A pair of Stony Brook University juniors who partner in the same laboratory are among the 204 students selected nationally as Goldwater Scholars.
The 2017 Stony Brook recipients are Ann Lin ’18, from Flushing, NY, and Christopher Giuliano ’18, from Hauppauge, NY, who performed cancer-related research in the Cold Spring Harbor Lab under the guidance of Professor Jason Sheltzer.
The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program annually honors highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers in these fields.
The Goldwater researchers investigated the role of Maternal Embryonic Leucine Zipper Kinase (MELK) in cancer. Using a new gene-editing technique called CRISPR, Lin and Giuliano removed MELK activity and discovered that it did not affect cancer cell growth, contrary to what past literature stated.
“The MELK project is the first research project published that used CRISPR to invalidate previous results and the genetic target of a drug in a clinical trial,” said Ann. “We hope that researchers would look at our publication and realize the importance of verifying the data they collected using RNAi (RNA interference) with CRISPR.” RNA interference is a natural process that cells use to silence unwanted or harmful genes.
In a separate research endeavor, the pair also studied patient tumor samples to identify various molecular features that correlated with both high and low survival rates.
“Researchers already have a pretty good idea of what causes cancer,” said Christopher. “However, across all cancer types, there is a percentage of patients that die from their tumors and a percentage that do not, even after you match patients by their tumor stages. The molecular characteristics that define these two groups are much less well understood and so my work focuses on answering the question of what makes a tumor deadly.”
Both Ann, a double major in biochemistry and economics and Christopher, a double major in applied mathematics and chemistry, have been looking for answers to anatomical questions since childhood.
“I was always interested in how things worked,” says Christopher. “I remember learning about atoms in elementary school and being amazed that the world was made up of these small pieces that I couldn’t even see. “It’s amazing to me that living things function on the basis of all these molecules just randomly smashing together.”
Ann said that when her parents could not fully explain the way the human body works, she turned to books. “The more answers I got from the books I read, the more questions surfaced, similar to what happens when a scientist finds more questions than answers in the data he or she collects,” said Ann. “In my quest for answers, I realized that not all questions have answers and that was the transition point in my life from a scholar to a researcher. I then began conducting research in the lab to find those answers.”
Ann temporarily lost her sense of academic purpose when a close friend passed away in her freshman year, but eventually rededicated herself to pursuing those answers through research.
Susan Scheckel, associate dean for the Integration of Research, Education, and Professional Development (IREP), said, “Ann and Christopher are not only remarkable scientists but also exceptional communicators. They worked tirelessly to hone their writing skills to convey the nature and significance of their research to those beyond their specialties. The goal of the Goldwater Scholarship is to support the next generation of leading STEM researchers. I have no doubt that these students will become highly effective leaders who will make important discoveries and disseminate their knowledge widely.”
Hard work, the relentless quest for knowledge and a commitment to excellence in communicating science: These are what both of the 2017 Goldwater Scholarship winners embody.
— Glenn Jochum