Question: When is a Nobel laureate like a rock star?
Answer: When he speaks to students who aspire to be just like him.
Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a green fluorescent jellyfish protein to study cells - a discovery being used in many fields, from cancer to Alzheimer's research - became kind of a prize himself last spring. He was snagged to be keynote speaker at a symposium organized by a new group of Stony Brook University undergraduates: The Young Investigators.
Just like a rock star, Chalfie evoked adulation. "He inspired many students who stayed after to get his autograph," said Isaiah Schuster, 21, of Dix Hills, a senior pharmacology major and this year's Investigators president.
The group has published the Young Investigators Review, one of an unusual breed: a peer-reviewed undergraduate science journal featuring student research. Most undergraduate journals are at Ivy League colleges; they're rarer still at public universities.
But in the fall of 2008, after being impressed by journals from Columbia University and Dartmouth College, Alexander Chamessian, a Stony Brook senior majoring in biochemistry, approached Dean of Students Jerrold Stein to say he wanted to try something similar.
Stein told Chamessian to go for it. "He gets credit for coming up with the idea and moving it along and getting his peers involved," Stein said.
So the first Young Investigators Review was born in the spring of 2009, brought to life by Chamessian and editor-in-chief Muath Bishawi, with student articles on topics ranging from nanotubes to a hadron collider. Their symposium followed.
Stein encouraged the Young Investigators to connect with Stony Brook professors doing research - such as James Staros, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, now University of Massachusetts Amherst provost; and Robert Haltiwanger, chairman of biochemistry and cell biology. "It is very exciting for the faculty when undergraduate students come to us with ideas like this," Haltiwanger said. "It shows they are passionate about science."
Now Chamessian is a chemistry research assistant at Yale University, applying to M.D.-PhD programs; Bishawi is completing his master's degree in public health at Stony Brook. The mantle has passed to Schuster; Yaritzy Astudillo, 20, of Valley Stream, a junior biology major; and Kevin Knockenhauer, 22, of Bay Shore, a senior in biochemistry, and about 30 other student contributors.
On May 3, the Young Investigators will sponsor their second symposium, with yet another science superstar: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Robert Weinberg, a world-renowned cancer biologist who discovered the first human oncogene, "that, when uncontrolled, leads to the development of cancer," Schuster said. Stony Brook professors will also speak - and promising high school science students from the Half Hollow Hills and Three Village school districts will attend.
In parents' footsteps
For some of these students, science is in the bloodstream as well as the heart: Schuster, for example, was born in Kislovodsk, south of Moscow, and came here as a refugee in 1992 at age 4 with his parents, Dr. Tanya Weinberg, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook, and Dr. Eliot Schuster, attending physician at The Brooklyn Hospital Center. Their son, who graduates this spring, intends to go to medical school as well.
That move would hold no surprises for Stein, who said that the Young Investigators Review "is a good example of what our students are capable of. . . . These students," he added, "might be performing surgery on me someday."
For more information go to younginvestigators.com.