Blog Posts

Stepping Out Of My Comfort Zone and Into STEM

By Jay Kang

I think one of the major obstacles I face while pursuing an education in STEM is self-doubt, especially as an undergraduate working in the Montclare Lab and surrounded by many impressive colleagues. The people I work with have either achieved a PhD or plan to pursue a PhD in the future, and seeing them work hard in the lab is very inspiring, but also very daunting because it makes me think about what I will do after I graduate.

As a BS/MS student, I never considered pursuing a PhD, and instead just figured I would try to achieve a masters in biotechnology. Yet, what will I do after that? This thought haunts me every day because even though I think there is something greater I can do, I immediately shut that idea down and deem it irrational. Consequently, I feel stagnant. I can choose to follow one path, but then I ask myself, “Is this the right choice?”. This anxiety coupled with self-doubt just makes it harder for me to think there is something I can do.

[Above: Jay Kang mixing a protein sample in the concentration filter tube]

I do not want to be afraid of working hard in STEM anymore. I do not have any particular role models that inspired me to enter the STEM field, but I am inspired by few of my undergraduate colleagues, particularly the zealous ones, to be passionate about what I am studying today. When I asked a colleague why she would take several hard courses while participating in an extracurricular research team, she simply replied “because I enjoy the subject and the work”. I would have been scared to be in her position because it just seemed impossible. This precautionary attitude is also reflected when I hear about an interesting course, but when I refer to colleagues who warn me that the course is incredibly difficult and the professor is terrible, I do not consider taking the class and hold myself back once again.

I remember getting rejected when I first applied to Montclare lab. I tried to rationalize it to myself that I was still too young and inexperienced as a sophomore, but I was still very much disappointed in myself. The following year, I applied again for Summer of 2019 and I tried to mentally prepare myself to being rejected so it would hurt less, while hoping to be accepted. Within a  week, I was informed that I was accepted into working in the lab for the summer. I was both excited, and nervous

I am tired of having this mindset of self-doubt that always stops me from taking chances, but I cannot help it. What if things do not go as I hoped? What if I will regret taking this course? What if I am not capable enough to handle the work in the lab? What if I am not good enough to even think of pursuing a PhD?  If not, then what else can I do?! Although I do not want to exude arrogance, I do want to be more confident in myself. I always tried to take the safe or easy route, but I know I am just setting myself to be only stagnant in life. If I was good enough to be accepted by this lab, then perhaps I should have more faith in myself.

I do not want to always give up on myself anymore.  I want to become more passionate about working in STEM and not be afraid to work hard in it. Earning a PhD is not impossible, but it is definitely not a walk in the park. That is why I hope to think of an idea I am passionate about, and further my research on it. In fact, the work I currently enjoy doing in the Montclare Lab is utilizing M15 E. coli cells to create our self-engineered protein. The sequential work put into transforming, plating, and growing these cells feels much similar to gardening. For instance, after we transform our cells and plate them onto Tryptic Soy Agar plates to incubate overnight, I get excited to come in the next day to see proper cell growth. Considerable effort and time goes into growing these cells and purifying the protein, but it is worth it when we finally collect our protein and get to test its small molecule binding ability because our research focuses on creating a protein that can function as an efficient drug-delivery tool.

I have never imagined myself formally doing research that seeks to only advance science.  The reason is that I am more passionate about research that can have a positive impact on human health, environment, etc.  When I applied to the summer research program, I was not interested in most of the projects, except those of the Montclare Lab.  Reading the title “Self-Assembling Protein Biomaterials for Ocular Drug Delivery” excited me because I only read about proteins in the human body, but I never imagined actually manipulating them for an intended purpose! This research is the reason I was interested in applying to this lab because using biomacromolecules, rather than machines as an alternative form of medical treatment, was mind blowing to me. Through this opportunity, I wanted to take that first step into undergraduate research and just actually see what I am capable of doing, instead of always doubting myself. Rather than holding myself back from self-doubt, I believe it is more pragmatic to just build yourself up from the beginning.

- Let’s connect on Twitter @hjaykang

 

Two Parts Entwined

By Shanya Sam

STEM is rigorous. It forces me to use all parts of my brain, and I would eventually overload if it wasn’t for sports. I play basketball and soccer throughout the school year to de-stress. It’s an outlet for me that ensures my mental and physical health does not deteriorate. It provides me with a balanced mind and body because while STEM stimulates my mind, sports keep me active. The competitions and games have taught me to be more mindful by focusing on the immediate challenge rather than always stressing over the future and how to solve its problems.

The first ball I picked up was a basketball. I learned to play basketball in the third grade when my family and I moved to Tennessee. We were alone in a foreign place, so it was a way to connect with my older brother. Even today, it is something we bond over as we go to each other’s games and support one another. It slowly evolved into a necessity for me over the years.

Prior to moving, I was an antsy kid with an explosive temper. Basketball was my first outlet for all of the emotions coursing through me. It grounded me, helped me focus, and helped me learn discipline. These attributes I still carry throughout school life, and without them, I highly doubt I would be where I am today academically.

In my last year of junior high school, the girls basketball team was cut due to the lack of interested girls. I didn’t touch a basketball that entire year but instead signed up for every event and afterschool club to fill that void. I was buried under books, homework, and various commitments that I couldn’t juggle. There were days that I overbooked and had at least three events that I had to attend, some of which I did not even enjoy that much. I was lost and could not find my purpose, so I started from scratch and participated in everything to find it. In the process, I found STEM clubs that gave me reason to want to come to school again.

Freshman year, I rejoined the basketball team and learned to play soccer, and I grew to love it just as much as basketball. I play forward, so it’s me, a ball, and an open field. The large expanse of vibrant green turf constantly calls out to me, and there is no room to second guess or question once the ball is in front of me. The wind slaps against my face as I run wild, at full speed, until the ball reaches its final destination, at the back of the net. That feeling of exhilaration rushes through me, knowing points don’t come as easy in soccer as it does in basketball.

Although a fleeting victory, it reminds me that there are other aspects of life, so it would be unhealthy to solely stimulate just my mind or just my body. They are a unit that must work cohesively. As a perfectionist, I tend to throw myself into my commitments, and through experience I realized the danger in exclusively committing to one thing. It will have the ability to overpower me and make me hollow. I share myself between science and sports because STEM gives me purpose and long term goals to desire and achieve while basketball and soccer are sources of comfort from stress. To me, the mind is to the body as STEM is to sports, together they complete me.

-Shanya Sam, ARISE High School Student

My personal Journey into Science

By Appy Bhattacharya

When I was little, I was a very curious kid and I would ask everyone a whole lot of questions. Thankfully, the adults who were around me at home as well as at daycare never attempted to stifle my seemingly insatiable curiosity.

Rather, they appreciated this quality in me, and they enjoyed having discussions about the nature of the physical world with me. These inherent qualities made me naturally drawn toward the subject of scientific inquiry. However, the reason I got into research is a bit grimmer. My dad passed when I was 4-years-old due to food poisoning-related complications, at the hands of an incompetent medical doctor in India.

I was too young to even have a complete understanding of death itself. Eventually I was able to grasp the story behind his death and his poor health. However, it didn’t seem to settle with me. For years, I kept thinking how he didn’t have to die this way. It made me wonder what we could have done to save his life. Because of how his drastic passing affected me and my family, it also paved the course of my educational career at that time. I first wanted to be a doctor myself as I was starting to think about the lack of ethics in medicine in India. Eventually, as I went through my years of education and as I learned more about how research and medicine were connected, I had a major realization around the age of 16 or 17, just before it was time to finish high school and enter college. I decided that rather than being a professional responsible for applying technology at the bedside, I would rather be much more upstream of the system of the flow of knowledge.

 

I became interested in research as it allowed me the ability to add to scientific knowledge and to develop technology that will hopefully help improve the quality of lives of many people around the globe. That is what has motivated me to become the researcher  I am today and also to be where I want to go in the future. I want to wake up every day and go to work thinking that my work has meaning and one day, my work will add immense value to people’s lives. I want to wake up everyday thinking that I am part of a profession that will make it so that nobody loses a loved one to life conditions or diseases when science could easily save their lives and improve their quality of life significantly. This passion is what keeps me excited about science and the research profession.

 

What’s your why? Let’s talk about it on Twitter @appy_bee.

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