Shoreham-Wading River High School senior Victoria Mburu took part in Brookhaven National Laboratory’s High School Research Program, a highly competitive summer educational program for students interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies.
This year, the virtual program offered Victoria an opportunity to work under the mentorship of Diana Murphy in the Stakeholders and Community Relations group where she collaborated in various science communication projects. Victoria wrote two articles – one featuring her high school colleagues and collaboration on COVID-19 research and the other an interview with BNL ecologist Shawn Serbin.
Read her articles below:
I think as a society, we didn't expect to be faced with a pandemic. Even if every hundred years a new disease would enter the world (Bird flu, Malaria, Ebola, Black Plague) and shake humanity, I don't think we were prepared for COVID-19. Even saying the word causes lips to quiver, as we all know the power this word holds. Due to COVID-19, people aren’t able to celebrate summer like we usually do. This summer, I participated in an internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory. As the Lab is doing research on COVID-19, I think the majority of people want to know how far along are scientists with the cure, and how long do we have to social distance. As an interviewer, I took this opportunity to conduct an interview with my fellow High School Research Program (HSRP) COVID-19 participants Peggy Yin, Christopher Jannotta, and Jacob Zietek, (who are collaborating with scientists to learn more about COVID-19) to ask about their research and what the future beholds.
The first thing I wanted to know about my fellow HSRP participants was how they got involved in science, and how the possibilities of science intrigued them.
Christopher Janotta answered, “I gained an interest in science back in elementary school when I first learned about the paramecium; I was always very curious as a child. I was very quickly intrigued by microbiology and wanted to understand more about microorganisms and their role in our health."
Jacob Zietek, joined in and said “I was around computers my whole life. I was fascinated about how computers can be applied to different problems; there's really no limit to what computers can do.” After Jacob, Peggy Yin replied, “Growing up, I liked to read about science just for the fun of it. When I got into middle school, I joined clubs like Science Olympiads. By joining these clubs, I was able to really explore science in a more hands-on way, which just made me love it even more.”
By getting a glimpse into their childhoods, I was able to understand why they would want to participate in a research program at a Nobel winning prize lab such as Brookhaven. Still curious, I asked them, “What got you interested in participating in the HSRP program?”
Christopher responded “I was in HSRP last year as a junior, and it was a very important experience for me. I also was able to learn from real scientists utilizing resources at the Lab to do my research. This year, as a graduating senior, I wanted to be able to get that same experience, and although it's virtual, I am still learning a lot, especially on the SARS-CoV-2 virus." “My robotics coach from the Farmingdale VEX Robotics team, Ann Grady, greatly influenced me to try an internship in a research setting,” Jacob said. “I also knew that at the Lab they’re always coming up with groundbreaking results, and if I could go there, I would be able to understand how computer science and data science is used in a research setting. I’m grateful I got in.” Peggy replied, “My first time in the HSRP program was two years ago, and I felt that the Brookhaven Lab environment was just incredibly warm and welcoming towards high school students - you really feel included in the research community. It made me want to come back and experience it all over again.”
Curious about what they were doing at the lab, I asked them, “What project(s) are you currently collaborating on at the Lab, and what is something that has surprised you in conducting your research?”
“I am currently working on two projects,” Christopher claimed. “In one project, I am studying a certain enzyme found in Anaplasma phagocytophilum, a bacterium that causes a tick-borne disease that is becoming much more common with the advent of climate change. By understanding this enzyme better, we hope to pose novel designs for antibiotics in the future. The second project pertains to studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We are collaborating with scientists across the globe and using each other's research to find new ways to combat the virus. Specifically, I am using computational science to simulate how to inhibit a protein the coronavirus uses to stop human intracellular immune responses from attacking it. From these experiences, I've learned a lot not only about the pathogenesis of these diseases but also on how to conduct scientific research and how to work with a team efficiently."
“Chris, Jacob, and I are collaborating together on the COVID-19 research project and on computational methods we can use to analyze the protein,” Peggy said. “What surprised me about working on this project was meeting people like Christopher and Jacob; even though they’re only a year older than I am, you can see that they’re so invested in their work, you can really tell how passionate they are.”
Obviously COVID-19 has changed all our lives for the better and the worst. It has made most of the world realize what we took for granted, what we lost and what we gained. “How has COVID-19 changed the world positively, negatively, and how has COVID-19 changed the way you think about the world?”
“Due to Coronavirus, thousands of people have died which is very unfortunate,” Christopher stated. “We all have lost opportunities and experiences we could have had if it was an ordinary year. But one of the positive aspects of coronavirus is that really high amounts of air pollution have decreased. This fortunately has helped the environment.” “Yes,” Jacob said in agreement. “Everything has been shifted towards combating COVID-19, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of moments have been lost. We are all missing the social aspects of life. The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced people to catch up with technology, especially since we really have never been exposed to doing things virtually at a consistent rate. COVID-19 has made us realize that there are some things we can do on our own at home; it has changed everybody’s perspective on technology.” “COVID-19 has changed the way we view what is essential, and I think for many it’s been a time to really step back and examine what really matters in life,” Peggy concluded. “Personally, I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with my family, which is hard for us usually because everyone’s got work or homework."
Now I don't know how long COVID-19 will go on, but I do know we can have hope that it will get better soon. I can only pray for the families whose relatives who've died and hope that one day there will be a cure. My final questions to Peggy, Christopher and Jacob was, “How has COVID-9 impacted your plans, how long do you think this will go on for, and do you think there's a reason behind COVID-19?”
“I am going off to college in the fall, Christopher said. “But because of the cancellation of in-person classes, they’ll be making many of them virtual. I would've really liked the college experience, but I understand that I am not the only one going through this and I will make the best out of it. As for the origins of COVID-19, based on my research, it really seems like a natural zoonotic virus that happened to mutate and cross the species barrier, which was catalyzed by the poor sanitary conditions that were practiced where it originated from. Maybe it was isolated by scientists but accidently released from a lab in its origin country, but even so, I don't think there was any malicious intent."
“Yes, Jacob added, “COVID-19 is very infectious. You can’t really stop it until there's a vaccine. But until that happens, it will continue to progress.” “I am currently heading into senior year,” Peggy vocalized. “I’m starting to apply to college applications. I don't believe in any conspiracy theories that predict a reason behind COVID-19 because I feel that internationally we were very unprepared for another pandemic, and it’s this unpreparedness that has caused a lot of fear and panic which in turn causes people to develop theories as to why this has happened.”
After hearing Chris, Jacob and Peggy’s final words, it made me realize that, COVID-19 has made us stronger people, and we can only continue to work towards a cure. To all the doctors, nurses, essential workers and scientists - thank you.
SHAWN SERBIN ARTICLE
Being at home for a day is fun, a little sick day, self- care, pamper yourself. But try being at home for three weeks, three months, it starts to get old doesn't it? Living in 2020 has created a madness beyond belief as the coronavirus pandemic has spread internationally. With so many twists and turns, you really have to take advantage of the good ones that come your way. On the topic of good things, scientists working at Brookhaven National Laboratory have been trying to learn more about the coronavirus, they are also producing medical isotopes for cancer therapeutics, and are conducting research on plant ecology. Plant ecology scientist, Shawn Serbin speaks of his life journey, how he came to be who he is now, and what his current projects are.
Shawn’s life story
When asking Shawn about his childhood, he had many nostalgic moments in retelling his story.
“Growing up in Monroe, Michigan, my family and I did a lot of camping. My family shaped my thoughts about my environment, and later down the road, my instructors in college helped me to get active in the field of environmental science. After pursuing this path, my graduate advisor helped me make the decision to go to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. In graduate school, I started out as a master’s student working on my degree in Environmental Monitoring and Forest Ecology. After finishing my masters, I started on my PhD in Forest Ecology. While working on both degrees, I studied how to use a variety of remote sensing information to study plants and ecosystems.”
The fervent passion
By asking Shawn about his journey, I wanted to dig into the roots of his experiences and how he came to be fond of plant and forest ecology.
“My passion is building the capability to remotely monitor how things are changing; I want to be able to provide better information on plants, forests and climate change. The research I’m doing can impact the world greatly; for example a farmer can know where to apply fertilizer by using remote sensing to target where it should go, we can monitor recreational areas and quantify how much land people can use for camping, with remote sensing, we can also target management strategies and identify for any environmental changes that can be picked up. In general, we can be smarter on how we manage land, for example, the targeted use of fertilizer to minimize pollution in our communities.”
“So how does this all work? Remote sensing, satellites, monitoring..., how do they know when to do it and how?” Baffled, I asked Shawn.
“With the help of spectroscopy (the study of how different specific wavelengths of light that can be used to determine specific characteristics of material) we can look at plants in novel ways, report back what wavelengths we should focus on, and what's most important about the signal we saw. Each individual wavelength can tell us something important. There's also no negative effect in remote sensing, only the basic concern of being able to see more than asked for, overstepping boundaries. Other than that, it's completely safe.”
The memorable fun
“So, with all this research going on, is there any time to have fun?” When I asked Shawn, he surprised me with a grin on his face.
“One of the most memorable places in which I’ve traveled is Alaska. I’ve traveled around in helicopters and have also collected data in remote areas. Some of my favorite projects include:
The Next Generation project, The Alaskan Experiment, and The Tropic Experiment. These NGEE projects are 10-year projects funded by the Department of Energy. In both cases, their primary goal is to improve the models we use to forecast or estimate what the vegetation in the Arctic and Tropics will “look” like in the future. We are working on ways to make models better at estimating how much carbon dioxide these systems will store in the future in response to new climatic conditions (that is, under warmer drier or wetter conditions) under continued climate change. We also collect data and conduct experiments to study how plants respond to changes in their environment so that these models can reproduce what we see in our data. These experiments also involve many labs, universities, and advanced technology and instruments. Scientists involved in the experiments are able to travel together and different disciplines of scientists are included to join in which makes the project and the group as a whole pretty unique!”
The way it should be
At this point I was flabbergasted at Shawn’s experiences in his studies. Hearing this made me wonder, I guess working at a lab must be fun! It’s more than looking at test tubes and research, but traveling the world trying to make it a better place - bettering yourself and the world around you. My final question I asked him was, “Do you have any projects that you’ve regretted /failed at their mission, and what did you learn about them?” His final words blew me away.
“Oh yes, we fail all the time! What I’ve learned from these failed experiments is that there may be models that are incorrect, but we figure new ways to approach it. Every project has complexity and there's never a certain response. We never know what might happen, but at the end of the day, everything will turn out the way it should be.”
And that my friends, was a perfect ending to my interview with Shawn Serbin.