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Researcher of the Month

January 2022

Samuel EscobarSamuel Escobar

Majors: Biology, University Scholars Program, Class of 2021

Research Mentor:  Dr. Benjamin Martin, Biochemistry & Cell Biology 

“I think research was probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve done here at Stony Brook.”- Samuel Escobar, class of ‘21

Samuel Escobar is a Biology major in the University Scholars program who recently graduated summa cum laude (December 2021). Samuel’s substantive involvement in research as an undergraduate was supported by several key programs. He participated in a 4-week pre-freshman program in CSTEP/Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) where he first gained exposure to research methods and contributed to a group project on “Maintaining Calcium Homeostasis via Real Time Monitoring”  that he co-presented at the 2018 Summer Symposium. Samuel then took the opportunity in his freshman year to be paired with a peer mentor through the INSPIRE/Include New Students through a Peer Introduction to Research Experience program, a multi-disciplinary mentoring initiative developed by Dr. Peter Gergen (Undergraduate Biology) to promote engagement in research. In spring semester of his freshman year, Samuel arranged to do research with Dr. Benjamin Martin (Biochemistry & Cell Biology) during summer 2019 as a participant in the PSEG-Explorations in STEM program, a 10-week summer research program co-administered by the Career Center and URECA (PI: Dr. Monica Bugallo, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). At the conclusion of the program, he presented a poster on “Phenotypic Analysis of a Zebrafish Axial Extension Mutant” at the 2019 Summer Symposium. 

Samuel continued doing research in the Martin Lab for the rest of his undergraduate years, where he built up his knowledge of experimental laboratory techniques including the use of confocal and fluorescent microscopy; earlier this year, Samuel was one of two 2021 URECA Summer program applicants to be awarded the Chhabra-URECA Fellowship, an award that provides funding for summer research and recognizes students with a passion for research.  His work on “Cell Cycle Regulation Modulates Tail-Bud Morphogenesis in Zebrafish” involves using an R software script to design hybridization chain reaction (HCR) probes for genes of interest. Samuel will be presenting this research at the spring ’22 URECA poster symposium. 

On campus, Samuel has served as a Teaching Assistant (General Chemistry, Introduction to Cell and Organ Physiology); is currently Vice President of the Latino Medical Student Association Plus+; and the secretary of Watsi (a medical fundraising organization); as well as being a Center for Prevention and Outreach Red Watch Band Intern. Currently, Samuel volunteers with Good Samaritan Hospital, with the NOSH Soup Kitchen, and the Eastern Farm Workers Association. During May 2020-May 2021, Samuel was employed as a Contact Tracer with the New York Department of Health where he worked with a team to notify contacts of possible Covid-19 exposure. He is currently employed as a Medical Scribe with Long Island Urgent Care in West Babylon and Manorville, NY where he aids in performing intake questions, as well as translation of medical explanations for Spanish-speaking patients. Samuel plans to apply to Medical School (M.D.) programs in the next year.

Samuel is a first-generation college student from Deer Park, NY whose hobbies include skateboarding. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director. 

The Interview:

Karen:How did you first get involved in research at Stony Brook?

Sam: I applied through CSTEP as a high school senior and participated in the CSTEP summer research program before starting at Stony Brook. One week, Dr Gergen came in to speak to us, and told us about the INSPIRE program. So then, I did INSPIRE in my freshman year, which gave me the opportunity to shadow a peer mentor doing undergraduate research in a Psychology lab. When I met with Dr Gergen again during INSPIRE, he encouraged me to apply for Explorations in STEM (which I did), and helped me initially find a lab placement in Dr. Ben Martin’s Lab. I have to give him a lot of thanks because he really helped me out. Thinking back to it seems like just yesterday that I was in Explorations in STEM. That was such a fun summer, and I’m still in the same lab now as I’m about to graduate. It's crazy how fast it went…!

Tell me about the research you do in the Martin lab. 

At first, I was doing phylogenetic analysis with this cool mutant zebrafish from another lab. Since then, I’ve kind of transitioned to a newer project that is underway right now about how cell behaviors are regulated in zebrafish while they're growing. Specifically, we’re looking at how the cell cycle phase may be involved with the cell behavior of midline progenitor cells (MPCs) during morphogenesis in zebrafish….  it's a relatively new project.

I admit, I do love working with zebrafish! They are cool models. They grow relatively fast. And they're clear, so you can really see what's going on …

What do you most enjoy about doing research?

I’m a biology major, and it's one thing to learn about these things in class but it's really, really fun to actually do them and see it in practice. So, I really like that I’m seeing these theories and concepts kind of come to life. Another fun thing is just learning new protocols and seeing them work out. It's almost like art in a way, using hairpin fluorescence--seeing these images. 

Would you say that you've gained a lot of skills over the years from being involved in research?

Oh definitely--I’ve learned a lot of lab techniques in general, but also just knowing how to read scientific papers is a really valuable skill to have. 

Looking back, I think research was probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve done here at Stony Brook. And I feel like I've gotten the most out of it too. It was important for me to learn the skills that we learned about in these classes, and to see how a lab operates. I also got some exposure about how grant writing works. And having fundamental skills and understanding about how a lab functions could be important for if I were to want to do research later.

Next year, I’ll be applying to MD programs. When I’m asked on the application for med school what my most meaningful experiences are, I’m putting research as one of them. It built my skills in how to think scientifically and how to talk in a scientific way.  And I think that's super important for the future.

What did you do during summer ‘2020 when the labs were shut down and you weren’t able to do in-person work? 

The COVID pandemic was tough because I couldn't really do much research, and also because I had to work a lot … my dad was getting less hours, and I wanted to pick up a job to help out, so I ended doing contact tracing for a year. It paid well actually, and I'm so grateful that I was able to get that job because my family needed the money. It also turned out to be a valuable experience as well. At the same time, I’m very glad to be back in the lab now—and happy that I was able to do research over the last summer.

Yes, I remember that you were awarded the Chhabra fellowship last summer to support your research.

To me, the summer funding was super important because it allowed me to focus my time on the research and not be so much worried about buying my food or groceries and being able to drive out to Stony brook. It really allowed me to be focused on the research itself. Without that funding, it would have been very hard for me to have gotten the same experience.

Are you still involved with contact tracing?

I stopped doing that in May. But I have since found another job as a scribe and I'm really learning so much in understanding how a clinic works. It’s been a great experience too.

How have your research mentors helped you along the way?

The first grad student I worked with was Maria Gacha Garay, and she was awesome. She basically showed me how to do everything, starting with how to use a pipette—and other basic lab skills. I spent that first summer when I was in Explorations learning how the lab worked, how zebrafish work and I owe so much gratitude to her, because she showed me the ropes. Now I’m working with Samantha Stettnisch, another PhD student, and she's awesome as well. She helps me organize my plans in the lab. And Professor Ben Martin--I can't even put into words how awesome he is. He's so nice and caring, and he really understands what it's like for an undergrad to be in a lab. Really, everyone in the lab is super-friendly and it's just a great atmosphere. I'm very grateful to have picked this lab.

It's a great community. We have lab parties where Ben would invite us to his house for barbecues, we've gone to the beach together... I think the reason why I made the decision to join the lab had a lot to do with the impression that Ben gave off. He just seemed like a good mentor to work with, so that was a big part of my choice.

What advice would you give about research?

I would say if you can start doing research early on, that’s great. But I also know a lot of people who started doing research at later stages of their lives and it worked out too. So don’t feel like you have to rush. Take your time and pick a lab that seems interesting to you. Try to find a mentor that you will like working with.

You want to make a careful decision, because this is hopefully not a one semester thing. If it works, you want to try to be able to stay in that lab for as long as you can.

What is the most challenging part about doing research?

A lot of the times, at least for me this past year, things didn't work out. I kept having to try to do experiments repeatedly. And it can get a bit frustrating or disappointing or discouraging at times. But Dr. Martin, and Sam, my mentors, constantly reassure me that this is basically what research is. It’s a lot of trial and error. Things basically don't usually work out the first time, and you shouldn’t expect it to. You want to figure out what's going wrong and that process kind of helps you understand how research works. You understand what does and doesn't work, and then that helps you to perfect certain techniques-- so it's a valuable process, even if you sometimes get frustrated.

My mentor Sam reminds me to remember the larger picture of what we're trying to do–which helps me to keep being motivated, and that hopefully it'll work out on the end. 

Any other advice? 

I do recommend doing summer research, if possible.  Basically, the reason why summer research is helpful is that you're not distracted by school. You can really get to know what a day in the life of like someone who's in a research lab looks like; and it gets you fully exposed and immersed and prepared. If you're only doing research during the semester, it can be hard to really understand what research is.

Did you any previous research experiences in high school or any contact with Stony Brook prior to coming to campus—that summer before freshman year?

No, the CSTEP program where we did a group project was really my first exposure, and it motivated me and had an influence. Even though it wasn’t laboratory research, they kind of taught us how to make a poster, how to get involved. And it really kicked off my undergraduate experiences. …Without CSTEP, I probably wouldn't even be in research honestly. 

Sometimes those early experiences can have a big impact. 

I also learned a lot from our Explorations in STEM workshops, the summer after freshman year. I remember one time when we were working on our posters for the summer symposium that a few professors came in, including my physics professor, Dr. Hemmick.  I really liked that day a lot and it was good to get feedback from people outside your field, because one important thing I learned from that program was about science communication: when you talk to your audience, you always have to keep in mind whom you're talking to….and not you need to know out to explain your work to people outside your field.  I also really liked how it was like a small community of students who were first getting into lab and research.

Anything else you’d like to add about your research experiences? 

I would say, if you're considering doing research, just try it out! You might regret not doing it. That's why I picked Stony Brook. I always tell people, the price for what you're getting here is insane. I was able to get this awesome research experience, which has been super valuable to me, and to have great mentors. So, if you're thinking about it, just do it! Go for it!