Researcher of the Month
Major: Chemistry (concentration in Biological Chemistry)
Research Mentor: Dr. Elizabeth Boon, Department of Chemistry
“Yes, I didn't think that you would end up doing all these steps and then get a completely different result than what you anticipated…Or do all this work for several months, and find that nothing works. Or you do several experiments for a few weeks, and everything works! It's very unpredictable in that sense, and I did not expect that at all when I started doing research. I really expected it to be “step A, step B leads to step C, but that's actually not at all what it is…” – Simran Multani, Class of 23
Simran Multani is an aspiring physician who will graduate this December with an honors degree in Chemistry. For the past two years, she has been working under the mentorship of Dr. Elizabeth Boon to investigate the role NahK and NosP on virulence factors in Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Her research was supported in summer 2022 by the inaugural Frances Velay Fellowship program; and in summer 2023 by the inaugural SOAR program funded by the Chancellor’s Summer Research Excellence Fund which expands opportunities for undergraduates with financial need and/or first-generation college students.
Simran was a recipient of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (C-STEP) Poster Competition Award for Natural Sciences in April 2023; and received the Outstanding Chemical Research Award for her presentation of her chemistry honors thesis (spring 2023) on “Characterizing Kinase Interactions Essential for Biofilm Regulation in Pseudomonas aeruginosa.” Recently, Simran had the opportunity to present her research in the Boon Lab at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, with support from the Stony Brook SUPREMES program. She will also be presenting at Chemistry Research Day (December 1, 2023). Simran has also participated in the New York State Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program Mini-Course at Brookhaven National Laboratory (January 2023) where she gained hands-on experience working at the Synchrotron Light Source and other research facilities.
Asked about the value of participating in summer undergraduate research programs, Simran reflects: “…the summer programs were when I really got a chance to learn more about the techniques in the lab and to really understand the project. During the semester, … you're always running going back to classes, or trying to finish an assignment … I think by having those summer experiences that I was able to understand my project more deeply.”
On campus, Simran served as a Teaching Assistant for General and Organic Chemistry I, as a Resident Assistant, and as a residential tutor for the Academic Success Tutoring Center. She is the current Treasurer for SB English Pals which works to improve English speaking and writing skills; is an Event Coordinator for the American Medical Women’s Association; and is a member of the Dean’s Student Advisory Council. She is also active with the Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights. Simran plans to plans to apply to Medical School (M.D.) programs in the near future.
Simran is a first-generation college student who grew up on the island of Antigua
and Barbuda and as a high school junior received the Caribbean Secondary Education
Certificate (CSEC) for Most Outstanding Female Student (2018) on the island. Below
are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
*See also: Simran Multan's Velay Video
Karen:What is your research about?
Simran: I work in the Boon group, where I specifically focus on studying a bacteria known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a Gram-negative bacterium known to cause infections in humans in the blood and lungs. The Boon group works on understanding NosP, the novel nitric oxide-sensing protein. NosP is a heme-based protein that acts as a sensor for nitric oxide, which is a small molecule that can signal biofilm detachment, otherwise known as biofilm dispersal. The specific pathway and signaling mechanism for how nitric oxide signals biofilm dispersal are not fully understood. What we do know about the pathway is that when NosP senses nitric oxide, it functions by inhibiting its associated kinase, NahK. This inhibition somehow leads to biofilm dispersal. The goal of my project was to understand what NahK does in the bacteria and how that affects biofilm formation.
Essentially, when bacteria are in the biofilm state, they are more resistant to antibiotics, and generally to our immune system, so they're able to evade our immune response. However, when they're in this planktonic state without the biofilm, it's much easier to treat them with drugs, and for our immune system to fight off infections. So it's really important to understand that difference between the two states, and how they switch between one state to the next. And that's one of the major things that I was really focused on in my research -- specifically studying how NahK and NosP affect that process.
How did you initially find out about the Boon lab?
When I was searching for different labs, I knew that I wanted to do something in the biological chemistry area, because that's what I was most interested in. I started off by looking through the Chemistry website and narrowed down my search to three labs. I emailed all 3 of them, and when Dr. Boon invited me to come and talk with her, she also invited the Phd Student, Alicia, that I work with now, to meet with me. I was able to learn more about how the lab runs. I also got to attend the group meetings, and was able to learn more about what they study. And that's when I said to myself, “Yes, this is what I want to do!”
When you started in the lab, did you have any prior experience or significant laboratory skills?
I had read some of the papers, but I really had no practical experience when I first joined the lab. I was very grateful that they were so patient with me because I didn't know a lot of the biology laboratory techniques. I had to learn how to do PCR, and how to do protein purification… all of those things that would later help me in my research and in other classes.
What value has your involvement in research added to your undergraduate education?
I think doing research has taught me how to think more critically. In your classes, you learn a specific topic, and then you're tested on it. And most times, you're not challenged to go beyond, to think about what to do if this doesn't work in real life; or how can you improve upon something that already exists. You don't really learn that in a classroom setting. So having some lab experiments fail, seeing things not working in real life in the lab that were theoretically supposed to work --I think that's something that's very eye opening. Prior to doing research, I always just took what the professor said for face value, or whatever the textbook said for face value. But after being in the lab and realizing that some of these things don't work the way you want them to in real life gave me a new perspective. It really helped me to gain a deeper level of understanding rather than just the surface level memorization of facts or specific concepts that a professor would have taught in the class. And I will take that with me beyond Stony Brook.
Did your level of confidence grow with the time that you spent in the lab?
Yes. By the time I took my biology labs, I already knew how to use the machines that we use in the biology labs. I already knew how to pipette. I already knew how to do PCR. I already knew what a plasmid was. I had a much higher level of confidence, and I was even able to help other classmates who were seeing some of these things for the first time in some of those classes.
What do you enjoy most about doing research being in the lab?
I like performing the experiments, and getting my hands dirty, honestly. In my other classes, other than my chemistry labs, you’re just sitting in a chair, and you're stagnant for the entire time listening to someone lecture to you. But I really like the hands-on aspect of working in the lab, specifically the fact that I get to see colors change, I get to see bacteria grow. I get to see them die…. …things like that. It's real life.
Is there anything that has surprised you while doing research?
Yes, I didn't think that you would end up doing all these steps and then get a completely different result than what you anticipated…Or do all this work for several months and find that nothing works. Or you do several experiments for a few weeks, and everything works! It's very unpredictable in that sense, and I did not expect that at all when I started doing research. I really expected it to be “step A, step B leads to step C, but that's actually not at all what it is.
I know you participated in some summer programs. How valuable was it for you to have those summer experiences?
I think the summer programs were when I really got a chance to learn more about the techniques in the lab and to really understand the project. During the semester… you're always running going back to classes, or trying to finish an assignment and things of that nature. So you don't really have the time during the semester to sit down and really dissect all that you're doing and understand all of the experiments, and understand what all of the results mean and signify. I think by having those summer experiences that I was able to understand my project more deeply, and I was also able to dedicate this set time every single day just to my experiments, to my project. And I think that's when I got like majority of my data, and I was able to fully, say that. “Okay, yes, I understand what a biofilm is. I understand how PCR works” and having that foundation from the summer usually led to my fall and spring semesters being more productive too, because I already had all this background knowledge. I already really understood the project. At this point, it was just a matter of just doing the experiments and getting the data.
I know some of the summer programs require you to present at the end of the summer, and you've also had some additional experiences. Can you tell me what you’ve learned from those experiences?
Last summer, summer 2022, was the first time I ever presented a poster. And I was nervous at the time because I didn't know what to expect, and I didn't know if everyone would be laughing at me, or if I would explain everything correctly. But it was a really good experience, because it gave me a second chance to evaluate what I understood from the project. It's one thing to understand your project to yourself and in your mind, but when you have to explain it to someone else, so that they can also understand it-- someone who may not have the same background in that topic-- it's an entirely different sphere. Having that experience really allowed me to convey to other people what my project was about, and the relevance: how important studying infectious diseases is, specifically bacterial research. I really enjoyed that experience. And after I presented at that summer poster symposium, I went on to present at several other conferences including one conference where I won an award. Without a shadow of doubt, I know that I would not have gotten that award if I didn't have those previous experiences presenting where I learned to feel more comfortable speaking to people about my research and had that confidence to express my project. I'm extremely grateful for having had those opportunities.
Both in the Velay program and SOAR, workshops were a part of the summer program experience. What for you was most valuable about the summer programming?
Two programs really stick out to me. The first was the networking event that was offered by Dr. Savoca and the Career Center in summer 2022. We had to go around the room and find somebody new, and just strike up a conversation with them. I got to get out of my comfort zone of talking to people that I already knew. And just speaking to somebody completely new, I was able to learn about them and just talk to them …to care about their research, what they had going on for the summer. And I really enjoyed that because I think that is one of the biggest aspects of being a scientist: being able to network with other people and to talk about your research. You need to be able to express and to explain the importance and the significance of your research. Having that experience really paved the way for me to do a lot of the other things that I did after that summer. I really enjoyed that event.
I also enjoyed the time management workshop that one of the physics professors, Dr. Navid Vafaei-Najafabadi, gave. I learned a lot of techniques for studying and time management. And I employed some of them this summer, specifically the 90-minute time blocks that he mentioned. I vividly remember him saying that you really only have three or four 90- minute blocks in a day that you can dedicate to serious thinking during your day, and that was something that really stood out to me, because I feel like as someone who tries to jam every single thing in their day with no breaks, it really made me do some self-questioning, because I really had to think about what was on my priority list, and what was most important to me at the time, and how I should best manage my time. I don't think anybody else has ever told me that I shouldn't do everything!
How have your lab mentors helped you in your educational and professional journey?
I am very grateful for Alicia and Dr. Boon, they have both really helped me a lot—not just as a student, but also as an individual throughout my time at SBU. I've applied for numerous internships and programs and Alicia and Dr. Boon have always been there to give me advice, and to help me navigate through any application process that I was going through. If I was taking a difficult course and had questions about something, Alicia was always willing to take the time to go on the chalkboard and draw the whole thing out for me to see visually, because I am a visual learner. I really appreciated their help throughout.
What advice about undergraduate research do you have for other students?
I think that generally research offers something for everyone. There are so many different avenues of research…. wet lab research, dry lab research, … there are so many different paths. I genuinely believe that everyone can be involved in research. And I think it's important to just test the water. You may not like something that you're doing, but at least, having tried that experience, I think it's better than having not tried it at all.
My biggest advice, though, would be to pursue research that you are passionate about, and to do something that you know really gives you purpose, because at the end of the day your time should be spent doing something that you really enjoy, and something that you really care about, and you think has an impact on the world.