Interviewer: Benjamin Kerner
Interviewed: Dan Monessa
B: The first question is really just for the record, so what is your name, major, and what is your department of research?
D: Sure, my name is Dan Monessa, I am a biochemistry major and the department of research I was in, was the department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology within Stony Brook Medicine.
B: Great, so what specific lab were you a part of?
D: I was part of the Lu Lab, which was involved in Pancreatic Cancer research.
B: Wow, so how did you get into research and what really inspired you to do so.
D: Right, so I am a pre-med student, so we’re told right when we start at Stony Brook that we have to do research. So, my first two years in my undergraduate career, I did not do any research because I was always afraid to reach out to these professors, because I was like, why would they ever want ME. You know, I was like, “If I email them, they’ll probably just reject me.” So I was just too afraid. And then after sophomore year, during my summer, I just started emailing a bunch of professors after looking them up in the faculty directory, their websites. There is a big list on every department page of professors and I just looked for things that interested me, like cancer research, and I read a little bit of their work and I emailed them. I got a couple of rejections, but eventually one professor was kind enough to take me into their lab.
B: That’s cool, not a lot of people admit they’re afraid or share that kind of perspective.
D: Oh, and also, I didn’t only want to do it because it was for pre-med requirements and to look good for med school, it was also… pretty much everything you learn in class had to come from somewhere and it has a process behind it. So, if you learn more about that process, it actually makes you appreciate more about what you’re learning and it’s easier to learn. It’s developing that research mindset and it helps tremendously in school and with life in general. So, it was also because of that.
B: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too, it helps with problem solving skills, making problems easier to think through.
D: Yeah, I mainly started research in the year that I was studying my MCAT and it was really cool to see things in my MCAT books, ‘like yeah Western Blot, cool,’ and then we actually get it in the lab and I feel as though I understand it. It’s knowledge on a deeper level.
B: So, did you contribute to any posters, publications, that kind of thing?
D: Yeah, unfortunately, I didn’t get that far, but hopefully in the future, not for this lab but I aspire… my next step in life is med school and I’m planning to do some research in med school so hopefully I get some publications or posters in the future. This why I recommend students start early here so they can get those things. I started too late.
B: That’s very true, I started my junior year myself and I completely agree. It takes initiative, you have no what you want and ask for it.
So, what does your lab specifically study?
D: Okay, so the main focus is on pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas, and pancreatic cancer, which is the deadliest form of cancer. If you’re diagnosed with pancreatic cancer you usually have three to six months to live, most people end up dying. Ninety something percent mortality rate, it’s insane. So, any progress that can be done on that would be really great. So specifically, there is this protein family called the KRAS family and it’s involved in a lot of regulations, especially in the pancreas and there is an old school of thought for pancreatic cancer, where they thought if this gene pathway was mutated, the KRAS family, then you would get pancreatic cancer. Period. But there is a new school of thought that says that the mutation isn’t enough, where the mutation, although it would have negative effects of course, other factors such as maybe a high fat diet would contribute to the pancreatic cancer. So that’s what my lab was trying to study. Essentially what they did was, they developed these transgenic mice, which to put it simply, is they breed mice that will have the mutations in the KRAS family or any other mutations in the genome. And, of course, they also have a control group, which is just regular healthy mice. Then they treat them with certain conditions that might promote pancreatic cancer and we then isolate the proteins from samples of the pancreas of the ones that develop the pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer to see what the main players in the progression of the disease are. That’s essentially it. Now, there’s huge gaps in knowledge of pancreatic cancer, KRAS, and this whole pathway, so this research lab among many others is trying to fill that gap. Although we’ve made a lot of progress with cancer and research in the human body in general in the past hundred years or so, there are still a lot that we don’t know. So, it’s a work in progress. Another thing that my research lab is trying to study is, when cancer starts to occur, the metabolism of those cancer cells actually changes so it benefits cancer over other cells. So, let’s say your metabolism works a certain way for your cells to live, cancer actually changes that to benefit itself. So, the lab is also trying to learn more about how that metabolism benefits cancer and the more we know about how that metabolism benefits them, the more likely we can develop a good treatment.
B: That’s really amazing, so what is your favorite part about doing research?
D: Right, so, my favorite part of doing research was the overlap of what I was learning in class, and from my MCATs, and actually seeing that in the laboratory. So, for example, I was learning about PCR, Western Blots, and transgenic mice, in my biochemistry courses and from my MCAT studies. And it’s one thing to read about it in a book and to say that, ‘Oh, people just do this out there and that’s how they get knowledge.’ It’s actually another thing to see it in person and actually help them with that process.
B: So, you kind of touched on it before but will research fit into your inevitable career goal?
D: Right, so I am planning to pursue research during med school, after that I don’t know, I can’t say for sure, but maybe one day. My main focus is on primary care, maybe surgery, so the clinical side of medicine, but if I find that I can improve it in the specified area of medicine that I will probably end up in, then I will probably end up doing research to better it.
B: Ah yes, so last question. You also touched on this actually, but do you have any advice for undergraduates looking to get into research or looking to get more out of their current research experience.
D: Yeah so, for the students who are don’t have a research position right now, just go for it. You literally have nothing to lose. The early you start out, the better and even if you are a junior, or maybe even a senior, there’s still hope because I started late, I started as a junior and it’s better to do it now than never. Just go for it. You really have nothing to lose. You can email a professor and they say no, then it’s really not the end of the world. You still don’t have a research position, you’ve lost nothing.
B: Yeah, it’s not like they’re going to hate you for it.
D: Exactly, as long as you are respectful. Just go for it. Ask a bunch of professors, it’s really just a numbers game. Even if you get a couple of rejections, don’t get discouraged. If you keep pushing, then you’ll get one eventually. Also, ask early, so don’t ask in like November if you want to start in that semester. If you want to start in the fall semester I would recommend you ask a couple weeks before the semester even starts. Yeah, just in general a couple weeks before the semester starts is probably best. Now for the students who are currently in research and want more out of it, it depends on your research lab, but I know you can balance multiple research positions very easily depending on which lab you’re in. So, if you want more, you could actually try to get into another lab. But if you want more out of the lab you’re in, because you like it so much, then don’t be afraid to talk to your PI and ask, ‘Is there anything more I can do?’ Your higher ups, do the best work that you can and people will start will start to appreciate that good work. And then when you keep asking for more, eventually they’ll probably give you more responsibilities.
B: Well thank you, I hope it wasn’t too bad!
D: Sure, anytime.