Mentor: Graeme Mardon, Ph.D.
Undergraduate major: Cell and Molecular Biology
Undergraduate school: California State University Northridge (CSUN)
Research Interests: Pathogenesis and Gene Therapy of Inherited Retinal Disease; Molecular mechanisms of Leber Congenital Amaurosis; Investigating the role of potassium channel KCNJ13 in outer retinal function and survival.
Roman D, Zhong H, Yaklichkin S, Chen R, Mardon G. (2018) Conditional Loss of Kcnj13 in the Retinal Pigment Epithelium Causes Photoreceptor Degeneration. Experimental Eye Research.
Describe your research
My research focuses on the pathogenesis and gene therapy of inherited childhood blindness disease, Leber Congenital Amaurosis. My project investigates the role of potassium channel Kcnj13 in outer retinal function and survival in order to improve the understanding how the retinal pigment epithelium maintains the metabolically-demanding photoreceptor function and survival. Using unique conditional knockout mouse models, we are able to study the molecular mechanisms, pathogenesis, and treatment of Kcnj13-associated retinal degeneration.
Why did you choose your mentor?
I selected Dr. Graeme Mardon as my mentor in order to grow as a researcher through rigorous training. During my rotation, I experienced how his mentorship and leadership instills an appreciation for the scientific rigor needed to produce quality science. This environment helped my growth as an independent researcher and scholar. I found eye development and retinal disease research to be the most intellectually intriguing and have decided to pursue eye research for my graduate study. The eye has a distinct uniqueness to it and a great model to study many processes and tools I had developed an interested in, including viral gene therapy.
What do you enjoy about living in Houston?
Houston is a very diverse city with vibrant culinary, recreational, nightlife, and LGBTQ+-friendly scenes. The Downtown, Midtown, Museum District, and Texas Medical Center areas are conveniently interconnected via the MetroRail system. Living in Houston is exceptionally affordable relative to other large cities. If you’re really good at saving, expect to save thousands of dollars while on a graduate student stipend. Also expect a hot, humid summer and a “freezing” (average 40-50F) winter!
What aspects of training has been most influential in preparing for your intended career?
It is no surprise that graduate school training can be extremely rough and demanding. The rigorous training at BCM has encouraged the development of well-rounded communication, writing, and scientific skills. There has also been significant influence on my perspective and dedication towards improving the access and quality of education for underrepresented scholars.
Did Baylor's location in the Texas Medical Center enhance your experience?
BCM is at the heart of the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. This has allowed me to meet and hear the work of researchers from all sorts of institutions. The large, diverse, and collaborative community of eye/retina researchers in Houston has spoiled me.
During my time at BCM, I was shocked to hear there was not a local chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans (SACNAS) in Houston, the largest national organization geared towards fostering the success and leadership of all underrepresented students and professionals in STEM. As the founding president of the emerging SACNAS chapter at BCM, I hope this chapter will be a leader in the development of a diverse and inclusive community of empowered underrepresented scientists and professionals in the Texas Medical Center and Houston area.
What are your career plans?
After finishing my PhD in integrative biomedical sciences, I will transition into a career in university administration to pursue my passion in working with underrepresented minority (URM) students from a non-faculty, non-research, program management standpoint. URM students, especially from first-generation and low socioeconomic backgrounds like me, often do not have access mentorship and knowledge of education opportunities available, or exposure to role models with advanced degrees. I hope to be a leader in academic/student affairs to create new educational and leadership opportunities for URM students. My experience at BCM has developed a wide network of colleagues, researchers, administrators, and other professionals which future students would benefit hearing from and working with.
What advice do you have for prospective students?
A work-life balance is essential to keeping sane during graduate school. Go out and meet other students, get involved on campus or the community, take on a few new hobbies and activities. Grad school is a marathon, don’t burn out early on. A happy grad student can be far more productive than a burnt-out one. And don’t ignore your physical health, take advantage of the medical insurance.
Surround yourself with supportive mentors and friends. They can celebrate with you or provide some perspective when that imposter syndrome pops in. You don’t need to stay in a bad research rotation and can switch out anytime. If your mental health is struggling, make an appointment to meet with our wonderful BCM therapists.
Be prepared to tackle the high volume of information in 1st year classes head-on and hang in there! You’re going to get exposed to lots of concepts and you’ll be surprised by how much you will have learned by the end of the first two years. Ask for tutoring from the very beginning and study in small groups. Passing classes is always a priority over a demanding lab rotation.