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Researcher of the Month

September 2021

Sarah VaccaroSarah Vaccaro

Biology, Class of 2022

Research Mentors:  Dr. Liliana M. Dávalos, Dr. Tara Smiley, Dr. Krishna Veeramah, Department of Ecology & Evolution

Sarah Vaccaro is a biology major specializing in ecology and evolution, with a minor in anthropology, class of ‘22. In her sophomore year, she participated in Undergraduate Biology’s Entering Research workshop, and has since successfully initiated research placements in three different research groups in the Department of Ecology & Evolution.

Sarah’s research in the laboratory of Dr. Krishna Veeramah (Ecology & Evolution) on “Genomic Evolution of the Three-Spined Stickleback” was supported this summer with a Biology-URECA Summer award—generously sponsored with funding from the Three Village Garden Club. Sarah presented a poster on her URECA project at the virtual Summer Symposium (August 2021); and this fall will be doing a presentation for the Three Village Garden Club.  

Sarah concurrently has been conducting undergraduate research in the group of Dr. Liliana Dávalos (Ecology & Evolution), working to identify the factors that influence the resilience and extinction of bats in the Caribbean. Recently, Sarah also joined the research group of Dr. Tara Smiley (Ecology & Evolution), where she has been assisting with field work on the Brookhaven National Lab property in Upton, NY. 

In summer 2019, Sarah volunteered at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in the Hamptons as an animal care assistant; and in summer 2020 dedicated her time as a conservation research intern to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, assisting field biologists with data collection after marine animal stranding occurrences. Long term, Sarah plans to pursue a PhD in Ecology & Evolution, and to work in the field of wildlife biology.

Despite all the disruptions brought about by Covid over the last year and a half, Sarah has stayed committed to doing research, finding these lab experiences to be an invaluable part of her undergraduate experience: “Doing research in the lab is incredibly rewarding because I know that I'm working towards answering questions that really excite and inspire me. This really helps me to stay motivated and to continue pushing forward with my project.”

Sarah is a graduate of Bellport Senior HS in Long Island; her hobbies include playing viola, hiking, and dancing. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 

The Interview:

Karen: Tell me about your summer research project. 

Sarah: My project in the Veeramah lab focuses on rapid parallel adaptation in the threespine stickleback — the premier organism for understanding how species rapidly adapt to new environments from standing genetic variation. To give you some background, oceanic threespine stickleback are typically found in the waters of the Northern Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. After the retreat of glaciers at the end of the last glaciation, there were many newly uncovered freshwater environments that were soon colonized  by the oceanic stickleback. These fish rapidly adapted to their new habitats and the resulting independently colonized freshwater populations have shown repeated evolution of the same phenotypic traits.

In order to gain a better understanding of the processes that govern this repeated adaptation, the Veeramah lab has been conducting whole lake experiments, where the populations of threespine stickleback in several different lakes have been tracked from founding.  My project specifically focuses on Cheney Lake, which has been sampled monthly and bimonthly in order to develop more of a finer scale time series experiment. I'm focusing samples from 2016 and 2017 in order to determine at what stage in the lifecycle of the threespine stickleback that there is the greatest change in frequency of freshwater adaptive alleles. Once we have this information, we can use it to narrow down the driving forces in the freshwater environment that are leading to the rapid parallel adaptation.

How long have you been working on this project? When did you join the Veeramah lab?

I joined the Veeramah lab in the fall of 2020, but because of the pandemic, I was working remotely for a while. We didn't start this specific project until the spring semester, when I was able to come in and start doing wet lab work.

Did you have to learn a lot of new techniques to be able to carry out this research?

Absolutely! Over the past couple of months, I’ve learned how to do DNA extractions, dilutions, DNA quantification, and soon will be learning how to pool the DNA into pool sequencing experiments. We've been working hard to try and get the samples out to be sequenced, so that we can analyze them later as we try to determine at what point in the life cycle there's the greatest shift in the frequency of the alleles.

What do you enjoy most about the lab work?

Doing research in the lab is incredibly rewarding because I know that I'm working towards answering questions that really excite and inspire me. This really helps me to stay motivated and to continue pushing forward with my project.I'm a very methodical person, so I really enjoy getting into the rhythm of lab work and completing assignments in the lab. But it is also extremely gratifying to know that as I finish each task, I'm working towards progressing this project in the Veeramah lab and could potentially be making a difference in the scientific community.

Tell me about how you first got involved in research at Stony Brook.

When I first got involved, I had somewhat of a bumpy start. I had initially reached out to both Dr Veeramah (who was on sabbatical at the time) and Dr. Davalos, expressing interest in both of their areas of study. I actually had just begun my research in the Davalos lab and was learning how to program with R. I was really excited to begin my project, but when the pandemic hit, everything really came to a halt. Fast forward to the fall of 2020… I got in contact again with both Dr. Davalos and Dr. Veeramah, and then started doing remote work in both of those labs. Right now, I'm doing wet lab work (in-person) for Dr Veeramah, and I'm conducting analyses for the Davalos Lab (working remotely).

What's your project in the Davalos group about?

That project aims to identify the factors that influence the resilience and extinction of bats in the Caribbean. Over the past several months, I have been working to compile and organize lots of data about different species of bats and Caribbean islands. I am now using R to conduct analyses in order to produce some results and figures – I love it!

Did you find it difficult to become involved in research?

When I sent out my initial emails expressing that I was interested in the research that they were doing and told them what topics I was interested in investigating, both of the professors were really receptive in their emails back to me. They were also very helpful in terms of introducing me to their labs and getting me started on projects, which was great.

Do you work with grad students mentors in your research groups?

Yes, I work with a good amount of graduate students and postdocs. One of the postdocs, Dr. Kerry Reid, has done a lot to help me through the research process and has given me a ton of excellent advice about graduate school. My mentor, Dr. Veeramah, has also been incredibly helpful in guiding me along the right path for my research project and with my other endeavors. We have these bi-weekly meetings where all of the lab members present their work to him, and he is always very involved and gives really great feedback.

What so far has been the most surprising thing that you've found from your research?

The most surprising thing is really how unpredictable and nonlinear the research process is. I think when you're coming up with the idea for a research project, it's really great to have a detailed plan so you can imagine how you're going to accomplish your goals. But I’ve noticed a lot of the time, that there are obstacles that prevent you from strictly adhering to that sort of schedule. I think it is important to be able to roll with the punches when you’re doing research and to be patient and open to new directions that the project may go in.

And what is the most challenging part about being involved with research?

Well, I would say it's those obstacles that you really have no control over. For example, just last week there was actually a shortage of some lab equipment. Even though we were ready to continue with the dilutions and DNA quantification, there was no wet lab work that we could do for a couple days without the equipment. Instead, on those days, we stayed home and spent time looking into some literature and doing other parts of the project…. As I said before, you have to really be able to adapt to where the project is going and to where it's taking you.

How have your research experiences complemented your academic coursework?

I absolutely love the coursework I've taken at Stony Brook. I really enjoy learning and I love my science classes. But I was eager to get some more hands on learning experience. I've been really lucky in that research has really allowed me to do that. It's also provided me with a new perspective, and a new understanding of the material I've been learning in class. For example, I just took this Genetics course last semester, and it was really nice to notice that a lot of the terminology and the concepts that I was hearing in class were actually being implemented by my lab colleagues. I definitely feel like I've made deeper connection to what I'm learning by being able to physically do lab work.

What are your future plans?

I'm interested in applying for PhD programs for ecology and evolution, and am going to be working on applications this fall. I am very passionate about the field of conservation biology, and would love to pursue a career as a wildlife biologist. I also know that I would like to work in the industry, as opposed to in academia.

Do you notice a big learning curve through your research experiences? Over time, have you become more independent in learning how to carry out a project?

I have definitely noticed that – especially by the lack of a physical presence next to me as I'm doing a lot of my work! I initially worked alongside Dr. Reid, as she guided me through the learning process with all of the lab techniques, but now I am able to perform a lot of lab work on my own. I know that I can reach out to the other lab members when I need help, but I definitely do feel a lot more independence now at this stage.

What advice would you give about research to other students?

If anyone is unsure about whether doing research is for them or not, I would say to definitely give it a shot. I feel like there's almost an infinite amount of topics to be studied and questions to be answered. There are also so many different components to research – you can do wet lab work, field work, or conduct analyses – so quite literally, I feel like there's something for everybody.

Also, I think research is a really great learning experience: it provides you with skills that could be transferable to any career. So yes, I would definitely say to give it a shot because there's really a lot to love about research!