Each month, we feature a short bio from one of our trainees.  The full interview, along with archived stories appear below.

 

 

Seyi Falekun

(September 2021)

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What drew you to science?

My interest in science started in high school when I became a member of a Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) club. All members of the club had the opportunity to perform various experiments we read in textbooks. Thanks to my teachers who challenged us to come up with interesting projects. I remember designing and executing a project to generate biogas (methane) from biomass which I presented at one of the nation’s junior scientific exhibitions. These high school experiences intensified my curiosity and interest in science and made me decide to study biochemistry to date.

Did any aspect of your upbringing or culture have an influence on you?

Thriving in all aspects of life is deeply rooted in the Nigerian culture. In fact, most Nigerians have a colloquial motto – “Naija nor dey carry last” (meaning Nigerians succeed under any given circumstances). Due to the high population and very few opportunities, Nigerians tend to be very competitive. I think this has been a major influence on my resilience in life and science.

What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing a science career?

Nowadays, most scientists are judged by how many publications they have and how well they present science and answer questions. I understand these are very important factors but I think we should look beyond that and evaluate scientists based on their relevance, relative qualities, and the impacts they have in their respective fields of study published or unpublished. This has been my challenge.

 

What do you research and is this always what you wanted to study?

Although studying malaria parasites had always fascinated me, I was not particular about a research topic when applying to graduate school. I was more interested in joining a lab that would teach me “how to learn” and sharpen my critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Currently, my project focuses on understanding the basic and divergent biology of human malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum. Specifically, my projects focus on identifying essential pathways in the mitochondrion and apicoplast (a relict non-photosynthetic chloroplast), two critical organelles in the parasite. So far, I have identified a divergent acyl carrier protein in the mitochondrion (mACP), a protein that canonically plays an important role in type-II fatty acid biosynthesis (FASII). I discovered that although mACP has lost all FASII-dependent functions, it retains an essential role to actively mediate iron-sulfur cluster biosynthesis in the parasite.

Is there anything else you would like to share that might be encouraging to prospective trainees?

Although it sounds like a cliché, no one should be afraid to fail! Failure is actually a key ingredient for great success. My past and present failures have brought me this far. The mistake one should avoid is dwelling on failure for too long without making something out of it. I always see failure as a spiral spring that plunges me into great successes. Science is full of failures, so be prepared to take advantage of them. 

 


Faith Bowman

(August 2021)

faith-bowman.jpg What drew you to science?

I have always been interested in science. I come from a family of healers where my mom, aunts, and immediate family work in various parts of healthcare as registered nurses, nurse practitioners, certified nursing assistants, etc.…Growing up I heard a lot of medical jargon and case management stories on different treatments for various metabolically-linked diseases like diabetes and heart failure. In addition, I have many people in my family with diabetes. Therefore, I was very familiar with the patient experience and management of metabolic disease through medical (e.g Insulin pumps) and community-based interventions (We are Healers initiative). When I entered high school, I joined a biomedical science program, and there my interest in science flourished. In this program, I was able to explore biological systems; healthcare careers; and research processes in depth using the same tools utilized by professionals. I learned basic laboratory skills such as PCR, pipetting handling, DNA extraction, and even conducted ELISA’s before even going to college. I found this very exciting! Being in Biomed sparked my interest in research tremendously! It was there that I honed into the field of genetics and regenerative medicine ultimately leading me to major in genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and eventually to the University of Utah.

 Did any aspect of your upbringing or culture have an influence on you?

I think my culture had a major influence on me. I grew up in an urban Indigenous community in Milwaukee, WI. I attended an all Native American primary school where culture, arts, and the humanities were integrated into our education to ensure indigenous representation in contemporary America. However, no cultural explanations or connections were made to understand the nature of our physical world, specifically biology. A gene was simply a gene, disconnected from the rest of our body and contradictory to our stories and traditions. As I progressed in my education and attended a non-indigenous institution, I learned more about basic biology and the metabolic mechanisms that sustain us. When I got to college, I began to bridge my indigenous identity with my identity as a budding scientist. I learned of more instances of genetics determining and defining a community without collaboration from the community itself. Unfortunately, there were many more cases of research doing ethical harm in these communities than doing good. As an indigenous scientist, I wanted to help be the change and be an advocate.

Currently, I am passionate about promoting the exchange of ideas across institutional and cultural boundaries, promoting scientific literacy as well as, improving the relationship between and the representation of underrepresented minority (URM) communities in STEM, particularly between the 574 Native Nations encompassing Indian country in the United States. With my PhD, I hope to collaborate with other research professionals in different fields to ultimately create culturally responsive therapies and education workshops that provide scientific and health literacy to URM communities. In addition, I want to help tear down the historical distrust and stigmatization around genetics and research that has resulted in weak STEM education in URM communities and disproportionate representation in the biological sciences. My vision for science is one of greater accessibility, communication, and representation because without the unique cultural capital that we all possess as individuals, medicinal treatment and innovative therapies may remain stagnant.

 What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing a science career?

The biggest challenge for me is retraining my brain from thinking as a knowledge consumer to becoming a knowledge producer. This challenge is a typical growing pain of graduate studies, but I have always felt as if my brain processes information differently from others. Perhaps due to my upbringing, I am very accustomed to understanding and crafting big picture narratives. I find these to be similar to the storytelling aspect of my culture. This skill is very handy for writing grants and science communication. However, in other areas of our training as graduate students, it feels as though there is a physical wall in my brain that I am trying to break through, but the wall won't come down. I am lucky to be at the U and in the biochemistry department, because everyone is helpful, collaborative, and open, so you never feel completely alone in that challenge.

Another challenge is retaining connectivity in life; staying connected with friends, with family, and with my culture. Utah is amazing in that there are many places to explore, but it is always more fun exploring with people you love.

 What do you research and is this always what you wanted to study?

I am a graduate student in the Schlegel and Holland Labs. I am currently studying the role of FOXN3 in glucagon receptor antagonist (GRA)-mediated beta cell regeneration & cardioprotection. Currently, there is rising interest in the use of GRA’s as therapies for diabetes and heart disease. Preclinical studies have shown that through blocking of glucagon action we can improve glycemia in T1D and control glucose homeostasis in T2D patients. Furthermore, recent exploration of GRA’s in the heart of mice, show that administration following a heart attack or progressive overload event results in blunted cardiac hypertrophy and/or suppressed hypertrophy and possible preservation of systolic and diastolic functions. However, it remains unknown how GRA’s are promoting this change, I believe FOXN3 could be a key player. I have not always wanted to study this topic. Initially I wanted to be a genetic counselor educating families about potential genetic diagnosis; however, I am happy to be conducting research that will impact the world of diabetic and heart disease patients. As I mentioned before I have a lot of diabetics in my family, in fact diabetes is a leading disease affecting my community. So I feel as if the work I am doing could help the next seven generations of Indigenous families. Furthermore, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, of which diabetics are more likely to develop heart disease. Given these comorbidities, it is important to understand the mechanism by which these processes thrive and are disrupted to help generate better ways to maintain glucose homeostasis while promoting cardioprotection.

 Is there anything else you would like to share that might be encouraging to prospective trainees?

My main advice to trainees or potential trainees is to lean on each other. The people that you meet take classes with, see at department retreats understand your feelings and experiences the most. They can help you through some of the challenges, and vice versa, you can help them. No matter where you go or what you do with life after your doctorate, you can always lean on this community. You never know, they may be your potential future collaborators.

My second advice is to trust your science! You will know your topic best as you progress in your training. In the beginning, it's going to be hard and you may feel like an imposter, but you've earned your spot at the U and you were chosen for a reason. Just remember you are valued and you have value!

 


Supraja Ranganathan

(July 2021)

supraja-ranganathan-1.jpgWhat drew you to science?

Growing up I always loved biology. Since middle school biology was everything and, during high school, I learned I hated computers. So, I knew I didn’t want to go into engineering no matter what. I did study biology as my major and then I aimed to become a doctor, but then with all the reservation systems in India I did not get the cutoff to get into medical school. Based on that, I decided to try other things and that’s when I stumbled onto biotechnology as a major. I just googled what biotechnology university options there were and joined the school that Google told me was the best in Biotechnology. During my undergrad, I got an Indian Academy of Sciences Fellowship which was my first ever research experience and that’s where I decided research was for me.

What are the strengths and challenges for science in the country you came from?

One strength is that there are a lot of people who are increasingly interested in science. So, you just have a lot more students who want to pursue science. For example, my country is based off traditional medicine like Ayurveda and stuff like that. This is fine, but it’s not proof-based science. The current generation is curious and starting to move towards proof-based science. However, a con would be that there’s limited technological advances, at least there was 10 years ago, so people tend to leave India to pursue science so they can work at institutions with world class technology.

Financial challenges also exist because as a PhD student in India you earn much less than what you earn here. For example, you wouldn’t be able to cover living expenses with the Fellowships they offer in India. Another challenge is that the work culture isn’t great since it is very hierarchy based as far as I know and have experienced. However, this is changing because people have been trained outside India and have come back to India to establish their own labs.

Is there anything else you would like to share that might be encouraging to prospective trainees?

In general, I would just say be curious and be ready to learn and unlearn. Be receptive to learning from anyone around you and be open to suggestions. For prospective students, they should come with an open mind of wanting to explore rather than narrowing their scientific view to one particular outlook that they have grown up with. When you read more research papers and meet new people, you get new perspectives and you can’t gain anything from this without having an open mind. For example, I came here with the view that I would only study cancer biology. However, when I came here, I decided to explore since I had three rotation opportunities. This helped me figure out what would be best for me. I started with only wanting to study cancer biology and now I’m in an RNA lab that is not cancer related.

What do you enjoy/miss from your country?

Definitely the food. I miss it because you get up and you walk outside your house and you see small food stalls all around. You don’t have to go long distances for a lot of food options and it’s cheaper than food options in the United States. Also, I miss hanging out with my family, all the large social events, and the music scene. Being far away has been very difficult, especially since I haven’t been able to visit since the pandemic situation. 

 


Miguel Pereira, Ph.D.

(June 2021)

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I moved to the United States in 1984 from Lisbon, Portugal when I was seven years old. My father was Portuguese and my mother is American, so during those first seven years I learned to speak Portuguese to everyone except my mom, who only spoke to me in English. After the move to the United States, my father and I continued to only communicate in Portuguese. I think that being raised bilingual from birth had a major positive effect on my mental development and aptitude. 

As a kid I naturally gravitated to playing with legos. I also from a young age constantly asked my parents questions about how the world works. My parents nurtured that part of my personality by buying all the legos I wanted when I still lived in Portugal, and they bought me the complete set of the world book encyclopedia soon after we moved to the United States. What drew me to science was this inherent curiosity I had about nature as a kid. As I got older I realized that science is the process by which we try our best to get at the truth, and that appealed to me.

My research is now focused on better understanding the first half of the HIV virus lifecycle. Prior to my current work in the Sundquist lab I investigated how the conformational dynamics of catalytic RNA molecules called ribozymes correlated to their function in the laboratory of Nils Walter at the University of Michigan. My initial interest in virology came about because it was an area that I did not have any direct prior experience in but found interesting, and I felt that virology was similar enough to what I had done before that I would be successful in making that transition.

My biggest challenge in pursuing a career in science has been having to deal with people in positions of power who motivated me to walk away so that I no longer have to deal with them. Thankfully those type of people have been the minority in my career, none of them has caused a major setback for me in the long term, and this is not a challenge that I am currently facing. I think this type of challenge is not unique to science but is something everyone who navigates the professional working world has to contend with.

This also ties into advice I would give to prospective trainees: science is a team endeavor, the people you decide to surround yourself with matter, so take that decision of what team you join seriously. Finally, understand that as great as doing science is, you will generate data that is not what you were hoping for, so it is essential that patience and persistence be a part of your character if you want to ultimately be successful. 

 


Osiris Martinez-Guzmán , Ph.D.

(May 2021)

osiris-martinez-guzman.jpgWhat drew you to science? Did any aspect of your upbringing or culture have an influence on you? 

My older sister has been one of the biggest influences on me and my interest in science. She exposed me to science pretty early on; she would talk to me about her research and take me to her lab to show me the instrumentation, which made me curious about the science path as a career. She also showed me what graduate school was like and how it was a great next step for me. I also had an amazing seventh-grade science teacher that sparked my interest in science by performing cool science demos that made science fun and interesting.  

What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing a science career? 

The biggest challenge for me has been being away from home and family while pursuing a career in the science. Leaving Puerto Rico for my graduate career was by far one of the hardest decisions Ive had to make, but one of the most rewarding too. The experience has made me stronger and more independent, while making me appreciate more the time I spend with my family and making it even more special. I know that my decisions have helped me incredibly in my development as a scientist, but I still find it difficult missing out moments with my family. But thanks to modern technology we have founds ways to stay connected.  

What do you research and is this always what you wanted to study? 

My research is involved in understanding the importance of nutrient compartmentalization, specifically how cells manage, utilize, and process elevated levels of amino acids in order to combat metabolic overload. The Hughes lab discovered a novel mitochondria protein remodeling pathway called the Mitochondria Derived Compartment (MDC) in which elevated levels of amino acids, especially BCAAs, activate this pathway. Because these MDCs selectively incorporate a group of mitochondrial proteins that are sequentially removed and degraded within lysosomes, I am studying the role of this pathway in the remodeling of cellular and subcellular metabolism. During undergrad, I was very interested in prions and Alzheimer’s disease, so I assume I would lean towards that type of research, but nutrient regulation and organelle communication is a research topic I got heavily interested in during my graduate career and I am very happy I get the chance to work in it.  

Is there anything else you would like to share that might be encouraging to prospective trainees? 

I would say that it is very important to trust yourself and pursue what you are interested in without any doubt. In the begging of my graduate school, I was feeling very insecure of myself because I came from a different background and studied in a small undergrad program that taught science in Spanish. But after getting settled, I realized that none of that mattered, that I only needed to hard work and dedication to secure success in graduate school. 

 


Aldo García-Guerrero, Ph.D.

(April 2021)

aldo-guerrero.jpgWhat drew you to science? 

I would say my interest in research began when I was kid and I felt curious in 2 main topics: Nature of volcanoes and archeology. But, at high-school in Mexico everything changed in my Biology class, I was super excited when I heard for the first time that mitochondria has a bacteria-origin, so I started to develop the interest to understand how scientists are able to reach those type of conclusions. So, I started to search for those careers I could apply to become a scientist. The National University in Mexico offers an undergraduate program in Biomedical Sciences in which undergrad students have their classes, but also, they have the opportunity to rotate at different research labs. I was super lucky and fortunate to be accepted into this program, so my scientific career began at an early age.

What are the strengths and challenges for science in the country you came from? 

In Mexico there are many smart and creative scientists.  We have excellent graduate programs and I would say we don’t lack people who have a big interest in becoming a scientist. However, Mexico still has a long way to go.  We are dealing with 3 major issues: a tight budget, science centralization in Mexico City, and brain drain to other countries. Regarding centralization, in the last years many efforts have been made to create new institutions in different states.  Now that we have more institutions outside of Mexico city, it is a great opportunity for the whole Mexican community to approach science.

Is there anything else you would like to share that might be encouraging to prospective trainees? 

Do not be afraid to look for graduate programs or postdoctoral positions here in our department. When I arrived, I noticed a friendly and inclusive department. In this place, you’ll find a strong scientific community with a great sense of helping each other.

What do you enjoy/miss from your country? 

My country has plenty of traditions and it’s rich in diversity, this can be seen in our celebrations and our exquisite food. I would say what I missed the most is the food and “Día de Muertos” (Day of the Death). On this day, I celebrate with my family.  We have the tradition to gather at a family dinner, where I prepare many entrees and we all build our “ofrenda” to offer food to our beloved family members or friends who have passed away.