Research, according to Keith Sakata, has become his real education. It has given him the opportunity to apply the tools he gains through classroom learning to real-life experience and discovery. Through persistence, Keith was able to get a position in his mentor’s lab, and he suggests that such persistence is a vital part of finding a mentor for any undergraduate. Before that, however, Keith stresses the importance of finding a research field in which you have a passionate curiosity. UROP is pleased to recognize Keith Sakata for the commitment he has made to his undergraduate research.

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?

Several intellectual disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, have been found to harbor mutations in proteins that control our gene expression—they are called chromatin remodeling complexes (CRCs). My research focuses on understanding these epigenetic mechanisms in the context of the neurobiology of learning and memory. Under the guidance of Dr. Marcelo Wood and graduate student Annie Vogel-Ciernia, I have been studying the role of BAF53b (a neuron-specific CRC subunit) in long-term social recognition memory.

2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

After a year of clinical research in a pulmonary intensive care unit, I decided to gain lab-based experience and stubbornly asked Dr. Marcelo Wood to allow me to join his team. I first emailed Dr. Wood during my sophomore year. No response. I tried again during my third year. No room. After sending Dr. Wood some follow up emails, he agreed to have me interview with Annie Vogel-Ciernia, a senior graduate student in the lab. Thanks to Dr. Wood's and Annie's kindness, they made room for me and I finally got started during the winter quarter of my third year.

3. How has research enhanced your education?

Quite simply, research has become my education. I find so much joy in taking knowledge I have acquired as a neurobiology major and applying it to solve a burning question. Cell biology and psychology are no longer just classes; they are the tools to help my endeavors in pushing the boundaries of human understanding.

4. What has been your favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?

My favorite experience was working with Annie to design a novel pilot experiment. Because the field of long-term social recognition memory has been relatively untouched, we needed to create a way of measuring recognition in mice. I spent many hours on Google and read more than a dozen articles to gain an understanding of similar experiments. After a month of modifications, our experiment worked! Seeing results after so much invested effort is immensely gratifying.

5. What are your future plans and how has being involved in research helped to prepare you to meet your goals?

I plan on pursuing a MD/PhD dual degree as a physician-scientist. It is my dream to one day head a laboratory that will focus on epigenetics in the context of neurological disease. I am particularly fascinated by iPS cell induction and the mutations affecting gene expression pathways in long-term memory.

6. What advice would you give to a student interested in pursuing a faculty-mentored undergraduate research project or creative activity?

Be brave and be curious. Find a field you are passionate about by reading articles written by professors. Don't be afraid to read scientific literature. Google and Pubmed are my best friends when it comes to something I don't understand. Once you find a subject that you love, don't settle for less. Write thoughtful emails that reflect your ambition and commitment to learning under the PI. I strongly believe that quality over quantity holds true when seeking a solid research experience.

Past Researchers of the Month

Sep. '14 Keith Sakata
Aug. '14 Leslie May Legaspi
Jul. '14 Nujhat Nabila Ali
Jun. '14 Eline Kocharyan
May. '14 Julian Smith
Apr. '14 Johan Mosquera
Mar. '14 Nadia Nikroo
Feb. '14 Andra Whipple
Jan. '14 Tam Phan