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My Stem Story By Lianna Friedman

I began my science career at the age of eight when I discovered a circuit kit in the basement of my grandparent’s house. I took the circuit kit home and would play with it for hours trying to put together transistor radios to play music. Since then, I found myself taking special interest in my science classes such as chemistry and biology.  I have also been one to question my surroundings and then take the initiative to find the answers and explore those questions. My curious nature ultimately brought me into science research.

I began carrying out research when I signed up for my school’s research program freshman year of high school. I had an amazing teacher who taught me what science research was all about and how any curiosity can be developed into a project. Each year in the class I worked on a different project and continued to learn more and improve upon my research techniques.. My research in school has been incredibly varied with projects about the effect of swearing in politics to the effect of the pH of food on the survival rate and fitness of fruit flies through many generations.

I was looking for a lab to work in to expand my scientific knowledge, obtain experience working with a mentor, learn new lab techniques, and gain exposure to a field I have not yet explored. My passion for research brought me to the Montclare lab where I am researching hydrogels. Hydrogels are linked polymer networks that can absorb water. Hydrogels are typically used in applications such as agriculture, contact lenses, diapers, cosmetics, personal care, and drug delivery. I enrolled in the NYU GSTEM program that gave me the opportunity to take my scientific inquiry and passion to the Montclare lab. I took special interest in the NYU GSTEM program due to the fact that I would not only be getting this incredible lab experience but I would also be surrounded by other girls my age who share the same dedication to science as I do.

I was chosen as one of 40 applicants from young women scientists around the country to participate in the GSTEM program. The program allowed me to gain hands-on lab experience for five weeks in addition to field trips every Friday with the rest of the group. On the field trips, experienced different areas of STEM by visiting places such as Google Headquarters and the American Museum of Natural History. Additionally, women in STEM came to share their experiences in the field and gave advice to us budding scientists. The goal of the program was to allow young women with an interest in STEM to gain a more serious research experience while also creating an environment of girls who not only share the same passion for science but also support each other in their scientific endeavors. I think the program was highly successful in achieving this goal as I am walking away with a completed research project, an immense about of new knowledge I learned from my experience, and with 39  new friends as well.

At the start of the program, I was first given an index card with the name of the project I would be working on. It stated “protein engineered biomaterials” and I had no idea what to expect. I had never previously been exposed to this kind of lab experience and field of science. I was excited but nervous. I have learned now that the complex and confusing title I received on my index card meant that I would be producing a hydrogel by using proteins as the underlying material.

I can say confidently that my lab experience has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. It’s incredible to me how much I have learned a tremendous amount in just the few weeks that I have been here. My mentor, Yao Wang, has been extremely supportive and helpful throughout the research process, making sure that as I do all steps required in the research, that I understand why I’m doing it, and the mechanisms behind the steps. She has helped me to complete my project, which is tuning protein engineered hydrogels using metal ions, Having Professor Montclare check on our progress was also very helpful for me to organize and practice presenting the project. The project itself was fascinating as I got to see the things I’ve learned from school come together and take on real applications. Additionally, it was interesting to see that I can make something on such a small scale, produce something from proteins as the underlying material and that it can take on applications to better the world. I am delighted that I was able to be a small part of what the lab is working on.

In the fall, I will start senior year of high school and begin applying to colleges. In college I am looking to achieve a degree in Engineering and further my scientific knowledge. I am mostly interested in pursuing either materials science or biomedical engineering. For most of my life, I thought I was going to be on the pre-med track in college but this experience helped me to realize that I am more interested in pursuing engineering.

-Lianna Friedman

My Typical Day as a Scientist By Kamia Punia

My day begins with a quick look at my calendar, responding to emails, getting my 6-year-old daughter ready for her school, and family breakfast. My commute to the lab consists of a half hour Staten Island ferry ride to Manhattan that includes beautiful views of the Statue of Liberty and the East river. This also gives me time to reflect on my ongoing research work, and catch up with news..

My lab activity begins with planning the experimental studies of the day with my collaborators and mentees, and following up on the ongoing lab studies after putting on my favorite safety goggles and “fancy bioengineer” lab coat to kick-start the activities of the day.

My major research focus is creating protein engineered materials or “biomaterials” to serve as carrier for drugs to be delivered to treat diseases.  In one of the morning lab sessions, one of my team members and I were imaging the biomaterials using a microscope to explore its ability to bind drugs. We surprisingly observed a dramatic release of drug while illuminating the protein with white light. While we initially found this observation confusing, we later concluded that visible light can be used to trigger the release of our drug from the biomaterial. It has opened up a new avenue in our research biomaterials with the ability to respond to light.

 

I also like to read recent publications in a couple of leading bioengineering journals, preferably during morning hours to stimulate the thought process and bring in ideas for my own research. As science can be exhilarating and a number of times surprising, data analysis and rationale-based experimental approach is the key to understanding bioengineered proteins. This involves close collaboration and engaging in scientific discussion with my principal investigator, team members, and collaborators. I love the highly collaborative research environment; it gives me the opportunity to work and learn from my fellow researchers with diverse scientific backgrounds. I also enjoy teaching and working every day with my highly motivated team of high school, undergraduate and graduate students.  Being surrounded everyday with groundbreaking science and passion to develop new solutions is what drives me as a bioengineering researcher.

 

Along with the lab research work, I usually find some time to communicate and network with my colleagues that keep me informed on the exciting research being done by my peers, which can help me provide new perspective to my own research. In one particular instance, I was facing an analytical challenge for several weeks that had stymied my progress. Even after experimenting with many different technical approaches, I kept facing the same issue and each failing attempt led to an increased level of frustration. I discussed the problem with lab members during a coffee break, and one of the colleagues, who interestingly had faced a similar research obstacle, shared an alternate analytical approach that amazingly solved the challenge I was facing. While I found this incident to be serendipitous, this illustrates the power of scientific network and frequent communications with our peers in order to push science forward.

 

 

Before wrapping up for the day, I discuss with my team members to plan future experiments, reserve shared instruments and prepare for the experiments to be performed on the following day. I do a final check to make sure that all the instruments are properly shut down and various samples and chemicals are stored properly. Finally, I wind-down my exciting day in the lab by cleaning my work bench and head home to spend time with my daughter and husband.

 

Kamia Punia

I’d love to hear about a day in the life of YOU! Tweet me at @kamia_punia

Brick Wall of Science By Bonnie Lin

If you are coming here to look for answers on why to enter the world of science, then I am afraid this will disappoint you.

The truth is, as a rising junior pursuing a bachelor degree in biomolecular science, I don’t have a definite answer for you either.

As if being a first-generation college student is not hard enough, I am a woman in an engineering school. Now, I am not talking about the struggle of how women are being outnumbered by men in the field of STEM because I can see this slowly changing around me. I am talking about being a woman pursuing a STEM degree in my family. My sister, who is 10 years older than me and the first one to attend college, pursued a business degree like many of my other female cousins. Growing up, I have always looked up to my sister, and often followed her examples. Entering high school, I had my future all planned out. I decided to major in accounting when I applied to college. Why? The answer is quite simple: It is easy to find a job and make decent money; it was a common major for women to pursue; and I had always been pretty good at math (at least in high school). Having planned everything out, I shocked not only my parents but myself as well when I told them I wanted to pursue biomolecular science. When they asked me why, I couldn’t come up with an answer. Their doubt and uncertainty in my decision added on to my uncertainty of whether or not I chose the right path.

Two years into college, I still can not tell you for sure if science is the best field for me to pursue. But I can tell you for sure that I do not regret my decision. Attending so many lectures and talks from great professors whose research have astonishing results,  opened new doors to what science can lead to and can help achieve. Yes, there can be failed experiments, and it may be years and years of frustration before achieving a desired result or breakthrough. Maybe it is this unpredictability that draws me towards science. How great would one feel when the many failed experiments and long hours in the lab finally lead to something?

Maybe it is this feeling of pride that I am looking forward to. This surge of pride when suddenly all my years of challenges and struggle paved the way towards discoveries that people would appreciate. At the end of many talks, I kept thinking to myself, how amazing it would be to actually be the one standing on the stage to talk about my achievements and the chance to inspire others.

Although I have such aspirations, when I look around me to see what my peers have accomplished, I feel I still have a long way to go. I don’t have a 4.0 GPA; I am not the brightest of my class; and I have never been exposed to research (until the Summer Research Program that offered me an opportunity to gain insight in research through Professor Jin Montclare’s Lab) and I have absolutely no idea where to start. It was then that I came across Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” where one of his many lessons still lingered in my head. “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something”. I have a brick wall in front of me right now. My brick wall is the sense of uncertainty and doubt I have in myself. While it may appear challenging right now, I know that one day I will be able to break through and prove to myself how badly I have wanted it all along.

If there is only one thing I want you to get out from this blog, it is that sometimes it is okay to be unsure and have questions on what you are passionate about and what you really want to do. This just adds on to the excitement and appreciation when you finally find out what you want to do. My ultimate request to you: Don’t get intimidated by how hard or how impossible something might be, maybe years later you would be on the stage with an audience applauding at your achievements. Instead of pursuing a career that may seem the easy way out, chase after a career you imagine you would be happy in, and most importantly, the career you do not regret even if it intimidates you at this moment.

This blog is mostly my effort to remind myself that I still have my brick wall to break and answers to seek. Is science what I really badly want? Maybe you could ask me 10 years later and see whether I still have this brick wall in front of me.

_Bonnie Lin (@BonnieL17279208)

 

Works Cited:

Kabakou, Maksim. Science Concept: Painted Red Flask icon on Black Brick wall background

with Hand Drawn Science Icons” Issue ID 112170700.

https://www.123rf.com/photo_112170700_science-concept-painted-red-flask-icon-on-black-brick

-wall-background-with-hand-drawn-science-icons.html

Pausch, Randy, and Jeffrey Zaslow. The Last Lecture.Hachette Books, 2018

Are GMOs that scary? by Jacob Kronenberg

Jacob Kronenberg kayaking with his mom, Heidi.

           Working with genetic engineering means I have to field a lot of questions when I’m home for the holidays. My health-conscious mother always makes sure to buy organic, free-range, “chemical-free” products, so when food labeled GMO-free started popping up, she made sure to get that too. In the produce section at Whole Foods I’d hear, “Jake, can you believe what those scientists do, with all this unnatural, genetically-modified Frankenstein crap they’re trying to feed us? When I was little, we just had regular strawberries and regular corn, none of these humongous GMO plants. Not to mention how Big Pharma is making mutant drugs to put in people’s bodies… C’mon, you’re a scientist now, what do you think of it?”

           This is a loaded question. All scientists are ambassadors to the community, and it’s important to dispel myths about our fields, especially when it comes to widely misunderstood topics. From zombie movies to GATTACA, genetic engineering has always been painted in a dystopic light. It also doesn’t help that agricultural use of GMOs doesn’t exactly have a clean record. Chemical-resistant crops have encouraged the use of harmful pesticides, most famously Roundup, and many large ag-tech companies have aggressive policies gatekeeping access to their designer crops. With information and misinformation obscuring knowledge of science, it can be tough to know what to say.

           I tell people who ask my thoughts on genetic engineering not to write off a whole discipline because of a few groups. GMO crops like golden rice can improve access to nutrition in developing countries and don’t pose much harm as long as they’re well managed. Besides, genetic engineering has always been about more than just crops. My favorite example of genetic engineering to bring up is the breakthrough discovery that allowed insulin to be mass-produced in bioreactors. Insulin is a life-saving drug for millions of people and it’s thanks to a team of genetic engineers who spliced insulin genes into E. coli and S. cerevisiae that it’s so accessible. I hear people criticize bioengineering as being unnatural and unhuman, but most of our research focuses on treating diseases and improving people’s quality of life. What’s more human than that?

           It’s important for scientists as well as the public to remember that every scientific discovery can have a good side and a bad side. While a lot of non-scientists are overly pessimistic about unfamiliar advances in genetic engineering, some scientists are overly optimistic. We tend to think that science is just the pursuit of truth, but it’s not that simple.. Along with reminding others that science is a force for good, we need to remind ourselves to think ethically so we can keep it that way. It’s important to reflect at every step of the way about how advances can affect the world at large. I think we all have a lot to learn from conversations like these.

 

—Jacob Kronenberg

@jbkronenberg

My First Weeks of Summer Research By Matthew Moulton

Matthew M

My name is Matthew Moulton and I am a rising senior attending The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science Art. After I graduate I plan to work as a chemical engineer. I applied to the NYU MRSEC REU program to gain experience and to explore a different scientific field. As part of the program, I am working as a research assistant in the Montclare Lab located in New York University Tandon School of Engineering.

This laboratory focuses on protein engineering. Essentially, the researchers create proteins with a desired outcome. For the summer, I am working with the protein Q. Q’s structure is best described as a bundle of coils. Previous research has shown that at high enough concentrations Q forms fibers that cross-link to form a hydrogel. A hydrogel is a network of polymer chains that are hydrophilic. Hydrogels are used for drug delivery and tissue engineering but most hydrogels are made from synthetic polymers. Hydrogels made from proteins like Q are more bio compatible. My job is to determine the range of conditions that this gel can form under.

q Protein

Q Protein

In order to produce Q ,researchers use bacteria as the factories to produce protein. Here are the steps:

  • The first step in this process is transformation. In this step a DNA (also known as plasmid, shown below in red) that encodes the Q protein is inserted into the bacteria host or factory. For our project we use a heat shock protocol. When the bacteria are exposed to high temperatures, their cell walls become permeable, allowing for the plasmid to get into the cell. The bacteria are transferred onto plates with nutrients that contain antibiotics. Normally, antibiotics kill bacteria. The bacteria that we use are resistant to antibiotics because the DNA plasmid contains a gene or set of genes that can breakdown antibiotics. This ensures that only cells containing the DNA grow on the plate.
  • The plates are left to incubate overnight to allow the bacteria to reproduce. The following day colonies, which are small clusters of cells, are chosen and grown in a solution containing antibiotics. This solution, called media, contains the nutrients necessary for bacteria to survive and reproduce.
  • This bacterial solution is used to initiate a larger volume of media and allowed to incubate until there are a sufficient amount of duplicated cells. Afterwards, a chemical, isopropyl β-D-1-thiogalactopyranoside, is added to the mixture to trigger the production of the Q protein. Isopropyl β-D-1-thiogalactopyranoside binds to a repressor protein (in pink below) on the DNA(shown below at the operator) and changes the repressor so it can no longer bind to the DNA. Once it comes off, another protein RNA polymerase (in purple) can take its place and begin interpreting the DNA so it can produce protein.

Gene Repressor

 

While this is just the first step of my experiments, I have learned a lot. I already knew how to perform transformation from a class I took at my university but I never learned how to produce protein. I was surprised at how many steps were involved. Protein production or expression is a process that takes several hours because once isopropyl β-D-1-thiogalactopyranoside is added to the solution, one has to wait for three hours for the cells to multiply.

colony

For me, the most difficult part of protein expression was picking colonies. To pick a colony, a pipette tip is used to gently scrape a colony from the plate and place it in a tube. The first time I tried to pick a colony, I had trouble finding one because the colonies were so small so I accidentally poked through the plate!

I am still new and I make mistakes but I look forward to learning more about protein engineering. Do you have any advice to share as I learn more about protein engineers?

Let’s chat on Twitter:@matthewantonym
Matthew Anthony Moulton