What do you do?
I am enrolled in a research-based PhD program in the field of chemical biology. Part of my works involves the chemical synthesis of modified nucleic acids, with a particular focus on small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These double-stranded RNAs get their name because they interfere with (or reduce) the expression of target genes through the natural RNA interference pathway. This occurs in a sequence-specific manner, meaning that the siRNA sequence must be complementary to the target mRNA sequence. If we want to downregulate the expression of a specific protein, we can synthesize siRNAs that code for it. This not only makes siRNAs potent experimental tools to study gene function, but also potential therapeutics as many diseases are characterized by aberrant gene expression. Unfortunately, there are some limitations to the use of siRNAs as therapeutics, including their low stability and poor cellular uptake. I work on synthesizing chemically-modified siRNAs to improve their pharmacokinetic properties. In particular, I am focusing on improving their delivery to target cells. I have explored the use lipophilic carriers, like cholesterol, but I am most interested in the use of receptor-targeting ligands that allow for selective delivery to cancer cells. For example, folic acid is able to bind folate receptors which are often overexpressed in cancer cells, despite being expressed at low levels in normal tissues. I have synthesized a library of folic acid-modified siRNAs, and I am currently investigating their gene-silencing activity in various cancer cell lines and against different gene targets.
Why did you choose this field?
From a young age, I have been interested in Biology. When I started my undergraduate degree in Biological Science, I knew I wanted to be a medical doctor or a Biology teacher. I honestly had not considered pursuing graduate studies at the time. This all changed in my last year of undergrad when one of my Professors encouraged me to apply for an undergraduate Honours Thesis project. The project was very interesting, but it involved a lot of chemical synthesis which I had no experience with. Although I was a bit hesitant at first, I have always been a firm believer in saying “yes” to opportunity – even if it means figuring it out as a go! If I hadn’t taken on that project, I wouldn’t have realized how much I enjoy research. It was definitely challenging, but I was lucky to have a great supervisor and team. I learned a lot during those 8 months as an undergraduate thesis student and became very interested in the research taking place in the Desaulniers Lab at Ontario Tech University – so much that I ended up staying in the same lab for a Master’s and later transferring into my current PhD program.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
In my last year of undergrad, I was the recipient of an award for Excellence in Student Leadership at Ontario Tech University. This is one of the most meaningful recognitions I’ve received. I was born and raised in Venezuela, and I moved to Canada in 2012 to pursue post-secondary education. My first year of undergrad was quite challenging. I was very shy. I felt out of place. I was homesick. Fortunately, I found a great support system at my institution, and this group motivated me to get involved on campus. There is no better feeling than giving back, and I am proud to have been able to positively impact other students’ journeys.
Why do you love working in STEM?
STEM is never boring! There is always more to know; always more to learn. It’s very exciting for me. Of course, it is not an easy journey. Research makes you step out of your comfort zone and think outside the box. You don’t just learn lab techniques but also many life skills. I think that makes it all so much more rewarding at the end.
Best advice for next generation?
Take advantage of opportunities that come your way! No matter how scary or intimidating they may seem, you can do it. Fight for your dreams and don’t settle. Work hard but don’t be too hard on yourself.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”