Student Researcher Interview with Jessica Vilas-Boas

Interviewer: Hannah Philipose
Interviewed: Jessica Vilas-Boas
Interview Conducted Fall 2019

H: Hi! Can you please tell me your name, major, and department of research?

J: Hello! I’m Jessica Vilas-Boas. My major is biochemistry, and I work in Pharmacological

H: Follow up question what specific lab are you a part of, and how long have you been
working there?

J: I am in Dr. Markus Seeliger’s lab, and I’ve been working there for the past three years now.

H: Can you tell me how you got into research?

J: When I was a second semester freshman I was in a workshop with Dr. Peter Gergen called the entering research workshop, and Dr. Markus Seeliger was looking for freshmen that were interested in joining a research lab for a number of years, until they graduate ideally. So I heard about the Seeliger lab through Gergen. I emailed Markus and we had an interview, we talked, and it was a good fit, so that’s where I’ve been ever since.

H: That’s really nice that it worked out so well. So what inspired you to start pursuing

J: Back in high school I was in a research program, but it was more independent and not as scientific as it could have been. I knew that when I was entering Stony Brook, it’s a huge research institution, and there’s so many research opportunities here across fields with diverse areas of research. I wanted to expand my learning outside of the classroom setting, outside of what was required of me so that I could be a better-rounded scientist as well as make the most of the four years here. Also, I’m a studio arts minor, and I think that creativity is really important in research. I want to be as creative as possible in addition to just memorizing textbooks and studying for tests, I want to keep that creativity alive through research.

H: Have you contributed to any posters or publications, and if you have, what was your
role in those projects?

J: Yes, I was involved in two major projects so far. One of them was with a collaborator at the University of Washington, Dr. Dustin Malley. He is a medicinal chemist interested in creating drug libraries that could potentially be used to understand the chemical kinetics and chemical relationships between ligands and proteins of interest, proteins that are implicated in cancer, for example. So for that project I was in charge of understanding the binding kinetics of novel tyrosine kinase inhibitors that resemble the binding characteristics of the current FDA approved chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) drugs imatinib, also known as Gleevec on the market, and dasatinib. From there, I presented posters based on that research here at the annual cancer retreat ABRCMS, which is a national research conference in Indianapolis, at which I won a presentation award in Chemistry sponsored by the American Chemical Society!

H: That’s great! It sounds like you’ve enjoyed your experience working in this lab so far.
Have you had any related or unrelated research opportunities outside of Stony Brook?

J: Yes, so I really wanted to branch out and see what else is out there. I chose to participate in Memorial Sloan Kettering Center’s SURP. That was a 10-week summer research program that placed me in a lab of my choosing: Dr. Steven Long’s lab in the structural biology department. His lab studies transmembrane ion channels, whether that be between the plasma membrane and the extracellular side of the cell or between the inside of a mitochondria and the outside into the inner cellular compartments. My project was very much dry lab work; I used Relion and CryoSpark to analyze CryoEM data sets. I focused on the calcium activated chloride ion channel Bestrofin, which is expressed in the eyes and brain as well. It’s mostly looked into in the eyes, because there is a hereditary disease called Best disease, and that causes vitelliform lesions in the retina, and that is characterized pathologically by a loss of central vision. Currently
there is no cure, and I was really interested in this project because 2014 was the first time that we had visualized this ion channel. Steven Long’s lab found that structure, so I was really excited to join that project. I used updated software to enhance resolution between 0.2 and 0.7 angstroms of previously published CryoEM datasets. I improved the resolution of existing data, from 3 angstroms to 2.9 angstroms to both being 2.8 angstroms, because there’s two different conformations, open-channel and closed channel, to put it simply. At the culmination of that we presented another poster, and I’ll also be presenting that research at ABRCMS again in Anaheim, California next month. 

H: Wow, that sounds like it was a really great opportunity. So can you tell what your
favorite part about doing research has been?

J: I guess it is the creativity and critical thinking necessary to do it competently. You need to design your own project and decide how best to test your hypothesis or research your study. I really appreciate the mentorship aspect throughout research; everyone is everyone’s mentor in a way, you can ask anyone in your lab for advice on a certain subject in addition to just your PI. It’s just a huge learning opportunity for anyone across STEM fields and beyond. Also, tying in the creativity aspect with my arts minor keeps me grounded.

H: Last question, do you have any advice for undergraduates looking to get into

J: So for looking to get into research, my advice is to email the right people, not just sending blast emails to a bunch of different PIs, because I think that’s something that undergrads do and it doesn’t normally work out in their favor. So I would reach out to the higher ups in their respective departments, and I recommend looking into contacting the right people. Also, getting into a research lab that really sparks their interest and not just because the lab has space. You really should look into Stony Brook Medicine PIs or engineering PIs, and see what they’re doing in their labs, go on their websites, and read up on some of their papers or at least the abstracts, and then contact the PI and show real interest. My second piece of advice would be to take notes all the time! You never know when you’re going to forget something, so taking notes is my
best advice.

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