Researcher of the Month
Major: Biochemistry, Honors College, class of 2024
Research Mentor: Dr. Patrick Hearing, Department of Microbiology & Immunology
Christopher Jannotta is an Honors College senior with a deep sustained passion for research and medicine. He joined the research group of Dr. Patrick Hearing (Microbiology & Immunology) at the end of freshman year; was awarded URECA fellowships in summers 2022 and 2023 to support his research in the Hearing lab; and gained expertise in many molecular biology laboratory techniques including performing western blots, qPCR for viral replication assays, recombineering, cloning, and tagging viral DNA. This year, Christopher will be completing an honors senior thesis on: “Adenovirus protein VII interactions with host antiviral DNA detection and response pathways.”
What got Christopher initially interested in virology and pathology was a pivotal high school research experience at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), through which he conducted structural biology and antibiotics development research with Drs. Aleida Perez & Vivian Stojanoff using National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) facilities. In addition to publishing a protein structure there, Christopher has also acted as a student mentor to support aspiring high school student researchers through the Student Partnerships for Advanced Research and Knowledge (SPARK) program.
Reflecting on the different directions his research has taken, and the challenges that accompany any research project, Christopher reflects: “That's a big part of research. At the end of the day, it’s about pushing forward and overcoming challenges: facing failure and learning from it. That's what keeps me going... I understand that my project is a difficult one. It has a lot of complexities, and we often are navigating through uncharted territory. Despite that, what I've learned from it is more than what any single class can teach me.”
Christopher has presented his work at the URECA Celebration / Undergraduate Research symposium (May 2023) and looks forward to presenting posters next spring at the Honors College Symposium and the 2024 URECA Celebration. He is currently in the process of applying to medical school.
On campus, Christopher is active on the E-board for Sigma Beta Honor Society; and has served as a Teaching Assistant for Organic Chemistry I & II. He volunteers at the Emergency Department of St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson; and has volunteered at the Stony Brook Health Outreach and Medical Education Free Clinic through the Undergraduate Clinical Experience Program.
Christopher is also an accomplished musician (was a Percussionist in the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra) and enjoys tennis, pickleball, coding, and paintball. He is a graduate of Eastport South Manor Junior-Senior HS in Long Island. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: What is your research project about?
Christopher: At Hearing lab, we focus on understanding adenoviruses (Ad). My work examines the role that one of Ad’s components, core protein VII, has in protecting the viral DNA from host intracellular responses. Your cells have certain systems in place to detect and destroy foreign DNA, such as those from viruses. If you were to inject viral DNA into healthy cells, they would usually detect it and activate countermeasures to destroy it. However, adenoviruses have evolved a way around this. They are extremely successful pathogens, and can cause common colds, conjunctivitis, gastrointestinal problems, and more severe infections in the immunocompromised. And because of this, we are specifically interested in how these adenoviruses surpass the host immune response and cause these diseases. We believe that protein VII has an important role in that.
How did you initially get involved with the Hearing Lab?
My first research experience was at Brookhaven National Lab back in high school. I worked on antibiotics development with structural biologists Drs. Aleida Perez and Vivian Stojanoff. Once the pandemic hit, I was accepted into an internship working on COVID-19 Therapeutics Development with the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory. That research internship made me realize my love for studying pathology and advancing the medical field for emerging diseases.
Once I entered Stony Brook, I wanted to get involved in the research and I especially took interest in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Renaissance School of Medicine, because of my background working with microbial diseases. After reading and being fascinated by the research published by Hearing lab, I reached out to Dr. Patrick Hearing who invited me to sit down with him and talk about his work. And then in summer 2021, after finishing my COVID-19 internship, I became an undergraduate researcher at Hearing lab and have been working on my project ever since.
What has been the most surprising aspect of doing research?
When I first joined Hearing lab, it was a lot more hands-on than in my previous experiences. Something that quickly became clear was just how important communication and cooperation are in the lab. When I first started, there was so much information to learn from safety to theory to lab techniques. Working with so many reagents, sensitive (and expensive) equipment, and biohazardous materials means that there is little room for error. Dr. Hearing really helped me navigate through learning the ropes and has continued to support me so much throughout my time in the lab. The graduate students in the lab helped me a lot also. Having the kind of support system to help you learn was something I hadn’t really thought about prior to joining the lab.
I have also come to appreciate how our research is always evolving. There are new developments as our work progresses and the need to react to them. Initially, we were only studying intranuclear events- how proteins in the host cell nucleus may interact with viral DNA. But since then, we've also begun to investigate how Ad DNA might be detected before it's even inside the nucleus. As we begin to examine these processes further, it tends to only pose new questions with every answer we get.
What do you enjoy the most about doing research?
I really like connecting the work that I do to pathophysiology and clinical medicine -- how our knowledge can be used to help treat disease and provide patients with a better quality of life. I am aiming to become an infectious disease physician or pathologist. And so having this background and the skills to understand and interpret scientific data to solve problems is important to me. It’s one of the motivating forces that drives me to learn more and pursue that higher depth of understanding.
How do you handle situations when things don’t work, or when difficulties arise in doing lab work?
My research has never followed a straight path. When I joined the lab, I took up a project that was a continuation of many years of prior work. Previous members of the lab discovered that protein VII is required for Ad to escape the cell endosome- a sort of capsule needed to transport the virus safely to the nucleus. Because of this, it is not straightforward to study how the cell responds to Ad DNA when that protein is knocked out because the DNA does not even make it into the cytosol or nucleus. The virus becomes trapped and we cannot study its downstream roles. Circumventing this challenge and ‘rescuing’ the virus has become a major focus of my work .... There's a lot of research going into how to get small molecules and therapeutics into the host cell nucleus for applications such as cancer and gene therapy. But trying to get something as big as a virus into the nucleus artificially is very difficult. We've done an exhausting literature search and have tried a variety of methods. These tend to be very time-consuming and there are no guarantees that they will work.
But from my other experiences in academics, competitions, and playing an instrument, I know that nothing worth doing is easy. At the end of the day, it’s about pushing forward and overcoming challenges: facing failure and learning from it. That's what keeps me going I understand that my project is a difficult one. It has a lot of complexities, and we often have to navigate through uncharted territory. And despite that, what I've learned from it is more than what any single class can teach me.
Do you have any advice for other students about getting involved in research?
Absolutely. When I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for organic chemistry, many students would ask me about getting involved in research. The hardest part for many is sending those cold emails to professors to apply to their labs. I found that sharing my story gave students the confidence to do this. When it comes to applying to a lab and doing research, you want to look at the researcher’s particular area of expertise and publications. You want to be really sure that you're interested and willing to learn more about that type of work.
What are your future goals?
I applied to medical school this cycle with the hope of becoming an infectious disease physician or pathologist. I strongly believe that research is an integral part of medicine and important in refining a physician’s skills to be able to adapt to complex cases and evolving standards of care. As a physician, I would love to conduct research and continue using my skills to advance our understanding of the biomedical sciences.
How do you find time to be as involved as you are in research, while also doing so many other activities?
Time management is an absolute must. I refined these abilities in my later high school years, where I took rigorous AP courses while balancing multiple extracurriculars, such as my research at BNL and playing for the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra. I realized that I needed to remain disciplined if I wanted to be a part of all these things and still make room for my personal life. Planning out your day by using a planner and being able to shift your priorities when needed are all necessary. And as you do that more and more throughout the years, you're going to get better at it.
Was research a factor in your choosing to come to Stony Brook?
Yes, definitely! When I applied to Stony Brook, I knew I wanted to advance my ability in biomedical research. I had met plenty of Stony Brook researchers during my high school internships at BNL. So my awareness of the research opportunities here was a big part of my consideration to attend Stony Brook.
I also read a lot about the Honors college before applying. I looked at the resources and opportunities that the Honors College students had. And what I found most important about the Honors College were the other students there. Everybody's willing to help each other…When I was a freshman, I was able to connect with other students and I could talk to them about their experiences: how did you get involved in research? Or how did you manage your class schedule? How do you go about emailing professors? It's a very interactive environment and both the students and faculty make supporting each other a priority.
And here you are, in your senior year!
Yes, thinking back to freshman year, I remember the very first time I talked to Dr. Hearing. Going to meet him for the first time felt somewhat daunting. I didn’t know what to expect. But I quickly found that he’s extraordinarily patient and friendly, and was able to explain what he was researching in a way that made me understand what he was working on even though I had so much less knowledge at the time. Through my interactions with my various mentors, it’s clear that they are committed to helping you grow as an aspiring researcher. Without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.