What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?
Developmental Genetics and Evolution. I’m really interested in how novel traits evolved, and were conserved throughout phyla.
What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?
I was inspired to pursue science after attending my first SACANAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science) conference as an undergraduate. At the time, my GPA was far from exceptional, I was working two jobs to pay for school, and I was battling a number of issues with little to no direction. That conference made me feel like there was more to science than being some kind of intellectual prodigy, which I clearly was not. One of the speakers at that conference, Dr. Hannah Valentine, the former Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity at the NIH, truly inspired me to stay in this field. The way she talked about science and innovation as a collaborative effort that needs new minds from all backgrounds really pushed me to pursue this field. She truly made me feel like the world needed diversified scientists to go out there and contribute to scientific innovation.
Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?
I hope that my research impacts those with similar questions and inspires them to delve deeper into their own endeavors. When I entered the field of science, I didn’t understand impact factors, journals, or publications. I was just a naive undergrad reading papers from over forty years ago, trying to find whatever could help advance my own research. At that time, a former PhD student, now Dr. Azar Korbacheh, asked me, “What if no one reads my publications? Would they matter?” and it’s something I really reflected on. For me, there will always be a young, new mind trying to build a project, understand a topic, or find a cure for a long-lasting problem in science or the world. I hope that my research, no matter how big or small, finds some student in that dark corner of the library and inspires them to pursue something bigger, just as Dr. Kordbacheh and others have inspired me.
How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?
A question I have always received is: why is your research important, and why should we care? As scientists, we often forget the significance of studying topics like ecology or evolution, even from a genetics perspective. I believe that the importance of my research is highly relevant and can have implications that impact the biodiversity of taxa in one of the most struggling ecosystems in the world: our oceans. The understanding of how marine species have evolved and continue to adapt to rapidly changing ecosystems directly relates to environmental management, conservation, and even public health. I like to reflect on the discovery of Taq polymerase, which revolutionized PCR in the early 1980s and was initially found in the bacterium Thermus aquaticus. In response to why this is important, I usually reply that breakthroughs can be found in unexpected places. I think of the advancement of science through a quote from Vincent van Gogh, “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”
What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?
For me, the most pressing issue is understanding how poecilogony, a life history trait that involves the production of polymorphic larvae, is expressed and evolves in marine invertebrates. Although it may not be the most significant question in my field, I believe it is a question that involves various approaches and applications within our field. I find that the more you try to narrow something down in science, such as developmental biology or genetics, the more questions arise. I aspire to one day have a deeper understanding of this topic, to advance the field or generate new questions.
How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?
The GG Scholars program has already impacted my work in many ways. The courses offered through this program emphasize collaborative learning and an objective understanding of numerous topics in science. They have helped me grasp the significance of various research areas and expanded my thinking, enabling me to employ different approaches to comprehend all subjects and apply them to my own research. In my opinion, this is one of the most critical skills to possess as a scientist.
How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?
I study a marine worm that’s smaller than the size of your finger. What’s interesting about these worms is that they have a rare trait that comes from their DNA (called poecilogeny). This means that before they are born, the egg they hatch out of has the genetic instructions or DNA that allows them to take one of two forms. 1 form has the worm hatch with more than a hundred brothers and sisters to swim in the ocean and eat algae to survive. The second form is where the worm survives on their egg yolk and only hatches with anywhere from twenty to sixty brothers and sisters. My goal is to understand how the DNA tells them what they need to turn into before they are born.
What’s your dream job?
Becoming an evolutionary biologist has always been my dream job. I started out late in the game, first by disappointing my family, all of whom wanted me to go to school to become a nurse, and then by changing my degree plan during my senior year of undergraduate studies. Through a lot of hard work, I ended up here at NC State. It’s here that I finally feel like I’m one step closer to my dream.