Writing about an extraterrestrial world full of automatons is Samantha Sylvain’s favorite pastime — when she isn’t in a lab observing protein-protein interactions.
Growing up, Sylvain knew she was going to be a scientist. She had always been interested in research and made sure to gain lab experience early, spending a large chunk of high school in the New York BioForce program. It allowed her to aid a Cornell University biophysicist in protein visualization research, igniting a passion within her for biological studies. It only made sense for her then to join Binghamton University, an R1 institute housing a First-Year Research Immersion Program that would open the door to boundless research opportunities.
STEM wasn’t the only thing on her mind. A Queens-born poet and author, Sylvain also wanted to develop as a writer. She’s now writing a story that explores her love for scientific exploration and works to intertwine the structures of her favorite authors: William Blake and Mary Shelley.
“My story is a book of prose and poetry,” Sylvain says. “I incorporated ideas such as rebelling against rigid systems … discussed the perils of discovery and scientific innovation. I also examined the concept of technological and antiquated virtual realities.”
Sylvain believes the humanities play a large role in scientific research. She has learned to make her research accessible to groups that may be unfamiliar with scientific language, a skill she cherishes as it allows scientific discovery to become widespread.
“You have to have a level of cognizance of how you’re writing and for what purpose,” says Sylvain, a member of the class of 2024. “You can get too fixated on writing in a specific way and structure using certain jargon — like in scientific research papers — and it can become difficult to adapt that writing style to a broader audience.”
Her academic duality has allowed her to dive into a variety of programs on campus. Besides FRI, Sylvain was also involved in the College-in-the-Woods (CIW) Environmental Action and Studies living community, which went hand-in-hand with her McNair Scholars prospectus and her Summer Scholars and Artists Program study. Her living community’s collegiate professor — Stephen Ortiz, now the assistant vice provost for academic enrichment — became her mentor due to her involvement in so many of his realms. They’d meet weekly following the CIW sophomore colloquium, where he watched her present her study, and was in awe of her work ethic.
“She is simply as smart, as hard-working, as thoughtful as a student can be,” Ortiz says. “I think the world of her.”
His admiration led to Ortiz recommending her to be a speaker before an audience of donors and alumni. The vice president for advancement was looking for someone who could speak to the things they’ve gotten out of Binghamton University for major benefactors, Ortiz recalls. “And in front of about 500 potential donors and alumni, she nailed it and everyone I talked to afterwards was like, ‘Thank you for bringing her to our attention, she did so awesome!’” he says.
One of the projects Sylvain addressed during her speech was the linked work for FRI and the Summer Scholars and Artists program. Sylvain’s team conducted a study into the prevalence of the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), an invasive insect ravaging the Northeast. By the end of the summer, Sylvain realized in order to truly research the issue of the HWA, they would need dedicated land and more time and guidance.
Despite the challenges she encountered, she looks at the work in a positive light.
“That’s how I know I love research. It did infringe upon well-being and health, but I learned on the job and before the job — it was fun.” Sylvain says. “I didn’t understand that this was part of the research experience, you need to find if the project is feasible, then you can do the preliminary research, and then you figure out the larger applications. You can’t just release beetles and fungi into an area. It was very enlightening.”
She is part of biochemist Sozanne Solmaz’s lab, where she’s studying the interactions between proteins dedicated to developing the brain.
“I just fell in love with them [proteins] because I thought they were kind of cute and looked like little nanomachines that conduct various activities,” Sylvain says with a laugh. “There’s a significant amount of work that can be done to study them that relates to larger real-world issues; like neuronal migration disorders, which is the application of my research at the Solmaz lab.”
One of Sylvain’s tasks within the project was to uncover what molecular mechanisms existed between primary proteins involved in nucleus movement during neuronal development. Through a technique used to detect physical interactions between proteins, she found that the lab’s hypothesis was correct: The proteins form spirals around one another to transport the cell nuclei.
Her next steps include an honors thesis, which will pertain to her protein research but also add in her interests within astrobiology and chemistry.
“I’ve just begun doing research on inherently disordered proteins and how they may impact protein-protein interactions under conditions you see in extraterrestrial environments,” Sylvain says.