McNair Spotlight with Lucydalila Cedillo - Graduate Student Yale University

McNair Spotlight with Lucydalila Cedillo - Graduate Student Yale University

Lucydalila Cedillo


By Juan Cervantes

If someone would have told “fresh out of high school" me that in 6 years, I’d be pursuing a Ph.D. on the east coast, I likely would have stared blankly at them and responded with a brief and confused “huh?” Yet, here I am, living a dream that just a few years ago, I didn’t know existed.

I chose to attend UC Davis because of the outstanding animal science program it offers. I started out wanting to be a veterinarian because I liked animals and I really liked science. However, I quickly discovered I was not the cow, sheep, or even squirrel whisperer I thought I was. So, I figured this was my chance to explore and discover what I was truly passionate about. The animal science program was actually quite perfect in that regard, as it offered courses exploring several aspects of biology e.g. genetics, development, reproduction, nutrition, etc. At the time, I had absolutely no idea what it meant to be a scientist or what graduate school even was. My parents did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education when they were younger, and I did not personally know anyone who went to college, let alone graduate school. As a first-generation college student, I still can’t find the right words to describe exactly how intimidated and frightened I felt during my first year as an undergrad.

I was fortunate enough to meet a handful of professors in the animal science department that nurtured my budding interest in science and was eventually able to channel my fears into energy that would help me pursue my passion for genetics and molecular biology.

I became intrigued by biological research because it began to satisfy my insatiable curiosity to understand the complex processes that create life. I discovered my passion for experimental science while working with Dr. Richard Blatchford. My project involved a coding video of laying hen feeding behavior and performing statistical analyses of the results to understand the amount of feeder space required for hens housed in enriched colony cages. During this time, I spoke with several graduate students about their work and admired the idea of becoming an expert in a field of science. The idea of attending graduate school was very appealing, as I would have the opportunity to do just that.  

Concurrently, I took introductory animal science courses and became completely transfixed by the sections that focused on genetics and the molecular mechanisms by which simple sequences of nucleotides led to the creation of complex living beings. My desire to learn more about genetics and pursue research in this field drove me to join Dr. Michael R. Miller’s laboratory, whose research focuses on salmonid conservation genetics and genomics. My undergraduate honors thesis project involved constructing high-resolution genetic maps for rainbow trout. Existing genetic maps were built using recombinant progeny from male meiosis, but are limited in their utility for genome assembly due to high levels of recombination suppression. Since females do not exhibit recombination suppression, we collaborated with members of the Thorgaard lab at Washington State University to generate recombinant progeny derived from female meiosis to test if they would yield a higher resolution genetic map. Using restriction-site associated DNA (RAD) sequencing, I produced a genetic map comprised of far more genetic markers and unique map positions than existing genetic maps for rainbow trout. These findings were further confirmed after comparing the results to those of a second genetic map I made with the same bioinformatics pipeline but using recombinant progeny from male meiosis that served as a control. An international group led by researchers at the USDA National Center for Cool and Cold Water Aquaculture has utilized both of my genetic maps to generate the most recent rainbow trout genome assembly. After achieving this main objective, we were curious to see how the same genetic markers were distributed in each map and discovered striking differences in the spatial distribution of recombination between sexes. This biological phenomenon has not been previously described in rainbow trout and could potentially establish this species as a model for evolutionary studies to understand the re-diploidization process after whole-genome duplication.  My work has been submitted to Genetics for publication. This ability to uncover the mysteries of biology out of pure curiosity encompasses the beauty I find in research.

Around the time I joined Dr. Miller’s lab, I was accepted into the McNair Scholar’s Program, which not only strengthened my decision to pursue a doctoral degree but provided opportunities where I could learn more about graduate school and better prepare myself for that journey. McNair provided courses to ensure steady progress on our research, and we had a lot of support during the graduate school application process. My success in applying to doctoral programs is very much attributed to the feedback I received on my personal statements from program mentors and the accompanying GRE prep course. As a McNair scholar, I also had several opportunities to share my work in a broad context at the SACNAS-National Diversity in STEM Conference, UC Davis Undergraduate Research Conference, and the 2015 UC Berkeley Ronald E. McNair Scholars Symposium. Speaking in front of people was a daunting task for me at first. This experience not only helped me cope with that fear, but I also realized that talking about a subject that I really know and care about in front of an audience is actually much easier than I anticipated. I soon realized that it’s very exciting to share my love for genetics/molecular biology with those who are willing to listen.

My mentors that I had along the way, as well as the opportunities provided by this program are key reasons why I am now a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program at Harvard University. It’s a very exciting time in my life, as I can surely say that I am pursuing exactly what I was born to do. I joined Dr. Alexander Soukas’ lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. My main thesis project revolves around metformin, a drug widely prescribed in patients with type 2 diabetes due to its potent anti-hyperglycemic effects. Interestingly, many observational studies reported that diabetic populations taking metformin have a reduced incidence of cancer when compared to other forms of anti-diabetic treatment, but the exact molecular mechanism by which this occurs was only recently elucidated by a former post-doc in our lab. From this study, a gene was found to play an important role in metformin’s ability to directly inhibit growth in cancer cells. When this gene is knocked out, it completely abrogates metformin’s effects on growth, yet it has not been functionally characterized. I am currently using a combination of genetics, proteomics, and metabolomics approaches to understand this gene’s function and how it’s responsible for the anti-cancer benefits of metformin. Ultimately, I would like to manipulate this gene’s expression to enhance metformin’s ability to inhibit growth in cancer cells, all without having to increase the doses of metformin used to potentially toxic levels.

Although “it’s been no bed of roses,” I am still very much able to find fun in the little things I do along the way and am happy to have this chance to learn from those who are more experienced and mentor those who have just joined the lab. I really would not want to have it any other way.

With all this, I recognize that I have a responsibility to pay it forward.

I was raised in a neighborhood notorious for widespread gang activity and one critical gap always stood out to me: academic resources and outreach programs to engage youth in STEM fields were virtually non-existent. There are bright minds ready to discover and engineer, yet many do not reach their full potential, because they are not given the opportunities to nurture their creativity. I will use my graduate training to have an impact on students of all ages and have started preparing by getting involved in outreach programs that Harvard offers. I have served on the admissions committee and as a mentor in the Health Professions Recruitment Program (HPREP), a science enrichment program focused on encouraging high school students, particularly those from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds, to pursue careers in science. I have also worked with another program, HMS KIDS, that provides hands-on, lab-based activities to get “at-risk” elementary and middle school students excited about science. I aspire to take what I learn from these experiences to one day start similar outreach programs in my hometown community in Los Angeles. In May 2017, I gave the first of many talks to students at my elementary school, sharing my academic journey. Since returning to Boston, I have arranged video conferences with former teachers and their current students at multiple elementary schools to answer questions about my responsibilities as a scientist. This is followed by a tour of my laboratory, which is always a huge hit! My hope is that if these young children see living proof of a first-generation college student, who was raised in the projects, succeed at a University of California and then pursue a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University, then they will understand that they are not limited by their early struggles in life. That they can accomplish their dreams by taking advantage of their education, which is a great and powerful equalizer.