Researcher of the Month
Biomedical Engineering, Class of 2022
Research Mentors: Dr. Mei Lin (Ete) Chan and Dr. Clinton Rubin, Department of Biomedical Engineering;
Dr. Stella Tsirka, Department of Pharmacological Sciences
“… I think the most important thing is that they treat us as collaborators and as intellectually valued members of the lab.” – Lia Strait
Lia Strait is a senior majoring in Biomedical Engineering who has been deeply committed to research ever since joining the laboratory of Dr. Mei Lin (Ete) Chan in her freshman year (January 2019); subsequently she also starting working under the mentorship of Dr. Clinton Rubin in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Biotechnology. Earlier this year, Lia also began working on a collaborative mechanobiology research project, with Dr. Chan, Dr. Rubin, and Dr. Stella Tsirka of Pharmacological Sciences, on: “The Effect of Low-intensity Vibration Therapy Decreases Levels of Inflammatory Proteins in the Brain in Mouse Model." Her work on this project was supported this past summer through the URECA Summer - PSEG Explorations in STEM programs, and was presented at the 2021 Summer Symposium (virtual); and will be the basis of her senior departmental honors thesis.
Through her BME connections with Dr. Chan and Dr. Rubin, Lia also had the opportunity to work as a research assistant for Lahara Bio, a start-up biotechnology company, and to present at the 2020 Life Sciences Summit. Lia was also involved in her sophomore year in a Vertically Integrated Projects team, where she worked on designing and developing Roflex, a motion sensing athletic smartwatch (which she presented at Wolfie Tank in 2020); and in a Fashion institute of Technology Research and Development project that sought to design wearable technology to assist the blind in long distance running (2020). Lia has also served as a Teaching Assistant for BME 205: Clinical Challenges of the 21st Century (Spring 2020); and as a Peer Tutor for the Academic Success and Tutoring Center (2021), and is a contributing author on a paper in the journal Engineered Regeneration. Lia plans to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering, focusing on mechanobiology; and has been working closely with Jen Green and the External Scholarships and Fellowships Advising office, pursuing several graduate study opportunities.
In addition to the research community, she has found a home and “second family” within the Stony Brook Equestrian Team community; she is the current President (May 2021-present), and former Secretary (2019-21), of the Team. Lia is from Salt Point, New York, a rural town in Dutchess County, New York, where she became involved at age 10 in horseback riding, eventually working many early hours and long days in the barn to pay for riding time. Lia has maintained her passion for riding throughout college, and in college, also became an avid cyclist (riding ~200 miles weekly). Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your summer research project.
Lia: I study mechanobiology and, more specifically, mechanotransduction of low-intensity vibration (LIV) in T Cells, working in the labs of Dr. Clint Rubin and Dr. Mei Lin (Ete) Chan in BME. This past summer with URECA and now for my senior thesis, I’m working on a collaborative project with the group of Dr. Stella Tsirka (Pharmacological Sciences). The Rubin and Chan lab have long studied the impacts of LIV on bones, on fat cells and on the immune system, which is where I started with T cells. But my current focus is on how low-intensity vibrations affect the brain. To explore the effects of mechanical signals on neural cell behavior, I have been working with Dr. Tsirka’s group, performing Western blots to look for inflammation markers in mechanically stimulated brain tissues sent from a collaborator at MD Anderson in Texas.
How did you first get started in research at Stony Brook?
Dr. Chan was my first PI. I took her class, BME 100, in my freshman year. And I just loved the way that she taught. It was very, very interactive and we were challenged with design projects. … So in January of my freshman year, at the start of the second semester, I sent her an email, we had a meeting, and she gave me a start in the lab. I definitely got lucky, and I know she's been very, very helpful for a lot of BME students who want to get an early start in research. I actually started in her lab doing some software/hardware type projects—such as augmented reality video games for stroke rehabilitation. But once I got a more hands-on experience, and had a better idea of my interests, I began learning cell culture techniques, the summer after my freshman year. That summer head start really enabled me to get very involved in the lab early on—and my work has ever since progressed from there.
Was the collaborative project in the Tsirka lab a fairly recent development?
Yes—and that’s what I spent this past summer working on, for my URECA summer 2021 project. Dr. Rubin has really become a wonderful mentor to me as I became more involved in the lab. And when he learned that I wanted to go to graduate school, he sat down with me and asked: “What do you really want to do in the long term? What skills do you need? What can we do that would give you the skills to prepare you to pursue your goals?” And so I told him that I really wanted to keep studying mechanobiology, but that I was really interested in the working with the brain. Through the URECA application, I was able to propose a project for the summer involving a collaborator for MD Anderson in Texas (who sent us brains to analyze), and with the Tsirka lab in Pharmacological Sciences. Her PhD students have been helping me analyze the brains and learn those techniques that are necessary for my project. And so that's kind of how my project came together.
How challenging was it to learn the laboratory skills you needed to do hands on work in the lab?
So it was hard in the beginning. The BME major puts a lot of focus on the engineering principles, but I'm also continually needing to learn the biology aspects to be able to do my research, and to be a more well-rounded scientist. I’m continually learning all the time, and there's still so much I don't know. But everyone whom I’ve worked with in lab has been very, very helpful and if you show an interest in wanting to learn, they're more than willing to sit down and talk to you. There have been times when I just asked a question that turns into hour-long conversations about science.
I kind of turned the lab into my library, and whenever I had homework to do, I would go to the lab and would sit there and do it and that routine really enabled me to just be surrounded by the science all the time. When someone was doing something interesting, I would just jump in and ask questions. So, the immersion into the lab made it the primary learning place for me.
It must have been helpful too that you've devoted a couple of summers to research.
Definitely! The summers have made a big difference. The amount of time that I was able to just focus on research has provided the foundations for my senior thesis. I was able to hit the ground running for the start of my senior year because I had the techniques down from all the time I’ve spent in the lab.
What are your long-term plans?
So I’m going to pursue a PhD. I’m currently in the process of applying to programs right now . I’m also hoping to do some sort of an abroad experience, working with Jen Green and the External Scholarships office. So we'll see where it goes...
Jen Green is the best, and I've met a lot of like-minded equally motivated students who are applying for these awards. No matter what the outcome is of the applications, I feel like it's definitely prepared me for the future, because I’ve gained more insight about writing, and how important it is to have the ability to convey what you do, by being involved with the Scholarships office. It wouldn’t be right to mention the external scholarship office without also thanking Dr. Garcia-Diaz. He works in Jen’s office and has offered so much of his time to help me improve my grant writing skills.
What do you enjoy most about doing research?
Sometimes it's frustrating when there's no data for months at a time. But the second that you get it — this novel thing that no one's ever seen before— that's what you live for! Those moments of finding out something new, when you don't know why, and the rest of the world doesn't know why , and it's your job to figure it out--that's what I love about it
I also really like that it's a challenging environment. Dr. Rubin, he pushes us …I don't know if I’ve ever actually answered a question that he's asked me, because they're tough; he definitely pushes us to think outside of the box. But I like that. Dr. Chan pushes us a lot toward independence. But they both make it a very fun environment at the same time, we joke arounf a lot. All the people in the lab get along really well, but I think the most important thing is that they treat us as collaborators and as intellectually valued members of the lab. So it's not just that they tell us what to do, they give us a lot of like creative freedom to provide input to develop experimental plans and really act more independently, as graduate students. That is probably what has made my experience in the lab the most valuable. It's a very self-motivating environment.
What advice would you give to other students about research?
Get involved as early as possible. Professors are always looking for new energies and new insights in their lab because you never know where the next great idea might come from. So just approach faculty researchers and let them know that you're interested. Read up on their work and give them a good reason to take you on. I think it’s good to get as involved as soon as possible, because for me, the lab has really become like a second home and I have made lifelong friends through the other students that I’ve met there. Classes and academics always come first, but if you make research your second priority it's definitely worth it. For me, it has made coming to Stony Brook the right decision ultimately, because I don't think I would have learned nearly as much at any other school as I did here. And that's definitely because of the research.
Have you had the opportunity to present a poster or a paper give a talk?
I did a virtual presentation for the symposium in May of 2020. And then this summer, we did oral presentations for the Summer symposium through the URECA/PSEG Explorations in STEM program. That symposium was my first time really presenting to people who weren't from my field, which made me kind of rethink –“How does my poster Look? How do I present this, how do I explain enough without saying too much?” So that was very valuable, and then I also got to present my Lahara Bio work at the Life Sciences summit, a national early stage investor conference. That was again another way of: how do I take my science and communicate it to a business audience? I also did Wolfie tank which was also both fun and nerve-wracking. This past summer, through the PSEG Explorations program, we got to have a workshop with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science so I definitely learned a lot from that one as well. That was very helpful.
Tell me about your hobbies.
A major reason that I chose Stony Brook was because they had an equestrian team. I started riding horses when I was 10 years old, and I started competing when I was ~ 11. So this was a huge part of my life and I figured it was a way to meet like-minded people, so I did apply to Stony Brook in part because they had an equestrian team. It was my first sense of community on campus before I got into a lab. I was the secretary of the team for two years, and now I’m the President.
I cycle on the side too. I actually met a bunch of people in the Pharmacology lab who are very into cycling, so now we all go on group rides together. This is another way that the lab has translated into more than just a place to do science, and become another community for me.
What qualities do you need to be successful in doing research?
You definitely have to be self-motivated because you need to put yourself out there and ask questions. Perseverance is important too because science is slow, and sometimes you have to do things 100 times to get it right. So just the ability to keep going and to be able to balance doing the research with classes is important. Being inquisitive is also very important. You have to ask questions, even if you think they are stupid questions. The whole basis of science is asking questions. You have to ask and then you'll learn a lot just from asking because people will probably tell you more than you wanted to know!
Did you know what aspect you wanted to focus on when you first started research?
Not particularly. I actually came in thinking that I wanted to be a tissue engineer, and then when I finally took a tissue engineering class, I realized this really wasn't what I want to do. I joined the Chan-Rubin lab initially because I like Dr. Chan so much, and I really thought that she was someone that could push me to become who I was capable of being.
I didn't expect to like mechanotransduction as much as I do, but I really find it quite fascinating. It was only once I was actually doing the research that I really understood what was happening, and realized that I very much wanted to continue to pursue this field. I'm quite happy with my choice of pursuing mechanobiology. ...And I’ve been lucky to work with all of my mentors, all of the graduate students and faculty mentors I’ve interacted with over these years. Dr. Chan, she's very open. And I think that's what makes her a good mentor. She makes sure to guide you in the right direction, but she also allows everyone to be very individual and to have their own component of the project, And as far as Dr. Rubin goes, he is just the best mentor I could have asked for. He pushes me, and I value that because it has made me a better scientist. It has made me seek to answer my own questions, instead of getting someone else to do it. And I love the new work I’ve been doing in the Tsirka group, she’s been a great mentor too. Every professor I’ve had the privilege of doing research under has been trully wonderful, and I’ll be forever grateful to all of them. I really just love being in the lab, I love researching, I love science!