In some ways, Andrea is like many students. She enjoys going to the movies with friends and works in her spare time.
In other ways, she is very much unlike many of her peers. At only 18 and finishing up her first year of college, Andrea has already had her work published on the websites of UC San Diego (UCSD) and Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School’s original and largest teaching hospital.
“I was always interested in science,” says Andrea. “Later I became more specifically interested in the life sciences and the human body.”
Andrea’s mother and older sister, both property managers, and her father, a machine operator, are surprised about her pursuit of a career in the life sciences.
Though Andrea isn’t sure where her interest originated, she was listening closely when her former chemistry teacher at San Marcos High School, Jorge Valdivieso, known to his students as “Mr. V,” told her about a program called Life Sciences Summer Institute (LSSI) during her sophomore year. Andrea has since interned twice at UCSD through LSSI. She was accepted into the Research Scholars program at UCSD through her application to LSSI and spent her first summer internship working with post-graduate students in an immunology lab headed by David Traver, Ph.D. (Research Scholars is a part of UCSD’s Academic Connections working with Ed Abeyta, Ph.D., Assistant Dean for Community Engagement and Director of Pre-Collegiate and Career Preparations Programs at UCSD Extension, and is a long-time partner of LSSI, providing annual scholarship opportunities to LSSI applicants.)
“Andrea is a born scientist and artist. The poster she created describing her work was absolutely beautiful and explained a lot about what she learned about genetics,” says Elizabeth Komives, Ph.D., head of the Komives Laboratory at UCSD and a participating research faculty member of Research Scholars. “Andrea truly exemplifies the newest acronym for the future of science: STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics).”
Recently, Andrea spent three weeks at The Villa Lab on the UCSD campus working with Elizabeth Villa, Ph.D., and Reika (Watanabe) Castillon, Ph.D., on capturing images of cellular structures. This time, in addition to her internship at The Villa Lab, Dr. Komives asked Andrea to serve as a teaching assistant to the first-year Research Scholars participants.
The Villa Lab is interested in a process called cryo-electron microscopy (“cryo-EM”), a way to observe specimens in their native environment in 2D without staining or changing anything in the molecular structure. During Andrea’s internship, the lab was working on a very important cancer-related collaborative project using a state-of-the-art technique called cryo-electron tomography (CET) — a 3D version of cryo-EM — to study how light can be used to treat cancer.
“We worked with a scientist from Harvard named Bryan Spring, Ph.D. (now at Northeastern University), who at the time had created a type of antibiotic that was photoactivatable, meaning the nanoparticles only break open if they’re induced by light,” Andrea explains. “It helps reduce toxicity in the body and localize tumors. We wanted to develop a 3D model of the environment to see what the cell looked like with a particle inside.”
It is clear Andrea has an understanding of the work beyond everyday biophysics.
“During her short stay, she very quickly grasped the concept of cryo-EM, which requires a substantial understanding of physics and mathematics,” shares Dr. Castillon. “She applied this knowledge to create a 3D reconstructed image called a tomogram and later extracted the valuable data set from the tomogram to present as a 3D model.”
Andrea’s image has since become associated with the study. A poster of Andrea’s work (seen in the photo) can be found here.
Of Andrea’s contribution, Dr. Villa says, “She worked on a figure my lab techs couldn’t do, so she taught herself scientific software — which certainly wasn’t easy to use — and got it to work analyzing the data we have. This figure ended up in a lot of nationally circulated press releases.”
Not only that, Andrea is “fantastic, creative, self-directed, curious, a very pleasant person to have in the lab,” adds Dr. Villa. “Everybody loves her.”
Now that Andrea has completed two rounds of LSSI internships, she currently attends San Diego Mesa College and hopes to transfer to UCSD or the University of Washington, focusing her studies on global health, then attend medical school or pursue clinical research.
In addition to family, friends, teachers and LSSI coordinator Erika Aranguré, to all of whom Andrea gives special thanks, she has garnered new fans.
On Andrea’s work as teaching assistant, Dr. Komives shares, “She was so helpful, making sure everyone knew what they were supposed to do and where they were supposed to be. She was a big asset to the program.”
Dr. Castillon says, “I was really impressed with her potential.”
Dr. Villa agrees. “She’s going to be able to do whatever she wants in her life. We should definitely support people like Andrea.”
Since then, Andrea has been mentioned by Mayor Kevin Faulconer in his State of the City Address. He spoke about her achievements in the biotechnology field and used her as an example to encourage support for other young adults wanting to be successful in a scientific field.
Andrea now works at the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP) as an LSSI Peer Job Coach, guiding other students who are looking for opportunities in the science field, as well as attending various STEM events.
“As someone who has been through the program, working behind the scenes gives me a bit of an advantage,” she says. “I know how to help students tailor their applications to make them great candidates for an internship in biotech, and I can also give them advice on how to prepare to work in a lab. I’m lucky enough to have worked on both sides.”
Andrea’s experience in LSSI and working at the SDWP has shaped her to be the person she is today.
“It has shown me the career path I want to pursue, but most importantly, it’s shown me how to help others,” she says. “Whether that be through scientific research or helping other students, the most important thing we can do is help one another.”
For those interested in pursuing science, Andrea has this advice: “The lab is not a science classroom; things you learn in the classroom may not help you in the lab. Stay curious—that’s what makes your time in the lab more fun.”