This past month, one of our cabinet members, Benjamin Kerner, had the opportunity to sit down with Ioana Soaita, a senior student researcher in the Biomedical Engineering Department under Dr. Rubenstein.
B: So now how did you get into research and what inspired you to do so?
I: So I was really interested in doing diabetes work and was looking into either learning more about diabetes itself or its related pathologies, and Dr. Rubenstein had this project that I just found on the BME website about the connection between diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. And I was really interested in pursuing it so I basically just met with him and then started from there.
B: That’s really cool! So you just found it on the website?
I: Yeah it’s amazing what you can find.
B: So were you thinking about doing any other research lab before that or going into something else and it kind of just hit you or…?
I: With diabetes?
I: So the reason I really wanted to get into it was that my mom has diabetes, and I just… the disease is very real to me. And I know there’s a lot more left for us to learn so I was really interested in just––just pursuing almost any type of avenue related to it.
B: So how long have you been in this lab?
I: I started the summer after my freshman year, so almost three years now.
B: All right, so do you have any poster or publications that kind of thing?
I: Yeah I just went to my first conference in 2015…I think it was the spring of my sophomore year. It was a conference called Experimental Biology. It’s essentially just a national biology conference and that was a lot of fun. It was my first poster presentation, and I was among the few undergrads there. I was surrounded by professionals, and it was very eye opening to see all of the work that’s being done from various fields and perspective. And then I went to the same one the next year in 2016. I also presented at the URECA symposium last spring, and I went to BMES, which is the Biomedical Engineering Society Conference this past fall; also, this summer I’m going to go to this symposium called the Global Grand Challenges Summit. It’s meant to bring awareness about the challenges we face areas such as health and the environment, and I’ll be presenting in the health section. The department nominated me to go and represent Stony Brook, so in addition to being a great learning experience it’s also a huge honor. And finally, a really big moment was when we had a paper officially get published this January. It’s been under review and went through revisions and all that for a full year. It took a year but it’s okay, because we got it in. Oh my god, the review process was ridiculous! So that was really exciting to get the work out there.
B: Wow, you’ve done a lot. So what does your lab specifically study?
I: So, the lab is a cardiovascular disease lab, and it takes multiple perspectives. My interest was the whole diabetes part but there’s other avenues to pursue. I would say the overarching theme is understanding how platelets contribute to cardiovascular diseases. Do platelets directly contribute to the cardiovascular disease pathology? How do they interact with nearby cells in the body, like those lining the blood vessels? How, on the molecular level, does this interaction change under high blood pressure or diabetic conditions? There’s so, so many unanswered questions in this realm. But basically, what we’re finding is that having high blood sugar levels actually changes the morphology of the platelet surface, and it’s very interesting to try to understand the sequence of events that leads to this change. But before that, we’re trying to see if we can confirm this observation under more physiological conditions versus just under static conditions in a test tube. And finally, there’s also a tissue engineering focus side of the lab that’s basically trying to figure out how to mimic the vasculature with various scaffolds and try to eventually, implant it and hopefully down the road help with clinical problems such as wound healing. And I’ll stop rambling now.
B: No it’s totally alright, the longer the better! So… what’s your favorite part about doing research?
I: Well, two things, I feel like it’s a lot of fun to troubleshoot. I know I mean it’s the bane of everyone’s existence and I’m going to sound like a broken record here—but when it works, it’s worth it. It’s that moment of okay, so some of my work went into something, and I can now sit down and see where I can go from here. And I mean research complicated for a reason…at least in my case you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in the body under disease conditions without being anywhere near a patient with the disease…that’s kind of nuts, and it’s not supposed to be easy. And then the second, and arguably more rewarding thing to me would be stepping back and seeing where this fits into the bigger context. Like how does your work make any difference in what’s already known. I think that’s it’s motivating to finally figure out where the puzzle piece fits, and say okay I can have a little bit of an effect right here. I think that drives me a lot.
B: I laughed before because you were right. Everyone says it’s the best time “When it works!”
I: Yeah, that’s just the reality. Nothing works and then the wind blows a certain way and it works.
B: So is there anything that is your favorite in your specific department that might not be somewhere else? Like in any other department?
I: Well I think, the department itself it is very research heavy and we have the possibility to pursue whatever we are interested in, but I would say specifically in the Rubenstein Lab, what was really special to me and stuck out was how much he cared about the students and the lab. And how much of an effort there was to make sure that you’re involved and that you care about the work and if you have any questions, he’s always very approachable, which I always thought was very special.
B: It’s not like that all the time.
I: Right. Not only is he approachable but also he lets you learn at your own pace. There’s no, you know, “Hurry! Where the data?!” So you feel supported and you’re allowed to find your footing and again I think that’s very important in research, because the process doesn’t just hit your overnight. So that made a big difference to me I think.
B: All right, so will research fit into your eventual career goal?
I: Yeah I’m actually trying to choose which PhD program I’m going to go to so the chance to work in a lab definitely, for me at least, changed my life because I realized I really want to go on and do it as a career. I think honestly getting involved in research is, even if you realize that you don’t like it, it’s just as important to try it out. But yes, for me, yes. I would ideally like to stay in academia, but I’m very open to just pursuing any type of research path in the future.
B: Sweet! So do you have any advice to other undergraduates who are trying to get into research or trying to get more out of their current research?
I: Well, not to sound like another broken record… but the best advice is to get involved in it. I do think it’s important, like I said, even if—maybe especially if—it helps someone figure out it’s not for them. The experience is very important because it’s very different than being in class. We come from high school where you’re in class most of the time, and then in undergrad it’s kind of more of the same thing, and you get used to a certain routine and set of expectations. But research isn’t so clear-cut and challenges you in a different way. Figuring out if you like that challenge or if you don’t can be very eye-opening both personally and professionally. So that would be my advice for people who are trying to get into research. Do your best to find a lab that fits you best. Pay particular attention to the students and the mentor and make sure you feel like you fit in well in the environment. For people trying to get more out of their current research, you know, I really don’t think research is something you’re just natively good at. Like I said, you’re trying to do something ridiculously hard. So I would take a step back and realize that what you’re doing is difficult for a reason…it’s what makes it so fascinating. And then, be patient. Read a lot. And don’t be scared to, to reach out and ask questions to anyone. Professors, lab mates, the lab across the hall, you never know who knows something. Or even you just trying to explain your problem to someone makes you think of something. Just constantly communicating I think is a huge, huge part of research…informal communication and of course through formal means. But just constantly being open to ideas and new approaches and not being afraid to admit that you’re stuck. And that’s my other ramble of an answer!