Researcher of the Month
Major: Biology (Neuroscience specialization), Honors College, Class of 2023
Research Mentors: Dr. Holly Colognato, Pharmacological Sciences (current); Dr. Tim Duong, Radiology (previous)
"But when you're actually investigating something as opposed to just learning it from a lecture, you get to put into practice what you are learning about. It helps you visualize what you're learning much more. And so you gain a better appreciation of how the researchers approach problems, and what their thought process was: how they got from point A to point B."-Joseph Biscula, Class of ‘23
Joseph Bisulca is a senior in the Honors College majoring in biology with a specialization in neuroscience. He was one of two students from the pool of ~95 URECA summer applicants to be awarded the Chhabra-URECA Fellowship, an award that provides summer funding and recognizes students with a passion for research.
As a member of the laboratory of Dr. Holly Colognato (Pharmacological Sciences) since May 2021, Joseph currently investigates potential reparative therapies for multiple sclerosis (MS). While gaining experience in performing immunocytochemistry for in vitro and in vivo studies on a mouse model of MS, he has simultaneously been involved in a retrospective, IRB-approved chart study to assess the real-world feasibility of using metformin for multiple sclerosis using MSBase, a world-wide patient database.
Joseph had accrued substantial experience on MS-research while he was in high school, as a member of Dr. Tim Duong’s research group in the department of Radiology—work he would continue as an undergraduate at Stony Brook. This led to two co-authored publications in the Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders journal in 2019 and 2020. As a freshman, Joseph applied for and received a URECA fellowship in 2020 to work remotely on “Systematic review of cerebral cortical thickness in multiple sclerosis.” He has presented this work at the URECA Celebration, and recently contributed as a co-author to an abstract submitted to the 2021 AMA Research Challenge from the Duong group. Reflecting on these foundational experiences, Joseph states: “.. it was just very helpful to have someone who is so accomplished guiding you in the in the right direction. I think having a mentor who is so involved really helps shape you to think like a researcher and understand what research is about, and how to rigorously investigate something. “
On campus, Joseph is active as an Honors College Big Sibling, as Vice President and Event Coordinator of the Stony Brook Pre-Medical Society, and has served as a TA for CHE 152 and 331 (Molecular Science), also receiving the Upstander Award for his participation in Bystander Intervention programs (including Red Watch Band, Green Dot Training, and QPR suicide prevention training). As an aspiring physician, Joseph has also been involved in neurosurgery shadowing (including at Stony Brook Hospital) and participated in Stony Brook’s Undergraduate Clinical Education Program (UCEP).
Joseph Bisulca is a graduate of Half Hollow Hills HS West, in Dix Hills. He speaks Italian; and enjoys basketball and bike riding. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research.
Joseph: So currently, I’m in the Colognato lab, working on a project investigating the effect of metformin on multiple sclerosis (MS) disease progression. This is a translational medicine or bench-to-bedside approach to investigate potential reparative therapies for MS. Metformin is an antidiabetic drug that's commonly prescribed in the US and in the world. Preclinical studies have pointed toward how taking metformin promotes myelination in mouse models: metformin inhibits complex I of the electron transport chain and indirectly activates something called AMP kinase (AMPK). And through that, we hypothesize that metformin may alter disease progression in MS patients by altering bioenergetics in oligodendrocytes.
In addition to thewet lab work, I’m also working on a retrospective chart review in collaboration with the MSBase registry, which is a world-wide neuro-immunology registry to assess the real-world feasibility of using metformin for MS. There is an existing cohort of people out there who are on metformin and have MS. So, we're looking at different markers of disease status (such as an EDSS score which assesses disability) and analyzing large data sets to see whether MS patients who are on metformin are doing better compared to MS patients who aren't on metformin. We're also going to look at MRI descriptors, which is more closely related to the work I did previously in the Duong lab in Radiology.
Oh yes, I remember that you got involved with research at Stony Brook when you were still in high school!
Yes, I had started in the Duong lab in the summer of 2018 when I was at Half Hollow Hills HS West. I worked on a bunch of projects, starting with literature reviews (two of which later got published) and I continued working in the Duong group in my freshman year of college. I actually worked on several MS-related projects and participated in URECA (remotely) in Summer 2020. Once we learned that Dr. Duong would be moving to Albert Einstein, a PhD student in the Duong lab helped me connect with a MS researcher in the Colognato group. I really liked the research they were doing, so I reached out about joining the lab and that's where I find myself now. I’ve been in the lab since May of 2021, and will be doing my senior thesis project on my work in the lab. I’ve also stayed connected with Dr. Duong’s group at Albert Einstein, and have even had the chance to co-mentor several high school students. Drawing on my previous experiences as a high school student working on literature reviews, it was great to be able to help students who were in the exact same shoes as I once was.
Looking back, how have your research skills progressed or developed over time?
I can definitely tell you that there's a big increase in the amount of knowledge I have compared to when I first got involved in research in the summer after junior year of high school. I went from just understanding the biology or anatomy of an axon to now having the ability to come up with my own experimental designs. Doing those initial literature reviews was also really beneficial—especially now in my current project where I’m doing retrospective chart reviews. Later on, when I got involved wet lab research — learning techniques such as immunocytochemistry, which involves looking at different markers at a cellular level and performing immunostaining — I gained a better understanding of the molecular science that goes into the research, compared to the more global view you get when you're looking at MRI or a chart review. By going through varied research experiences, seeing both clinical research and preclinical research approaches, I think I have a much better appreciation of the progression in our understanding that eventually, we hope, will contribute something that can help MS patients.
What do you enjoy most about being involved in research?
I love neuroscience. And I love doing research. And I don't know if this is the right way to express it, but I feel like doing research really helps build up your practical sense of what you know and are learning. When you're in class, you know you're learning about many different things, but sometimes you question: am I really capable of contributing to this area? But when you're actually investigating something as opposed to just learning it from a lecture, you get to put into practice what you are learning about. It helps you visualize what you're learning much more. And so you gain a better appreciation of how the researchers approach problems, and what their thought process was: how they got from point A to point B. Doing research helps you understand the link in how they got there much better than if you were just told how they did it in a class.
Do you enjoy presenting the work you’ve done?
Yes, when I was in my research program in high school, we had to do presentations all the time. So I actually really grew to enjoy it. And it’s a place of comfort for me now because I’ve just done it so many times. I find it to be very gratifying to express what you've been doing and get other people to understand it, because if you can get an audience to follow what you're doing …you know that means that you understand it well.
In terms of writing papers, though, it is tough in the beginning. Sometimes you just look at all of the work you did, and think: Oh, where do I begin? But you know, that's where my mentors have come in to help. I’ve found that I much preferthe editing process, to initially drafting papers!
How important have mentors been for you overall in your scientific growth / development?
All around, I’ve been very privileged with the mentors and graduate students who’ve worked with me. When I was in high school that first summer, Dr Duong would actually check in on us every day. And it was just very helpful to have someone who is so accomplished guiding you in the right direction. I think having a mentor who is so involved really helps shape you to think like a researcher and understand what research is about, and how to rigorously investigate something. When you're writing, a mentor can help you understand who your audience is because of their experience with publishing so many papers. And with the graduate students …it's also just great to have someone helping you on a regular basis and see someone who has more recently been in your shoes.
Dr Colognato has also been a fantastic mentoring presence to in the lab: she's so knowledgeable and when you're a student who's early on in your career, it's so helpful to have mentors who are not only very knowledgeable but who are there to support you. You know that if you have a stumbling block that you're not afraid to go to them. And it makes your own work better too.
What advice about research do you have for other students?
I would say if there’s something that you're interested in, definitely pursue it. It's very rewarding. You gain something that you can't necessarily get from a classroom. Not only do you learn a lot from others, but you learn a lot from working out problems on your own, learning how to troubleshoot. It's also just a great way to connect to people in your field. I have long had the goal of wanting to go into medicine; so for me, understanding the role and the work of researchers is something I know will help me do my job better and have a greater understanding of the field.
You do have to be persistent though. Remember that the worst thing that can happen when you initially reach out to people whom you want to learn from or do research with is that they may just say no. But if it doesn't work out with the first person you ask about research, or shadowing, just keep going. Be persistent.
Was research a factor in your coming to Stony Brook?
Yes, that was definitely a big reason. And I’m very happy with the decision I made!