BioMinds Program

SACNAS 2018

Image result for sacnas 2018Banner picture source: http://visitsanantonio.com/2018SACNAS

The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) celebrated its 2018 annual national conference at San Antonio, Texas.

This was my first time ever at a SACNAS national conference, and it was as amazing as everyone said. I had been aware of the existence of SACNAS since my undergraduate years. Everyone had always said how amazing the experience of a SACNAS conference can be. I was skeptical of these comments; however, I can now assure you that they are not exaggerations. SACNAS is unlike any other conference I have been to.

What makes SACNAS a unique conference?

What makes SACNAS unique is the “feeling like home” experience. Every person that I spoke to told me that they had this feeling every time they attend SACNAS. Throughout the conference it is regularly emphasized that they offer a safe space. These are not just words; you can see this in action during workshops and seminars where the audience feels encouraged to speak up about the issues they face as underrepresented groups.

This idea of a safe space was also demonstrated with some of the topics the keynote and featured speakers brought up. Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first latina in space, talked about how she almost convinced herself out of applying to NASA because of the caliber of people that apply. Ed Young, science journalist at The Atlantic, talked about how who you are shapes the science you do. Dr. Lauren Esposito, curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences, talked about the challenges queer scientists face in their careers. All the speakers at some point mentioned worries/concerns/obstacles that are in the mind of everyone that belongs to an underrepresented group, but often are not given the forum to express/address/work through.

I networked at SACNAS more effectively than I had ever before. Networking is difficult, especially in the digital age where spontaneous interactions are scarce. However, because of the environment that SACNAS creates, you find yourself networking without even realizing it.

I met Joshua Hall from the podcast HelloPhD!

One of the times I networked without thinking about it was when I met Dr. Joshua Hall. Recently, I decided to start listening to podcasts while I do mechanical lab work. As I tried to make a list of podcasts I wanted to listen to, I remembered that Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer was interviewed in a podcast named HelloPhD. This is how I found out about Dr. Joshua Hall, who along with Dr. Daniel Arneman, runs HelloPhD. Fast forward to SACNAS 2018, where, during lunch, I saw Joshua Hall’s tweet saying that he is at the conference. I decided to reply that I was there too and that I wanted to meet him.

 

I replied to a tweet from Dr. Joshua Hall asking to meet him. (Twitter: @jdhallphd)

That afternoon he showed up at my poster. We introduced ourselves, talked about his podcast, and about life as a PhD student. He then asked me if I wanted to give him my presentation, I had forgotten I was in front of my poster, so after a brief moment of loading “presentation mode” into my brain I started. The first thing I did was ask if he was familiar with plant immunity, my area of research. Joshua said he had rotated several years ago in Dr. Jeff Dangl’s laboratory, which also studies plant immunity. I could not believe it … Dr. Dangl is my advisor’s post-doctoral advisor. What a small world!

I wanted to share this experience to encourage students to reach out, you never know what great conversations and connections you may develop.

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At SACNAS 2018 with Dr. Joshua Hall from the podcast HelloPhD.

If you are a student (at any level) you should follow Joshua’s podcast. Click here to go to the HelloPhd podcast website.

A story of persistence

I served as a mentor judge for undergraduate poster presentations. When the session started, I immediately went to the first poster and presented myself as her mentor judge. After talking to her, I stepped back to fill out the evaluation form. However, another student came to me and told me that he was given the same poster number as the student I just talked to and he wanted to get feedback. This was my first time attending a SACNAS national conference and I had an awesome experience, so I wanted him (and everyone there) to have the same experience. I apologized and promised to look for an evaluation sheet so that I could give him a score and written feedback.

I finished the first student’s evaluation and went to get another evaluation sheet. Unfortunately, the extra evaluation sheets were outside the Exhibit Hall and I would lose valuable time going outside. I decided to go to the closest exhibitor’s booth and get a piece of promotional material that I could write an evaluation on. I found one and ripped it in half. I took one half and wrote the skeleton of the evaluation sheet and in the other half, I copied the scoring sheet that I had to hand out to the staff at the end of the session. I ran back to the student’s poster and explained to him what I had done. He thanked me for my effort and went on to explain his research.

His name is Lambert Ngenzi, an undergraduate from Washington State University. Lambert investigates the efficiency of a computer program used to survey bodies of water through imaging. The study had the right controls and logical analyses, however what was striking was the motivation behind it. Lambert explained that he is originally from the Congo in Africa, where his community struggles with clean water availability. Ultimately, he wants to attend graduate school to research water quality and management. He wants to apply his research to his home country, which he explained has a fast growing population (more information here). I was amazed. It is not often that you see an undergraduate student that knows how they want to help their community. I went on to encourage him and explained that he already has what a lot of graduate students lack: a direct connection of their research to their community.

The next morning, during the presentations’ awards ceremony, Lambert’s name came up as one of the awardees. I am sharing this to show how, when you know in your heart that what you are doing is right, persistence will bring amazing results.

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At SACNAS 2018 with Lambert Ngenzi after he received the award for best poster presentation in his category.

What do I find at the SACNAS conference?

The SACNAS national conference has everything from sessions on specific science topics to workshops on grant writing. Below are pictures of the title screens for some of the sessions I attended:

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Some of the session I attended at SACNAS 2018.

Why should I attend the SACNAS conference?

I will definitely try to attend the SACNAS national conference every year that I can. It is an opportunity to: 1) connect with your network and expand on it, 2) help undergraduates and your peers with their communication skills, 3) present your research to a group with a diverse scientific background, and last but not least 4) recharge your energy. Every one that attended SACNAS leaves with many new ideas and connections/relationships, but something this conference is unique in giving you are new batteries. If I can emerge from a conference in Texas recharged, I can only imagine how amplified this recharge will be next year in Hawaii.

I hope to see you at SACNAS 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii!

Acknowledging my travel funding sources

More pictures of SACNAS 2018

AAAS 2018 CASE

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“The nations may be divided in everything else, but they all share a single body of science.” – Isaac Asimov (Source: Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (1988), 270.)

With the goal of exposing scientists to science policy early in their careers the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosts the annual CASE workshop. This three and a half day experience in Washington D.C. aims to expose senior undergraduates and graduate students in STEM to the organization and structure of Congress, the federal budget, appropriations processes, policy-making and effective communication tools in politics. The day after the workshop the students form groups to meet with their representatives in Congress and congressional staff to put to use the skills they learned.

At The Ohio State University (OSU), the Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy took on the task of selecting four students from a competitive pool of students across colleges and departments. For the 2018 CASE workshop the selected students were: Jonathan Ogland-Hand, PhD student in Environmental Science; Miguel Lopez Jr, PhD student in Biomedical Sciences, Natalie Hurst; BS student in Public Policy; and myself.

All four students from OSU that went to this workshop came from different colleges, which made the experience a more enriching one. On our day to day lives as students we are often surrounded by our peers that are in the same field. Working together with  students from different backgrounds gives you a new perspective from which to look at your science.

PhD students often find themselves lost as to what kind of jobs they can get after they get their degree. The path that most PhD students are familiar with is: getting a Post-doc, and then trying to find a tenure-track position at a prestigious university. However, the fact is that not all PhD students want to go on that path. The challenge that graduate programs face is to identify the needs of their students and give them the tools they need to succeed. Programs like the CASE workshop are tools to help students identify the path they would like to pursue. The earlier on their career they identify this the better they will be able to prepare to tackle the future beyond the thesis defense.

Below are some pictures from this experience:

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Doing the O-H-I-O with Senator Rob Portman. From left to right: Natalie Hurst, Priscila Rodriguez Garcia, Miguel Lopez Jr, Senator Rob Portman, and Jonathan Ogland.

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Ex-President Obama’s office back when he was a senator.

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We had to do the O-H-I-O at the AAAS headquarters in Washington D.C. Left to right: Natalie Hurst, Priscila Rodriguez Garcia, Jonathan Ogland, and Miguel Lopez Jr.

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I got to ride on the train that runs beneath Capitol Hill!

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The 2018 CASE Workshop participants (March 18-21, 2018). Picture source: CASE website.

Yale Ciencia Academy

YCA

Yale Ciencia Academy (YCA) is a year-long program that provides graduate students with opportunities for mentoring, peer support, and networking; for developing skills that are important for career advancement; and for contributing to their communities through science outreach.

I am a YCA Fellow form the 2017 cohort. The program is conducted largely online (video conference), except for the annual face-to-face meeting that occurs at the AAAS conference in February. All expenses to attend this conference are paid by the program. The opportunity to attend the AAAS conference was beneficial not only as part of the YCA, but as a scientist. The AAAS conference offers a wide range of activities for networking and career development for its attendees.

As part of the program we had different opportunities to enhance our training. From conversations with scientists in the industry and in academia, to peer discussion about impostor syndrome. The following list is taken from the YCA website:

  • Conversations with successful scientists and mentors– Online video chats with role models and mentors who are in a variety of academic and non-academic careers. These conversations include Q&A sessions where professionals share their experiences, insights, and practical advice on diverse topics, including having careers in and outside of academiagetting fundedsecuring a postdoc, and work/life balance.
  • Moderated peer discussions – Online video discussions between program fellows to facilitate networking, peer mentoring, and community building. During peer discussions, participants have the opportunity to discuss topics including mentoring concernsimportant milestones, and common challenges in graduate training, and addressing the imposter syndrome.
  • Workshops for skills development – The program features professional development workshops (online and in-person) on topics including:
    • Defining and working towards professional goals
    • Mentoring
    • Scientific teaching
    • Effective communication
  • Science outreach & leadership – Participants have the opportunity to impact their communities through science outreach activities like the publication of popular science articles or podcasts or visits of local schools. See examples of our fellows’ outreach projects from 2016 and 2017.
  • Annual face-to-face meeting – In-person meeting of all participants during the AAAS conference in February, to extend opportunities for networking and professional development.

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Yale Ciencia Academy 2017 Cohort at the AAAS conference (February 2017)

CMBP

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The Cellular, Molecular, and Biochemical Sciences Program (CMBP) is graduate training program at The Ohio State University. This program supports PhD students for two years and aims to facilitate career development opportunities to their students throughout their graduate training. The program achieves its goal through monthly research meetings, annual symposia, career workshops, ethics training, CMBP-specific courses, a scientific writing workshop, optional internship programs, and career monitoring. CMBP trainees also have travel funds available through the program. Incoming PhD students can be nominated by their departments and current students in their second year can apply.

CMBP/CRB Symposium

CMBP hosts an annual symposium with the Center for RNA Biology (CRB). This is a day-long event organized by the students with the program coordinators assisting them. Students nominate speakers for the symposium, a vote is carried out, and the winners are invited. Senior students from both CMBP and CRB present at the symposium and a poster session, where all students participate, also takes place. A couple of days before the symposium the students host a journal club in which scientific articles from the speakers are discussed. The students also host a panel with the speakers the day before the symposium, where students can engage the speakers about their science as well as career advice.

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Marcos Corchado (left) and Priscila Rodriguez Garcia (right) presenting at the Journal Club for the 2018 CMBP/CRB Annual Sympisoum [Picture source: @OSU_RNA on Twitter].

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Priscila Rodriguez Garcia as a second-year PhD student presenting her research at the CMBP/CRB Annual Symposium in May 2018 [Picture taken by: Dr. R. K. Slotkin].

Casa Pueblo

 

Curso Corto Residencial en Casa Pueblo

During the spring semester of my sophomore year (2009) I participated in a short course titled: “Advances in Tropical Microbial Ecology”. The purpose of this course was expose students to an environment where the needs of the community are addressed through science, and to introduce the students to the concept of a “global citizen” through ethics.

We were a group of thirty students staying at Casa Pueblo (official website in Spanish) over the course of five days. All of us were enrolled in two credits of “Special Topics in Biology” of UPRM (University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez). We had thirty contact hours with the professors in charge of the course: Dr. Larry Forney (Director of the Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies; Professor of Biology, University of Idaho), Dr. Eva Top (Professor of Biology, University of Idaho), and Dr. Arturo Massol-Deya, (Professor of Biology, University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez).

This short course involved small group activities, oral presentations, and lectures on community ecology, adaptive evolution, biological diversity, resource competition, and other topics. We also went on field trips to the local forests and visited areas where the community engaged with scientists in projects on agriculture, energy, and water resources.

Casa Pueblo is a community organization that manages local forest reserves and offers educational activities. Casa Pueblo is currently operating with renewable energy systems, especially solar energy. They are making the case for the shift to solar energy in Puerto Rico.

I encourage students to take opportunities like this whenever possible. The skills you acquire during these experiences will shape how you view the world and will only serve to give you a different perspective when tackling problems in your future.

Below is an excerpt from the blog entries I made during this course:

Sunday April 5, 2009

… Arturo presented the team of professors that was going to work with us. Larry and Eva were both microbial ecologists, but there was also a philosopher – Jason. … I’m sure I speak for every student in the course when I say we were shocked. I never imagined how philosophy could be matched with microbiology. …

At night, we went to “Finca Madre Isla”, where the first activity was held. This activity consisted of answering: “What do I know?”, “How do I know it?” and “What am I going to do with that knowledge?” …

Monday, April 6, 2009

… We were introduced to the term “Biodiversity” which was the center of controversy through the rest of the course. This happened not only because it is a broad concept to visualize, but because it makes some decisions difficult to make. For example the decision of constructing more houses or new hospitals, this implies the manipulation of the land which can affect biodiversity.

… The next activity came up; this time we had to formulate our own hypothesis and specific aims to prove this theory. … It was a tough task we had ahead of us, with little time, not much ways to get accurate information and a team of professors, experts in this area waiting to evaluate our work. … After almost two hours of work we were required to present our result. The truth was that none of us in the group was ready, we only had a vague idea of our aims and the topic was not yet clearly formulated. But the show must go on, and we did our best in the last 10 minutes to make our presentation understandable. …

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

… After enjoying the astounding view we reunited to hear Jason’s presentation the ethical matrix. At that moment I felt nothing could be more exciting than to hear what Jason’s got to say, so I sat down and listen more closely than ever.  I thought I understood what he said, so I made no questions. Then we went deeper in the forest and reunited again. … Each group was given a case to use the ethical matrix and decide which the best plan of action is. Our topic had to do with agriculture, economics and Puerto Rico’s sustainability. …

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

… After completing the exercise the closing ceremony started. Certificates of participation in the course were granted and the team of professors and the Massol family expressed their feelings about the experience. It was a very emotional moment, and although I was very tired I honestly didn’t want it to end. …

REU

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What is an REU?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research experiences for undergraduates in different universities across the United States. These experiences are called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). Students apply to these programs, that occur during the summer, and if they are chosen to participate their travel expenses will be covered and a stipend will be given. If you are a student and think you might be interested in doing research, then I highly recommend applying for an REU. Click here to search for REU by science field.

In which REU did I participate and what did I work on?

In the summer of 2011 I participated in the REU at Delaware State University. I worked under the mentorship of Dr. Venugopal Kalavacharla in the project titled: “Identification of genes involved in bean rust resistance using cDNA-AFLP”. The common bean plant (Phaseolus vulgaris) is susceptible to a fungal pathogen called Uromyces appendiculatus, which causes bean rust. However, some variants of the bean plant are resistant to bean rust. My goal was to compare the genes that are expressed in a resistant plant to the genes that are expressed in a susceptible plant to identify genes that are different between these plants, which might be involved in the resistance mechanism.

 

Running a gel at Dr. Kalavacharla’s lab at Delaware State University during the REU.

What did I learn?

In terms of techniques, I learned how to extract RNA and convert it to cDNA, and I also learned how to do AFLP (Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism). This last technique is the one I used to compare the “expression fingerprint” of the resistant versus susceptible plants.

This was the first time I did research outside of my university, so I experienced how to communicate with other scientists in English (100% of the time). It was also my first time working on a new research project and in a short amount of time having to learn its background, work on it, and develop a presentation.

We were also exposed to ethics seminar on a weekly basis. This experience exposed me to ethics concepts that I had no exposure to before.

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Poster I presented at the end of my REU at Delaware State University

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Some of the friends I made at the REU. [From left to right: Myself, Maryam Muhammad, Khaliyah Abikoye, and Natalie Kendall]

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I went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City!

What was the BioMINDs Program?

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The Bio-MINDS Program was an initiative funded by the Amgen Foundation with the University of Puerto Rico. Its goal was to promote undergraduate research in STEM.

I was part of this initiative from 2009 until 2011 having my first research experience under the mentorship of Dr. Carlos Rodriguez at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez Campus.

As part of the program students had to write three blogs per semester about their experience. At the end of their fourth semester in the program they had to write and abstract and submit it to present at the 31st Puerto Rico Interdisciplinary Meeting & 46th Junior Technical Meeting” (PRISM/JTM 2011).

I encourage all undergraduate students to find similar programs that expose them to research. Having this experience will only benefit you. You can find my posts for this program in this section (Bachelor’s Experience > BioMinds Program).

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Presenting a poster (for the first time) of my research at the Sigma Xi Poster Day at UPRM in Spring of 2011 as part of the BioMinds Program.

Third Bio-Blog Post [3rd semester BioMinds]

This is a sample in images of the work I have been doing for the last two years with my mentor Dr. Carlos Rodriguez-Minguela in the BioMinds Program at UPR-Mayaguez

When I entered the BioMinds Program I was a sophomore. I was starting to take specific course in biology and chemistry. In the first year in BioMinds I was working on a research that had to do much with microbiology. Then, in the second year in BioMinds (this year) I am working on a research that although is in microbiology, it has more to do with genetics. This two experience along with my curriculum helped me realize that I want to pursue an academic career in genetics. After this realization one question remained: will I work for the industry or the university? This is not a simple question, for the future is uncertain and money is a necessity. But thanks to my research experience (made possible by BioMinds) I can say I would like to work for the university. I hope that the future circumstances make this desire possible, and if they don’t I plan to work my way into it.

Second Bio-Blog Post [4th semester BioMinds]

We have had progress in the new project I am working on. I am working with Glenda, a graduate student in Dr. Carlos Rodriguez’ laboratory. We are comparing antibiotic resistance we find in hospitals with antibiotic resistance (ABR) we find in coastal regions impacted by human activity. This comparison has yield a 98-100% match through protein and DNA sequence. We are now in the process of specific identification of the microorganisms found to have this ABR genes. I plan to have this completed by the end of this semester. Time has still been one of my obstacles because I am now in my 4th year of college, which means the courses I am taking are a lot more difficult than they used to be, but up until now I haven’t fall behind on my work. Finally, I think an achievement for me has been to adapt to this new investigation, because I never worked with integrons (the carriers of ABR genes) before. I will be presenting my progress this Saturday, March 12 in PRISM 2011, which I am very excited for.

Abstract for PRISM/JTM 2011 [1st bio-blog post in 4th semester]

Probing for integron–encoded antibiotic resistance among fecal indicator bacteria.

Priscila Rodríguez, Glendalis Vargas and Carlos Rodríguez, Industrial Biotechnology, Biology Department, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

Traditionally fecal bacteria have been used as indicators of water quality. Based on their detection, it is inferred that fecal contamination has occurred and that potential harmful microorganisms might be present at the tested site. However with this culture-based approach, it is not possible to evaluate inconspicuous risks to human health posed by the presence of transmissible genetic determinants that increase the pathogenic potential of their hosts. Recently, integrons, a genetic system carried by bacteria, have been implicated in the establishment and dispersal of antibiotic resistance, or ABR, traits which include protection mechanisms against the most important antibiotics used for the treatment of infection in humans. To evaluate the presence of integron-encoded resistance among indicator bacteria, axenic cultures presumptively characterized as coliforms, with n= 66, and enterococci, with n=66, were recovered from coastal environments with a history of wastewater impact. These were submitted to an integron-targeted PCR assay for the retrieval of antibiotic resistance genes. Six coliform isolates and six enterococci strains were positive for the presence of ABR genes encoded by class 1 integrons. DNA sequencing analyses revealed the presence of genes 99-100% identical to determinants conferring resistance against beta-lactam antibiotics, trimethoprim, and quaternary ammonium compounds. Our results indicate that exposure to environments impacted by wastewater contamination may constitute a risk for human health as resistance mechanisms which compromise the effectiveness of treatment options for bacterial infections were found in viable bacteria outside healthcare settings. We give thanks to BioMinds which has sponsored part of this investigation.