Kathi Hamor

1. What is your specific area of research (include the name of your faculty and/or laboratory)?
I work in the Peterson/de la Maza laboratory in the Department of Pathology, at the UCI College of Medicine, under the supervision of Dr. Ellena Peterson. My current research project focuses on the development of new diagnostic assays for Chlamydia pneumoniae, a human respiratory tract pathogen.
2. When and how did you first get involved in research?

In the summer of 2000, just before I was to transfer to UCI, I was accepted into the Orange County Bridge to Biomedical Research (OCBBR) Program. The OCCBR Program provides community college students with the opportunity to work full-time in a research laboratory over the course of a summer in order to expose students to the various careers available in the world of biomedical research. Despite having no previous exposure to "research," I jumped at the chance to be a part of the program. After two weeks of basic laboratory training, the students were asked to contact laboratories they might be interested in working in. I chose to contact Dr. Peterson's laboratory because of my longstanding interest in pathology-if it has the potential to cause disease within my body, I want to know about it! One interview later and I was working in the lab. When I officially started school at UCI in the fall of 2000, I continued to work in the lab both as part of my academic curriculum, via Biology 199, and through my participation in the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program.

3. How has research enhanced you education?

My father has always likened the learning process and the acquisition of an education to assembling a toolbox in order to build a house. I don't think I truly understood this analogy until I began my research experience. The countless hours I spent preparing for my biochemistry test provided me with some knowledge of antibody binding and the importance of protein conformation. However, it was only while working on my research project that I was able to use this knowledge, or this "tool," to approach and solve a real world problem. Therefore, while my classes equip me with my "tools," or various pieces of knowledge, it is my experience in the lab that has shown me how to use them.

4. What has been you favorite experience with research (include any interesting stories or specific events)?
My favorite research experience happened soon after I had joined the lab. I truly believe I will remember it for the rest of my life. A senior post-doctoral member of the lab staff had been teaching me the basics of sodium dodecyl polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) and Western blot analysis using monoclonal antibodies.

While showing our Western blot films to Dr. Peterson in order to determine the proper antibody concentrations for later projects, she noted the absence of a particular low-molecular weight band. The post-doc indicated that either the sample we used did not contain that particular molecule or that the concentration of antibody used to detect the molecule was too low. Something must have clicked in my brain because all of a sudden I blurted out that the molecule was definitely in our sample, but that it must have diffused out of the gel. The post-doc sat staring at me while stroking his beard and finally said, very quietly, "You are wrong." The small, sane part of my mind wanted to acquiesce that, yes, of course I was wrong, after all what did I know? I had only been in the lab for a few weeks, and I had only run a handful of gels. But when I opened my mouth to agree with him I instead said, "No, you're wrong." I don't know who was more shocked, the post-doc or me.

After a few more rounds of brilliant verbal sparring, which basically involved repeating "You're wrong," and "No, you're wrong," Dr. Peterson finally called a halt to the matter when she looked straight at me and said, with a small smile, "Prove him wrong." I thought I was going to faint-not only did I contradict the post-doc, but now my mentor was placing her faith in me, an undergraduate student with a mere six weeks of laboratory exposure! I had no idea where to start or what to do to prove my point.

Dr. Peterson and I sat down to design a small experiment and three days later my new Western films proved my hypothesis was correct. The molecule was in our sample, and the antibody concentration used was adequate; it was the excess time spent in the buffer while other gels were being prepared for transfer that allowed the small molecule to diffuse out of the gel. When presented with the results the post-doc laughed and took it in stride. Even now, to this day, he laughs about it.

I will always remember how it felt when my mentor supported and encouraged me to use what knowledge of scientific methodology that I possess to prove my point. I will always remember the elation I felt when my results agreed with my hypothesis. More importantly, I will always remember that you should never back down from your position solely because you feel intellectually inferior or inexperienced. You never know, you may be right!

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

This is the $1,000,000 question! Whereas I had previously thought I wanted to pursue a medical career in pathology, I am currently in limbo. Graduate programs in public health and epidemiology, genetics and microbiology are all now viable options, and as of yet, my future is undecided. Regardless of the career path that I eventually pursue, my research experience has provided me with three invaluable ingredients for a successful future. The exposure to the various arenas of biomedical research has piqued my interests and has allowed me to realize that the possibilities for my future are unlimited. The confidence I have in myself as a result of my research experience, both as a student and as a budding scientist, will allow me to pursue the career path I finally choose. And most importantly, I now have, instilled within me, not only the desire to learn more, but also the means to acquire this knowledge.

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

First and foremost, choose a research area that interests you. Having said that, do your own research on the individual labs; how many prior students have they had, and what types of successes have those students had? Also, it is crucial to feel comfortable in the laboratory environment and to have a good rapport with the lab members, including your faculty mentor. However, the most important piece of information I would like to impart is to remember that your first obligation is to your studies. Do not join a laboratory, no matter how prestigious it may be, if it requires more of your time than you feel comfortable with, and don't allow your grades to suffer for the sake of your research. Find a balance between your classes and your research, and have fun!

Past Researchers of the Month

Dec. '02 Ping Chen
Nov. '02 Sanjay Naran
Oct. '02 Alana Shilling
Sep. '02 Michael Vongphoe
Aug. '02 Ryan Wright
Jul. '02 Adrian Fernandez
Jun. '02 Allen Andres
May '02 Elizabeth Tsai
Apr. '02 David Bear
Mar. '02 Lorrel Brown
Feb. '02 Jiri Herrmann
Jan. '02 Kathi Hamor
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