Justin Su is a second year at UCSB with plans to major in Biochemistry. He was a 2016 EUREKA! scholar which introduced him in his first year to the broader science community on campus and provide exposure to research through academic year internships. EUREKA provided Justin with the financial support and professional communication skills as a first year to conduct a scientific research project with Dr. Zach Ma.

The Ma lab utilizes various chemicals, incubators, centrifuges, microscopes, and many other high-tech equipment to conduct research in cell biology. Many techniques from various biological sub-disciplines are used in their experiments to investigate cellular structure, function, and properties. Most of these experiments are performed either behind the bench or within a sterilized hood. The researchers at the Ma lab focuses on histone 3 lysine 4 methyltransferase complexes and their subunits. Made from distinct protein subunits, these complexes are found in the nucleus and are known to turn genes “off and on,” a basis driving the field of epigenetics. Mutations and misregulation of H3K4MT subunits are directly linked to cancers, life span/aging, immunity, diabetes, mental retardation, and stem cell differentiation.

Since joining Dr. Zach Ma’s lab in January 2016, Justin has taken the initiative to learn and perform technical procedures and biochemical techniques around the Ma lab. He has been actively engaged in projects focused on discovering cytoplasmic functions of subunits of a histone methyltransferase. Among these projects, he proficiently conducted many experiments, some of which included culturing cancerous and non-cancerous cells, harvesting bacteria cells, and manipulating cellular gene expression and protein production. Justin spent the summer of 2016 investigating the regulations of microtubule stability by a histone 3 lysine 4 methyltransferase (H3K4MT) subunit. For his project, he had the opportunity to use live cell microscopy to observe microtubules among dividing cells in real-time. He is now engaging in a project looking at a homolog of a H3K4MT subunit, hoping to discover its functions and mechanisms throughout the cell.


Q&A with Justin

What was your typical day like while conducting your research?

Each day conducting research is intrinsically unique, filled with personal discoveries, collaborations, and state-of-the-art technologies. In Dr. Ma’s lab, the lab is thriving daily with experiments; and as a researcher, my day is usually dictated by the results of my experiments. From analyzing these results, I would revise my hypothesis, plan future experiments, and coordinate my scheduled plan with other lab members.

This practice of planning and executing experiments not only exercises my time management skills and ability to multitask, but also allows for the opportunity to learn new biochemical techniques or from the recent literature. Initially, practicing this was undoubtedly strenuous, as adapting into the lab takes time. Over time, however, I found each day conducting research to be very rewarding for the depth of my understanding and the width of knowledge among my research projects and education in molecular and cellular biology.

How and why did you get into your area of research?

Firstly, I have been so blessed and thankful to have mentors and friends investing in me throughout my academic career, as each one of them have contributed to where I am today and how I got into my area of research.

My interest in the realm of scientific research spanned all the way back in junior high, where I researched Polycystic Kidney Disease for a brochure assignment. When I dug deeper into the literature, I was passionately compelled to learn more about PKD and the mechanisms behind it, sharing all the new scientific developments about PKD with my family and my amazing science teacher at the time. This passion for research, especially biomedical research, persisted throughout high school and now UCSB, where I began to have interests in pursuing a research project of my own. My interest of a research project sparked when I learned about epigenetics, a phenomenon I had never heard of before college. I used my resources, mentors, and friends to learn more about epigenetics, and enthusiastically enrolled in a freshman seminar (Biotechnology and Society) taught by Dr. Douglas Thrower. This seminar exposed me to various topics within biology and how they were being applied in the real world. Intrigued, I began to act on my interests in epigenetics and found Dr. Zach Ma, who works with histone methyltransferases. Since then, I am immersed in a myriad of potential currents to investigate epigenetics, in which each current propels myself into a sea of unanswered questions in the biomedical sciences.

Who was your advisor? How was your experience working with your advisor?

My faculty advisor is Dr. Zach Ma, a man who transitioned from studying chemical engineering in undergrad to a career in life science research from grad school. I was surprised when he told me of his backstory, as I was considering to major in chemical engineering during my freshman year. Now planning to major in biochemistry, I have been seeking Dr. Ma for advice on this transition and how to excel along this path.

Getting to know Dr. Ma, I have seen that he really cares about the growth of his students. He cultivates an environment to harvest critical analytical thinkers by stimulating the different tiers of understanding. He encourages me to ask questions and analyze each scientific obstacle from all sorts of viewpoints and disciplines. Since working with Dr. Ma, my productivity, biological foundations, and thinking processes have risen to levels beyond those of my former self.

What surprised you the most during your research project?

During my research project over the summer, I was surprised by the vast amounts of questions I have had to ask. At the time, I felt asking questions would make me seem that I was careless while learning, but I eventually found that the questions I didn’t ask were missed opportunities to solidify my understanding and could have even troubleshot some of my experiments.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

As a sophomore, I am currently figuring out where my academic path will take me. Applying the skills and education learnt from a UCSB degree, I intend on pursuing my passions right after graduation with a mindset of being a continuous learner, thinker, and researcher. I want to empower those around me, especially the youth, the elderly, and the underserved. I see myself mentoring the youth to defy the naysayers and be the best versions of themselves; I see myself learning from the past generations, and being a continuous supporter for the elderly and their achievements; I see myself volunteering my time strengthening the underserved to excel in their aspirations. Not only will I continue to engage research in the biomedical sciences, but I also continually want to be an advocate for the scientific and engineering communities, expanding my professional network and providing support for collegiate STEM programs. In addition to my other visions, I see myself being a marathon finisher, a global health activist, and a public communicator of science through the transformative power of videography.

Do you have any tips for someone else who may be in the process of starting their own research project?

  1. Aim to learn something new each day – whether it be a new troubleshooting technique or the recent literature. Whenever I could, I would try to see if I may optimize the efficiency and the quality of my results. The daily intake of recent literature also keeps my mind running with fresh ideas.
  2. Attend conferences! I learned so much from attending academic, professional, and research conferences, opportunities to ask as many questions as you desire.
  3. Just ask! Help can come where you least expect it. Expand your network and maintain these connections – not only throughout your research project, but also for future projects and collaborations.

Dare to Innovate. Dare to Envision. Dare to Engage.