Researcher of the Month
Majors: Biochemistry, Sociology, Class of 2021
Research Mentor: Dr. Jaymie Meliker, Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine,
Sasha McKay is a double major in Biochemistry and Sociology who recently graduated summacum laude (December 2021). Since June 2020, she has been investigating racial and geographical disparities in cancer ratesunder the mentorship of Dr. Jaymie Meliker (Public Health Program, Department of Family, Population & Preventive Medicine). She gave a presentation on “Racial and Geographical Disparities in Colorectal Cancer Incidence in Mississippi, 2003-2018” at the 2021 Summer Symposium sponsored by URECA and CIE, at the national Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS 2021); and has a co-authored publication on this topic under review. Sasha has also been working with Dr. Meliker on several other public health projects, including spatial patterns of racial disparities in proximity to landfills and to mammography clinics.
Sasha started working with Dr. Meliker when she was selected as a Fellow for INDUCER/Increasing Diversity in Undergraduate Cancer Biology Education and Research, a program directed by Dr. Jennie Williams (Family, Population and Preventive Medicine) that seeks to increase the numbers of underrepresented minority students pursuing research careers in the biomedical sciences. Through her research, Sasha advanced her skills of statistical analysis and interpretation (including use of ArcGIS) and has been able meaningfully to explore issues of racial health disparities.
Sasha also participated in her freshman year in a diversity in medicine conference, “Health Justice at Upstate: Breaking Down Barriers;” and in the Pre-medical Access to the Clinical Experience (PACE) program offered at the Renaissance School of Medicine. Her long term goal is to pursue medical training with a focus on public health (M.D./M.P.H.)
Sasha was first introduced to research at Stony Brook by joining the Nagan Research
Group at the invitation of Dr. Maria Nagan, a course instructor for the CHE 154: Molecular Sciences I laboratory course who noticed Sasha’s experimental technique
and research potential. In the Nagan group (Fall 2019-Spring 2020 semesters), Sasha
worked on a project that simulates RNA of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in different conformations, to determine
the role of water in protein binding to the RNA.
On campus, Sasha has served as a Teaching Assistant for Chemistry (Molecular Science II, Spring 2020) and for CSTEP (Summer 2019), and was involved since sophomore year with the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students as Public Relations Officer, Secretary and Vice President; and with the campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as Program Coordinator, Secretary and President. She has also worked as a COVID-19 Vaccine POD Assistant for Stony Brook, as a Contract Tracer for NY State Department of Health, and as a Scribe for Westchester County Center. Currently, Sasha works at CityMD as a medical scribe and will be applying for medical school next year.
Sasha is a graduate of New Rochelle High School. Her hobbies include: sewing, singing, and arts & crafts. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your research .
Sasha: The research that I’ve been doing with Dr. Jaymie Meliker is epidemiological and public health related, primarily looking at racial disparities and cancer. The main project that I’ve really been focused on has to do with colorectal cancer rates in Mississippi, and with the racial disparities in the colorectal cancer rates. The other two projects look at locations in the context of racial disparities–the placements of mammography facilities, and the placements of landfills, on Long Island.
How did you first get involved with research with Prof. Meliker?
It was through the INDUCER program. When I applied, there were several mentor choices to pick from. I knew that I really was interested in public health, and so I chose to work with Dr. Meliker because I thought it would be a good match to my interests. And he’s been a great mentor and is helpful in so many ways.
When you came into the lab, did you have a lot of background in doing statistical analysis?
I thought I had a decent background in Excel before I started doing the research with Dr Meliker but the way I knew how to use Excel wasn't very efficient, especially for the research projects that I was doing… and then another skill that I just had to learn completely through the research was ArcGIS. Using ArcGIS can be very tedious to learn on your own, but there are a lot of tutorials that can help you figure out which functions you need to use, and how to apply it to your own project.
With the project about colorectal cancer rates in Mississippi, were there any results that you came across that you found to be particularly surprising?
One of the interesting results was that towards the southern part of Mississippi, there weren't any significant racial disparities. And that was interesting –and unexpected if you thought that the whole state was going to be a hot spot of racial disparities.
Have you taken any coursework that initially got you focused on studying racial health disparities?
I’ve always been interested in racial justice. But I do remember as a freshman that I went to this SUNY upstate conference where I learned a lot about racial disparities of medicine. And that's what really sparked my interest in this particular subject. I had been roaming the halls in the Stony Brook Library when I saw a flyer about the conference, and I even took a picture of it. I knew I wanted to go to it right then!
Wow. And was your experience doing research through the INDUCER program your first experience of doing research on campus?
Just a few months earlier I had actually started to work with Dr Maria Nagan and her group. She was one of the professors for the freshman chemistry lab class I was taking. And she complimented my techniques and really helped me gain confidence in the lab. I had asked her about the research that she does, and then later on, in my sophomore year, she actually reached out to me, and asked me if I would be interested in joining her lab.
What kind of project did you work on in the Nagan group?
A lot of it was learning how to use this particular program, VMD, a protein coding, molecular visualization. I enjoyed my work in that group too--- even though I was new, and initially just learning like everyone else. But I enjoyed learning, and being in a small research group. And we had presentations every week, so I was able to learn from other people about what they were doing with the project. And from there, I applied to INDUCER.
INDUCER is a great program!
Yes, and Dr. Williams brought former INDUCER and BIOPrep participants to meet with us. Just hearing about what they're doing now was very inspiring because a lot of the people had come from backgrounds where they had to overcome obstacles. So it was inspiring to hear about where they are now and how they got there. And Dr. Williams would also always let us know about opportunities for graduate and professional programs. She always wants to help us move forward.
And what are your future goals?
My future goal is to eventually become a physician and to also earn a master's in public health orr maybe a PhD in public health. I'm interested in the field of infectious disease – and I was interested even before the pandemic happened!
What do you most enjoy about doing research?
I think what I most enjoy about doing research is seeing how It relates to real life.
I'm a biochemistry major, and a sociology major. And so I think studying both of these areas gets me to focus on very small and abstract details, as we do in biochemistry…but also to look at large scale trends, as we do in sociology. What I really like about the research I do with Dr. Meliker is that it lets me do both, it allows me to focus on small important pieces of data that apply to larger scale issues–like racial health disparities.
What advice would you give to other students about research?
I would definitely tell them to do something that they enjoy. There are so many different things you can do, so many different professors you can contact about doing research, and different types of research. So try to find something that you actually find to be interesting, something that will keep you motivated.
Also, there are organizations out there that can help you. I was involved with CSTEP, and INDUCER, PACE, and also with the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students. And these organizations can provide a support group with people to uplift you. So it’s good to look for these communities of people - where you can form student groups, and connect with other people that are also on the same path as you and have the same mindset as you.