The world is Anna Hollembeak’s oyster — literally and figuratively. The Stony Brook University marine biology major has spent the past year conducting research on organisms that prey upon the prized shellfish. The Lebanon, New Jersey, native is making that the subject of her Honors College Senior Thesis under the watchful eye of Bassem Allam, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences’ Marine Animal Disease Laboratory.
Allam is so impressed with Hollembeak’s research and work ethic, he has recommended her for a Provost’s Award for Academic Excellence. He even tried — unsuccessfully, he said — to convince her to continue her education here in marine biology after she graduates in June.
“She’s extremely sharp,” said Allam. “I wish that all of our graduate students could have Anna’s qualities in terms of depth of thinking and ability to distill information and identify new research questions.”
Hollembeak has her mind set on becoming a medical doctor, and a 3.98 GPA, plus a full slate of extracurricular activities, has already landed her two acceptance letters to medical schools.
If it weren’t for the fact that she has a burning need to help humanity, a lifetime of lab work delving into the health of marine life would have been the perfect fit for Hollembeak.
“The natural world is so beautiful and intriguing, with so many mysteries, ” she said. “Without a healthy and functioning environment, our species and all others species would be unable to survive.
“When I was applying to college,” she continued, “I chose Stony Brook partly because of the Honors College and partly because the marine biology department is very strong.”
Hollembeak’s research focuses on pathogens such as the parasite Perkinsus marinus on the Eastern oyster. “I am aiming to independently discover the mechanism of the parasite’s suppression of the oyster host’s immune system,” she said.
Hollembeak’s mother, who has a PhD in biology, instilled a love of nature in her daughter at an early age. But her love for all things aquatic first surfaced during a vacation she took with her father following her sophomore year in high school.
“We went on a whale-watching trip and were lucky enough to see a humpback whale breaching and feeding at the surface of the water. I was in complete awe, and my father said, ‘You should really consider studying marine biology. Your face lights up whenever you’re surrounded by water.’ ”
During the summer of 2013, Hollembeak won a scholarship for an internship in Sarasota, Florida, where she systematically combed the beaches identifying sea turtle nests and contributing to 30 years of existing research by taking data on nests and hatchlings. Part of her job was to educate the public on the habits of sea turtles.
When she is not plunging into research, she is exploring underwater life as a certified advanced open water SCUBA diver, something she qualified for during her 2012 summer study abroad experience in the Caribbean. Living on a catamaran and island-hopping while studying marine biology, Hollembeak was drawn to the coral reefs and the wide array of marine life they support. “When I think about the possibility that all coral reefs could disappear as a result of their extreme sensitivity to environmental changes, “ she said, “I feel lucky to have experienced their beauty, but also sad to think that these rich and important ecosystems could be lost.”
As much as she finds herself captivated by ocean life, Hollembeak said her true calling is not in the lab, but outside of it — with people. “My grandmother, a hero of mine for her extensive charity work in a village in Nepal, taught me that our purpose is to leave the world in a better condition than it was when we came into it, even if that change is only small. Although there are many ways to change the world, my dream is to impact individual lives through medicine.”
Hollembeak has already embarked upon that path — in more ways than one. In the spring of 2012, she participated in a Global Medical Brigades trip to Honduras, where she worked with a group of students and doctors to administer healthcare to people in an underserved village.
“Each day 400 people were lined up waiting to be seen at medical stations,” she said. “I helped by taking their vital signs and noting their symptoms. At a dental station we taught children how to brush their teeth, and we provided fluoride treatments. Most children in Honduras begin drinking Coca-Cola several times a day at a young age due to the lack of clean water. I was astonished to learn that they don’t brush their teeth afterward.”
Serving others has become a way of life for Hollembeak. She is a resident assistant in Tabler Quad, where she collaborates with her fellow RAs to design programs such as an annual “poetry slam,” a career-building workshop, and a program to make fleece blankets that are donated to Stony Brook University Hospital.
Hollembeak is a teaching assistant for two sections of organic chemistry, each with roughly 500 students. She also mentors two Honors College freshmen and raises money for ’Tis the Season, a campuswide effort to donate to eight local Long Island charity organizations.
“Empowering other people to take their futures into their own hands is something that I hope to achieve throughout my career,” she said.
— Glenn Jochum; photo by John Griffin
— via Stony Brook Features