent learning. Their mentorship has been very helpful in allowing me to pick up subtle nuances in what is a really complicated field…
The fact that both of them are willing to sit down with me and discuss a project, and point me in the right direction, is invaluable. Especially when I was starting out, having no background in this field, I would run into a lot of roadblocks. And being able to say, “What do you suggest I do?” and then have a very well thought-out response within minutes that points me in the right direction—well, it's been great for the progress of my research. It's really kept things moving, and has shown me how a research lab is supposed to work: they don't want to leave students in the dark. They know we're trying to learn, and my mentors do everything they can to facilitate my learning.
Sounds like a great environment.
Oh, definitely! For the project that I described to you earlier, there’s going to be a publication being submitted soon where I’ll be the second author. I've also recently been assigned to another project, also dealing with artifacts in fMRI, specifically an artifact that shows up in multiband fMRI, which is a technique that allows you to acquire simultaneous slices of an image instead of one slice at a time. It's a faster acquisition technique than traditional single-slice fMRI. However, there's a whole new host of artifacts that show up in that data which haven't been really explored yet. So, I'm going to be starting to work on that soon, and this project may actually turn into my master's thesis as well (for the 5-year accelerated master's program).
How adaptable was your URECA project to doing remote research this summer?
We had a lot of online infrastructure already in place. And we had kind of sensed that this (the school closure) was going to happen. So we had set up online chat rooms in Slack. We already had remote access to all of our data and all of our computing resources – we also utilize the SeaWulf / IACS computing cluster very heavily. And on top of that, any data that we didn't have readily available is publicly available. So we were able to download new data as needed. Everyone is making a lot of progress and it’s been a seamless transition. Dr. Van Snellbenberg and everyone else in the lab have been very, very available. It's been super easy to schedule Zoom meetings to address any kind of concerns.
Tell me what you enjoy most about doing research.
Well, there are really two things. First is the thrill of discovery, and second is the feeling of being a part of something bigger. Our lab is in the Department of Psychiatry, and I've seen firsthand the debilitating effects that mental illness can have on someone’s quality of life. The end goal of our research is to improve techniques that are used to better characterize these diseases and develop more effective treatments for them. So being part of something like that is very fulfilling and it's an extreme motivator for me to strive to make discoveries that will eventually lead to better lives for those who struggle. And just the thrill of discovery is like nothing else. I remember saying just a few weeks ago, that nothing is better than working for weeks on a program--and then seeing it actually produce meaningful results. That's a euphoric feeling that you really can't get anywhere else!
What are your long term goals?
I'll be graduating in May of 2022 with my master’s in BME. My goal then is to apply for PhD programs in medical physics.
Have you had opportunities to present your research?
Last fall, I went to the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference in Philadelphia. BMES was a fantastic experience that really taught me how to network. There were representatives from top schools looking to recruit new students and promote their programs. It was kind of intimidating at first to walk up, introduce myself, and ask them questions …. but it was still a really good experience. I met a lot of talented students, and got a lot of great ideas out of that. It helped, also, that I had presented at URECA in 2019: URECA provides a lower stress environment where you're presenting your research to your peers. So it sort of gave a good practice run for speaking at a bigger conference. …One of the most difficult things about science is communicating your findings– it’s something you learn and get better at with practice. I’m hoping to apply for some other conferences this year.
What advice would you give to other undergraduates about research?
Well, the first and most important thing is: Don't get discouraged. This wasn't the first lab that I applied to be in. I had applied to a few others and not had any luck before this worked out. And even though it’s disheartening not to get a positive response, you have to just keep going for it. You never know who you're going to talk to that can put you in a really good position. And the second piece of advice, and this is more specific for BME majors, is: don't worry about doing research that you think aligns perfectly with the BME Department or curriculum. …My lab is primarily a psychiatry and psychology lab, and we research medical imaging and apply principles of BME very heavily. There are so many labs at Stony Brook that you can apply your BME knowledge to and get a very fulfilling research experience. So if you can't get involved in a specific “BME” department lab, that's not the end of the world. There are plenty of other opportunities out there, so focus more on finding something you’re interested in.
Do you think it is important for students to try to get a summer research opportunity?
I would say it really depends on what you want to do with your life. If you know that you want to go into a PhD program , a summer research experience is the perfect way to put all of your focus into something that's going to set you up for a very fulfilling research career. Last summer, I split my time between volunteering in the lab and working at the Suffolk County Department of health services. And even though that was a good experience, being able to have the URECA grant this summer and fully immerse myself in the research field has been super valuable, considering my future goals.
Are you able to put in a lot of time during the school year?
I was putting in probably about the equivalent of a part time job during the semester, probably 15 to 20 hours per week. It was a lot but it was worth it. There's a certain threshold of time, I would say, that you need to reach in order to actually be productive in a field like this because a lot of our code takes weeks to run. We have code running right now that could take up to two weeks to finish. …So you need to spend a lot of time in our field to be able to actually advance your projects or else you kind of get stuck spinning your wheels .I pushed myself to do as much as I could, and I found that I was able to manage my schedule and fit in plenty of research time with all my classes.
What qualities do you need to be successful at being an undergraduate research?
The biggest one is: an open mind. You don't have to be the perfect coder. You don't have to be a perfect writer. You don't have to be the perfect scientist because they're not expecting you to be the perfect scientist at the undergraduate level. They want you to have an open mind and they want you to be inquisitive and curious, because that's what research is. It’s discovery.