Tell us about yourself
Hi! I am originally from Mexico, but I have travelled quite a bit for my studies. I did an Masters Program in Evolutionary Biology in Germany and Sweden. It was an Erasmus Mundus program, which gave scholarships to students from all over the world to do several research projects within Europe over two years. Then, I moved to Toronto to start my PhD in Evolutionary Anthropology.
Besides science, I love doing sports. I have been running for several years. More recently, I joined the university triathlon club, so my weekly workouts are a combination of running, swimming, and cycling!
What is your research about?
I am currently studying the great variation in human skin, hair and eye colour around the world. Specifically, I’m looking at which genes in the human genome code for these variations. I look at the genetic profiles of hundreds of people and try to find significant mutations in the genome that might be involved in the colouration of these features.
What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
One of the things I enjoy most about science is the challenge it brings me every day, and the satisfaction of discovering or solving problems, even very small ones. I also like how dynamic research can be. For example, one day, you spend your time writing and searching for literature; the next day you’re programming; the next day you are in the lab.
What have you found most challenging about your research?
Research is a challenge itself. It requires a lot of dedication and patience, creativity and a positive attitude. Especially in biology, when you are conducting experiments, you may not know why the experiment is failing, but you need to find an explanation. So in order to answer a question, the experiments can be long!
However, these aspects are essential for understanding and generating knowledge. Science is challenging because it takes time to see tangible results. But it is also important not to forget the big picture while you progress (or don’t progress!) in your daily work. This helps you stay encouraged and aware of the relevance of what you are doing, and why you are doing it.
Given that most people only see the successes of science, it is sometimes difficult to realize that everyone who does science fails at some point. It is important to remember that, but it is also important to learn to overcome these issues, to grow as a scientist and as a human being.
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
I did an undergrad degree in biology so that I could focus on primate evolution. But during my master’s degree, I found new areas in research that were more interesting for me. In the beginning I wanted to study primate behavior and evolution, but then I switched to human evolutionary genetics after doing an internship in a genomics lab. I also wanted to focus more on human research, to have a backup plan in the case I would like to quit academia. I am currently happy doing research, but after finishing my PhD I will also consider jobs outside of academia.
How has your research impacted the world?
It is sometimes difficult to picture how basic science might influence society, how it will have an impact in technological or medical advances. However, without basic science we wouldn't have discovered much of the technology in our hands or many of the medical breakthroughs, because they are based on basic research.
This is true in the case of my research. Many genes involved in pigmentation diseases (diseases that affect the colour of your skin, such as albinism) have been discovered already. I am studying the normal variation in pigmentation. This research doesn’t have a direct application for industry, but it might reveal traces of human evolutionary history or mechanisms of how genes interact. This is knowledge that may be applied in other scenarios.
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
When we take a science course in high school, we sometimes assume everything has been investigated or known, or that what we've learned is the ultimate truth. That's the fun part of science: it is volatile (changeable), and there are plenty of questions still yet to be discovered!
In the area of genetics, scientists still do not know the complexity of the interactions between genes and how they are expressed. Major breakthroughs in the next years will be to disentangle the different factors affecting gene expression, and the whole area of epigenetics (the study of the modifications of genes).
What motivates you to do research?
When I was a teenager, I did not know that I would one day want to be a researcher. Back then, I was thinking to work with primates, to acquire knowledge about their behavior, their evolution and the similarities between humans and the great apes. That was my main motivation for going into the science world.
I started reading popular science books and biographies about great primatologists. Shortly after, I started an undergrad in biology. Later on, I got deeper into the subject of evolution by reading every Richard Dawkins book. Those books were definitely a motivation to focus my career on evolutionary biology and human evolution specifically.
There are many scientists that have influenced me, from the "famous and popular" ones but also my previous supervisors.
Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment
I am still waiting for my Eureka! moment to arrive. It will come, I know, I hope!
I guess almost every week I have at least a tiny Eureka! moment while working on my research. However, these moments are personal and probably any other person would not find it as exciting or relevant as I do. Science moves forward in small steps, but they are personally encouraging because they mark an important step in my research, and they give me evidence that I am moving forward in my project.
If I were to describe the best tiny Eureka! moment, I would go for when I was doing a Master's Project back in Sweden. It was one of my first research experiences and I was still feeling doubtful and unsure about the lab work I was conducting. Besides, I was trying to get DNA from gorilla fecal samples, which have very low DNA amounts. This meant lots of failure!
One of my happiest moments was discovering that the new method to extract DNA that I was testing worked on samples that we thought did not have enough DNA and wouldn’t be useful. That night I went to bed much more satisfied than usual!