SJC Brooklyn 2020 graduates Amr Elfert and Kavan Meiner spent most of their senior year renting a car and driving nearly 130-miles round trip to Brookhaven National Lab to conduct immunology research side-by-side with professional scientists.
Elfert and Meiner — who both majored in biology and minored in chemistry — met in class during their freshman year. Through their classes they became good friends. And by junior year, they were research partners, working together on ground breaking, graduate-level research in their field.
Both students took interest in studying immunology during a research class. They realized —with the help of their adviser, Tetyana Delaney, Ph.D., professor of biology — that their individual research ideas would be stronger if they combined it as one larger project.
Together, they studied the effects of nanoparticles on the C. elegan’s lifespan and growth characteristics, and its intracellular parasite, Microsporidia. Their research investigates the possible therapeutic effects, and dangers, that nanoparticles present to living cells.
The Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Upton accepted Elfert and Meiner’s research proposal last summer after a peer review process, allowing them to analyze their samples using advanced microscopes available at the lab.
Conducting Research at Brookhaven National Lab
The commute to BNL alone gave Elfert and Meiner several hurdles to clear. Both researchers were full-time students at SJC Brooklyn and had other commitments — Elfert was a science tutor and a teacher’s assistant and Meiner was committed to making practices and games at least six days a week for the men’s basketball team.
Still, they managed to find the time to rent a car, drive nearly 65 miles each way to the lab on Long Island, and spend several hours in the lab on their research one to two times per week. The commute alone could easily take more than two hours each way, depending on traffic.
But the experiences gained from working in the lab made it worth the effort, said Elfert.
“We picked up a lot of knowledge and skills along the way,” Elfert explained. “We think it’s going to be useful in our future because we’ve been exposed to different things. For example, one of the microscopes we’re using we don’t have here on campus. So this is something we’ve learned, and we became comfortable using microscopy.”
Elfert and Meiner were regarded as professional scientists at the lab. They were trained to use the special equipment and expected to follow the same special protocols as their peers. Throughout their time at BNL, they got to know many of the other scientists, including Mircea Cotlet, Ph.D., a material scientist and principle investigator who helped them with their research.
Back at St. Joseph’s, Elfert and Meiner spent every spare moment they could working on their project in the labs in Burns Hall. Sally Idris ’19, also an SJC biology graduate, assisted with the research. They received additional support, and valuable pointers, from several members of the St. Joseph’s faculty, including Michael Hanophy, Ph.D., associate chair and professor of biology, and Daniela Acevedo, a lab manager.
Looking to the Future
Elfert and Meiner, both members of the Sigma Iota Chi and Delta Epsilon Sigma honor societies, were expecting to present their research results at the Immunology ’20 conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, in May — just before returning to Brooklyn to collect their St. Joseph’s College degrees. The students were expecting to attend the conference alone, without a faculty member, because it is their research. Typically, undergraduate students attend such conferences supporting a professor’s research.
The COVID-19 pandemic led organizers to cancel the conference, just as many other springtime affairs. But that didn’t stop the highly motivated students from sharing their research with professionals in their field.
Elfert and Meiner published their abstract in the American Association of Immunologists (AAI) Journal of Immunology in May.
Still, the pair of young scientists had to abruptly stop their research as a result of the pandemic.
“We are very fortunate to pass along our data to a few students currently doing their research projects,” Meiner said. “They will continue the work we had started — and hopefully will be able to complete it.”
After graduation, Elfert and Meiner set off to tackle new academic pursuits. Elfert moved to Chicago and is working as a Research Specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine, while applying to medical schools. Meiner moved to Florida to attend medical school.
“I gained a lot of experience from this project — especially from working together,” Elfert said. “I don’t think if either of us worked on our own, we’d be able to accomplish all of this. We learned a lot about these organisms, the microscopes we’re using, the nanoparticles we’re using. We’ve been exposed to different aspects of science that we started learning about at St. Joe’s.”