Genetics & Genomics Graduate Student in the lab of James Resnick, a UFGI faculty member and professor in the department of molecular genetics and microbiology
Vargas-Franco joined the program in 2013
This interview has been condensed, and edited, for clarity
What sort of work do you do in Dr. Resnick’s lab?
My lab focuses on imprinting defects. The syndrome that we are most focused on is Angelman syndrome. Imprinting is pretty much genes that are only expressed on one allele or the other, either the paternal or maternal allele. When a maternally expressed gene UBE3A is not expressed on the maternal allele, the child ends up with an imprinting defect causing Angelman syndrome.
I use the mouse model. I inserted the human Angelman/Prader-Willi locus (AS/PWS locus) in the mouse. The technique I used is called bacterial artificial chromosome. My main focus is not, per se, on the gene that is not turned on, but an element in that locus called Angelman Syndrome Imprinting Center (AS-IC) that is thought to be responsible for the expression of that gene. I want to know how that element works.
When do you think you’ll be done with your research and be able to present your thesis?
I’m actually right now collecting data, so my goal is two years, but you never know. With mouse models, it’s the hardest thing to predict. Once the female mouse gets pregnant, she’ll be pregnant for about 19 to 21 days. So that’s a waiting time that you have. If you’re not going to work with newborn mice, you have to wait until they are sexually mature, which is another six to eight weeks. So we’re talking about three months total for each mating and each offspring. Time consuming but extremely interesting.
What has your experience been like in the graduate program?
I’m a special case, let’s put it that way. The first year, it was really, really tough just because you don’t really work in the lab but you take classes and it’s just overwhelming. In the end it pays off because you only have to take one year of classes. My second year, I was pregnant for nine months. So my second year was a little more challenging, dealing with morning sickness, working in lab, it was just like horrible. My third year, I had a newborn and a qualifying exam to take. The qualifying exam is really, really, really tough.
There are only 20-some students and the support that you get from other G&G fellows is absolutely great. I got a baby shower. That was just impressive for me. I’m in a grad program but they still feel like a family. We’re always going to each other’s defense or qualifying exams and giving each other support. It has been great.
How do you balance being a mom and being a part of the grad program?
You know what? I’m doing better now than I was before. It’s really odd. It never happens I guess because anytime I talk to someone that has a kid it’s like, “Oh, I can’t breathe, I can’t sleep, I can’t.” No, It’s actually been weird because before that it would be really hard for me to wake up and go to work. Now, I have to wake up because I have to take him to daycare. He wakes me up. I have no choice. He pushes me to do my extra, whereas before, I wasn’t fully committed to what I was doing. Although, I have to admit, I don’t think I would have been able to do it my first year with a kid.
The only thing that I kind of struggled with was that I missed half of the fourth semester for maternity leave. And in that fourth semester you have to have your qualifying exam done by December. That’s the rule in G&G. And I came back in late September. I had like two months period to prepare and do my qualifying exam. I took my qualifying exam really late on December and got a conditional pass and then repeated it on Apr. 20. I had to retake the portion that I didn’t pass. The qualifying exam consists on an oral presentation, a reading exam, and the committee will give you questions. What I really didn’t pass was the questions after the oral exam. That, I did awful. I had to repeat it again. You always get a second chance but if you don’t pass by the second chance you’re out of the program.
Do you plan to go back to Puerto Rico at some point in your life?
Yes. I want to go back. I want to teach there. I really want to go into academia because if you have a family, especially if you’re a woman, it’s just more flexible. It’s more flexible than if you work in the industry. At least that is my perspective about it. My long-term goal is to actually go back and teach in a university back home. For now, after I’m done with my Ph.D., I think I’m going for a post-doc for a few years.
Where would you want go for your post-doc? And why?
Georgia or North Carolina. I did two Internships when I was an undergrad. In UGA (University of Georgia) and I did another one in North Carolina State University (NC state) and I just fell in love with those two universities. The only problem I have with NC State is that it’s more plant based and I’m not a plant geneticist at all.
Vargas-Franco: In the Lab
- Vargas-Franco weighs the newborn mouse brains in order to add the correct amount of reagents for RNA extraction.
- Vargas-Franco adds reagents to the tube that contains a newborn mouse brain.
- Vargas-Franco homogenizes the newborn brain for RNA extraction.
- A comparison of after (left) and before (right) homogenization of the brains.