Aram Modrek has been conducting medical research to expand what he is learning within his biomedical engineering major. By broadening his focus beyond his major, Aram has developed a wide range of knowledge and skills that will help him as he pursues a MD/PhD program after graduation. One of the greatest lessons Aram credits to his research experience is learning failure is just another part of working toward success. By using his research to explore new fields, Aram provides a great example of the benefits of an interdisciplinary education. He is also serving on the 2009Ė2010 UROP Student Editorial Board. UROP commends Aram for his continuing dedication to learning through research.

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

I am conducting research under Professor Wen-Hwa Lee in the UCI School of Medicine, working closely with Dennis Wang, an MD/PhD candidate. Our laboratory focuses on cancer biology and my research involves the molecular roles of a cancer-linked gene called SUV3 (its absence has been shown to induce cancer growth in mouse models). This gene encodes a mitochondrial RNA helicase protein and is thought to play a central role in mitochondrial RNA processing. We are currently in the process of identifying novel interacting partners of SUV3 to understand modes of regulation and, ultimately, the implications of its malfunction.

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

I began research in the Lee laboratory at the beginning of my sophomore year. I had no idea what research would be like and had no experience to build on. However Dr. Lee gave me the opportunity to begin work in his laboratory and I took complete advantage of the time I could spend there. I was even luckier to be working with my mentor, Dennis, who has guided me through my mistakes and questions. Like most things, the more I put into research, the more I get from it. Classroom learning has felt completely secondary to my research, and research has opened my eyes to a world so much more complex and unknown.

3. How has research enhanced your education?

As a Biomedical Engineering major, my education so far, not surprisingly, has focused on engineering topics. I chose to work in a laboratory conducting basic medical research to understand molecular biology on a deeper level then I could otherwise, which is a decision that I feel will benefit me no matter what path I choose to take in the future. I began working in the laboratory without having taken any formal biology courses, which put me in a unique position; it truly became a hands-on learning experience. Logic and reasoning skills aside, I did not have the background knowledge to keep up with the pace of research. Scientific literature opened my eyes to the cutting-edge questions raised by people in my own field of research and the methods scientists used to communicate their findings and ideas. I realized the textbooks we read and the concepts we learn are basically well-accepted ideas that other researchers have come across in the past. In turn, classroom courses became relatively easier for me.

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

There are two parts of research that excite meósurprising results and trying new experiments. One of my most interesting experiences had to do with a new experiment and a not-so-typical day at lab. My mentor and I were looking for ways to extract lots of intact mitochondria from a mammalian source, and since humans were out of the question, we went to the next best thing, which happened to be cows. I found myself waking up early in the morning to drive an hour away from Irvine to a slaughterhouse, where I acquired several fresh beef hearts that were larger than my head. Once I got back to my lab, we began work in a small cold room, and it turned out to be one of the messiest and bloodiest experiments I had ever done. We were eventually able to isolate the mitochondria from the heart tissue, although it took us a few more messy tries to develop the protocol.

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

I will be applying to MD/PhD programs in the near future, with plans to remain involved in research. My work now will play a tremendous role in the schools I will attend and my future career interests. It allows me the opportunity to begin networking with my professors, fellow undergraduates, post-doctorates and graduate students, many of whom hold identical interests to mine. More importantly, research has helped me determine whether or not I would enjoy working in such an environment.

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

Although my time in scientific research has been relatively short, Iíve learned a few things since I began, and those experiences can be different for everyone. I personally made lots of mistakes and convinced myself that they were a part of progress. Donít expect things to fall in your lap; most things will take hard work and failure to reach success.

Here I can share the experience Iíve had getting started in scientific research and the advice I would give. For the most part, if I had to do it over, I would do it more or less the same way. Itís important to realize that, depending on the nature of your research, there may be lots of technical skills to learn and this usually requires training from others at the beginning. This is one of the reasons I recommend starting as early as possible (freshman or sophomore year). Even after four years of education, you probably wonít be an expert in your field, and professors realize this. To actually get a research position itís important to be persistent, humble, committed and respectful to the people you may be contacting for these positions. An email is the easiest thing a student can do to ask for a position, so it may be beneficial to go beyond the efforts of others by writing a letter or trying to catch the professor during appropriate office hours to speak to in person.

Past Researchers of the Month

Dec. '09 Aram Modrek
Nov. '09 Sevan Torossian
Oct. '09 Matin Khoshnevis
Sep. '09 Ahmad Qazi
Aug. '09 Kaycie Craib
Jul. '09 Kevin Slagle
Jun. '09 Monica Murtaugh
May. '09 Aaron Abajian
Apr. '09 Sarah Seif
Mar. '09 Jeremy Ovadia
Feb. '09 Zareen Choudhury
Jan. '09 Amanda Lim