Dr. Adriana San Miguel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at North Carolina State University. She received her BSc. in chemical engineering from ITESM, a technological institute in Monterrey, Mexico. As an undergraduate, she received the Frisa Entrepreneurship Award from ITESM as well as the Craig P. Dunn Award for Social Innovations in Entrepreneurship from the San Diego State University Venture challenge. Prior to starting graduate school, Adriana worked in the cement and water-treatment industries. She was awarded her PhD in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech, and during her PhD, she was recognized with the Exemplary Academic Achievement Award and the Ziegler Award for Best PhD Thesis Proposal from the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech. Afterwards, Adriana worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech and at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. As a postdoc she received an NIH K99 Pathway to Independence Award. In our interview, she shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:55)
In her free time, Adriana enjoys exercising, swimming, and spending quality time with her family.
The Scientific Side (3:44)
Adriana conducts research using a small roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). They use this model organism to better understand processes such as aging, neurodegeneration, and stress. In particular, Adriana’s lab uses engineering tools and approaches to try to conduct research that is highly efficient and quantitative. This allows them to more quickly, scalably, and precisely determine what is changing in the processes they study.
A Dose of Motivation (4:54)
For Adriana, it is really motivating to see the students in her lab learn and grow as scientists, and it is fun to investigate new things and make unexpected discoveries.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:23)
Growing up in Mexico, Adriana decided to study chemical engineering. After finishing college, she began working in industry, but she knew that she ultimately wanted to go to graduate school. Adriana didn’t fully understand what it meant to do research, but she was interested in science and wanted a higher degree. She moved to the U.S. to enroll in a PhD program in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and she was fascinated by all of the different kinds of research being done in this area. During graduate school she took some additional classes to learn more about biology, and she fell in love with it. In her postdoctoral fellowship, Adriana combined her engineering background with her new knowledge of biology and got introduced to the C. elegans model organisms she works with today. Throughout her career path, Adriana never planned to become an academic faculty member, but her interests in science and mentoring led her to this type of position.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (15:33)
As part of her PhD work, Adriana was trying to make capsules that would release their contents when there was a very mild change in the acidity of the solution. She worked on this project for an entire year, trying a lot of different approaches, but nothing worked. At this point, she was ready to give up. Adriana met with her advisor, and he said to try one last thing, and if this didn’t work, she could move on. The final idea worked! This became a major part of her thesis, and she published multiple research papers, including one of her most highly cited papers to date. Persistence is key, and it is also important not to take failures personally. They are just part of science.
A Shining Success! (17:48)
Adriana is very proud of the most recent paper that her lab has published. The project was difficult, but the results were very interesting. They were trying to develop new methods to identify genes that are relevant to aging. After many failures, they identified a new potential marker for aging. The marker was the formation of stress granules. These granules are small liquid condensates in cells that form when there is a stressful environment and when the C. elegans worms age. With this marker, they can identify individual worms who start to form these stress granules unusually early, suggesting that they are aging faster. They can then look at these individuals to see how they are genetically different from worms that develop stress granules later. With this approach, they identified a gene that has not previously been associated with aging, and it has opened the door to new potential pathways involved in the aging process. The students working on the project were among Adriana’s first PhD students, and they had to try a lot of different things before they were able to get their experiments to work.
Book Recommendations (20:51)
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller
Most Treasured Travel (21:55)
One meeting Adriana usually attends is the International C. elegans Conference held every two years. In the past, it has been in Los Angeles, but this year it will be held in Glasgow, Scotland. Adriana visited Scotland when she was an undergraduate student during a study abroad opportunity in England, and she is looking forward to the opportunity to return. She also enjoys the American Institute of Chemical Engineers annual meeting that rotates through different cities in the U.S. each year. These meetings are a great opportunity to see old friends, meet new people, and talk to students.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (24:06)
Having a collegial and friendly environment in the lab is important for Adriana. Her lab plans a variety of outings to help build a sense of community. For example, they had a fantastic time hiking together on nearby trails over the summer, and they always have fun during their annual holiday party.
Advice For Us All (28:07)
There isn’t just one single, direct path to get to where you want to go in life. If you have multiple options, you don’t have to agonize about picking the “right choice”. In most cases, you can still be happy and have a fulfilling career regardless of which option you choose. You don’t need to know from your first day of college what you want to do with your life. You can figure it out as you go, and your career will likely be a combination of what you want, what you are good at, what you enjoy, and what opportunities there are in the world. Also, take some time to look at the big picture. Sometimes we get too focused on the details of one thing that isn’t working, and it can be really helpful to take a step back and get perspective on how you are doing overall.
Adriana’s research program focuses on using engineering and systems approaches to understand fundamental biological processes in living organisms, particularly the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. Her group applies tools that enable the acquisition of biological data in a high-throughput, quantitative fashion. With these high-content engineering approaches, they aim to understand topics such as neuronal aging, synaptic plasticity, noise and stochasticity, genetic networks and buffering, among others. They incorporate tools that enable large-scale, high-content quantitative characterization of phenotypes at various scales: from the subcellular level all the way to whole-organism behavioral outputs. Adriana and her lab members use custom-built platforms for their experimental studies, which typically incorporate microfluidics, computer vision, statistical data analysis, and integrative automation and control. In addition, they apply genetic and molecular biology tools to perform genome-wide systematic studies. Current active areas of research include aging of neuronal connections, genetic screens for late-onset phenotypes, quantitative behavioral assays, and the spatio-temporal role of age-associated proteins at the whole organism level.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by LAMPIRE Biological Laboratories.