Researcher of the Month
Biology major (Neuroscience specialization), WISE program, Class of 2021
Research Mentor: Dr. Irene Solomon, Physiology & Biophysics
Marcia-Ruth Ndege is a junior majoring in biology (neuroscience specialization) in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) honors program, with minors in Spanish Language and Literature, and Writing and Rhetoric. She joined the laboratory of Dr. Irene Solomon (Physiology & Biophysics) in the spring semester of her freshman year. Because her research protocols in the laboratory are an all-day affair, Marcia-Ruth was especially appreciative of the opportunity to do full-time research last summer, with the support of the Chhabra-URECA Fellowship, an award which annually recognizes an undergraduate researcher who has a passion and talent for science.
Focusing on how “ Acute Fluoxetine Administration Improves Intermittent Hypoxia-induced Inspiratory Burst Amplitude Deficits During Peak LPS-induced Neuroinflammatory Phase in Anesthetized Spontaneously Breathing Adult Male Rats ,” Marcia-Ruth found that she was able to accomplish a great deal during the summer, and will be presenting her research findings at an upcoming Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California in April 2020. She remarks on the satisfaction of seeing her skills improve with time, noting: “ Executing my project was a real challenge at the beginning. I like seeing how I’m improving throughout the course of my time in the lab. I was essentially clueless at the start, but now I fully understand my project … I’m happy with that progress and that I can see the way forward for where this project could go."
At Stony Brook, Marcia-Ruth serves as Treasurer of the WISE Student Leadership Council; and is a USG Representative for WISE. She works in the Department of Neurobiology maintaining zebrafish colonies, and in the Department of Computer Science as a Content Writer; she has also served as a Teaching Assistant for the Undergraduate Biology office. Marcia-Ruth also volunteers with the Long Island State Veterans Home, and shadows the Chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, Dr. Tassiopoulos. Marcia-Ruth aspires to be a physician scientist and is exploring MD/PhD programs for the future.
Marcia-Ruth Ndege was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and graduated from New Rochelle HS. She has an avid interest in languages (Swahili, Spanish) and enjoys writing. Below are excerpts from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your current research.
Marcia-Ruth. I’m doing research in the laboratory of Dr. Irene Solomon, a lab that works on neural respiratory controlled breathing. My project specifically deals with inflammation—which can affect our brain’s ability to adapt to stimuli like hypoxia. For my project, we’re using a drug, Fluoxetine, to see if we can improve our animals’ responses to hypoxia and to see if we can restore neoplasticity in animals that have inflammation.
How did you first get involved with research in Prof. Solomon’s group?
A friend of mine told me that there was a website called “Find a researcher- Stony Brook.” I put in my interest (neuroscience &animal models) and it gave me a list of Principal Investigators (PIs) that were working in neuroscience, some of whom I then contacted by email. I briefly joined a different lab in the fall of freshman year and in the spring switched to Dr. Solomon’s lab which seemed a better fit for me. I’ve been in her lab for about a year and a half now.
Did you have a lot of previous research experience when you first joined the lab?
College was the first time I had ever been involved with research. I started out in Dr. Solomon’s lab just observing at first, watching others work with animals, or do surgeries...I didn’t know how to do any of that. There was a lot of watching and observing before they let me try something. In the spring semester when the URECA applications were due, Dr. Solomon assigned a literature search for that entire semester so that I could get a better understanding of the respiratory field. She encouraged me to pursue whichever part of the field I found most interesting, then challenged me to propose an independent project. After a series of failed proposals (and there were a few), Dr. Solomon guided me to the finish line: a proposal worth submitting to URECA. Admittedly, identifying a respiratory-related problem and developing a proposal was a huge challenge - but a process that I learned a lot from.
Was it useful to participate in an immersive, summer research experience?
Participating in this research experience was extremely valuable for professional, academic, and personal reasons. I’m particularly grateful for the generous funding, as I would not have been able to afford to do this without the fellowship. For my financial aid I get TAP, which means I have to take a minimum of 12 biology major-related credits in addition to any other credits I need (and I have 2 minors). That means I have ~18 credits a semester, which means I’m not always able to spend as much time in lab as I would like. During the summer though, I was wholly dedicated to doing research. Every day, I would go into the lab from ~8 am to sometimes 8 or 9 or 10 at night. I was learning how to handle the animals, perform surgeries, and run an experiment from set-up to clean-up. Dr. Solomon also taught me how to analyze data using MATLAB, which was far more intensive than I’d imagined. I experienced many steep learning curves, all of which were worth the time and effort. Having the opportunity to spend 5 days a week working on my project helped my skills increase a lot more than when I first joined the lab. It helped a lot having that time to concentrate only on lab! With Dr. Solomon’s guidance and help from our wonderful lab technician, I was able to get enough done, and have submitted an abstract to for the Experimental Biology (EB) 2020 conference.
That’s wonderful! Tell me about that.
EB is an annual meeting that brings tens of thousands of scientists together to explore, present, and discuss the latest research findings. It’s going to be held in San Diego next year. I have the opportunity of travelling there with the Solomon group to present my preliminary findings and general observations while getting the chance to meet some, if not most, of the authors who inspired my work. Our experiments showed some compelling findings that are interesting on their own, but also provide insight into previous findings on inflammation and neuroplasticity – so that’s going to be very exciting to present. I will also be presenting this work at the URECA Celebration.
What have you learned from doing independent research vs. classroom learning?
Interestingly enough, being in a research lab turned out to be a more demanding environment where there’s more pressure than a classroom setting. Being in this lab has taught me so many important skills, all starting with time management. It’s gotten to the point where I know exactly how long it will take me to do a specific task while accurately accounting for setbacks. It’s also taught me how to be an advocate for myself and to speak up when I think something is interesting or worth noting… Dr. Solomon doesn’t hand-hold or spoon-feed her students. It’s up to you to take the initiative to talk to her, say what you want, and ask her questions. In the classroom, they give you all the materials and they just test you on what they tell you to study. With Dr. Solomon….she gives you papers to read based on what she does. And then it’s up to you to find out everything else: find out what you’re interested in, and take the initiative to keep talking with her, and to develop your own project. Dr. Solomon has helped me to rise to the challenge and become more confident.
What is the most challenging thing about doing research?
I’d say it would be the time constraint of working in an animal lab. Every Friday from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, you can find me in the main room of my lab. For me, lab days are an all-day affair. Dr. Solomon makes it very clear that when you have an independent project, everything is your responsibility, and necessarily so. I must check whether we have enough of the drugs we need, if there are enough animals (and tell her when to order), if there are enough gases, etc. I have to get the animals from the animal facility, anesthetize them, do my experiments, and I can’t leave until I’m really done cleaning up everything at the end of the day. This level of responsibility was a major turning point. Still, knowing that Dr. Solomon trusted and believed in me ultimately helped me really become proficient in doing my work.
What has been the most satisfying aspect of being involved in research?
I like learning and being challenged, and research allowed me to experience both in several ways. I would say the most satisfying aspect is tracking my improvements and progress throughout the course of my time in the lab. I went from knowing nothing to fully understanding my project, even down to the cellular and molecular mechanisms that are taking place. I’m looking forward to my continued time in Dr. Solomon’s lab and I’m even looking to propose an extension of my project to her. It makes me happy that I can see the way forward for where this project could go.
What advice do you have for other students?
Start early! I had never done research before my freshman year, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I liked, or what research experience would be a good fit for me. Starting this journey freshman year has allowed for a rewarding undergraduate experience...I can’t stress how important it is to talk about your expectations when you reach out to professors and meet with them. In my interview, Dr. Solomon asked me what I expected to gain out of my research experience. True to her character, she still asks me about my expectations to-date. I’ve laid out so many expectations, such as having an independent project, being first author on an abstract, and going to conferences. And I’m very grateful for Dr. Solomon because she is holding me to all those things I said at the beginning!
My final piece of advice is to remember that research can be stressful, frustrating, demanding, and even overwhelming in the beginning. Even then, you should definitely stick around because after the learning curve, you’ll experience so much fulfillment. My experiences working with Dr. Solomon have exposed me to the realities of research, and have taught me that I do love research!