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Spotlight on Alexis Reyes: PhD Student in Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences (IBiS)

Created: June 18, 2018
Alexis Reyes

Alexis Reyes is a second-year PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences (IBiS) Graduate Program and active member in Northwestern's chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicagos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Beyond her research on genetic integrity in eukaryotes, Alexis is passionate about expanding equitable access to STEM education opportunities and resources for underrepresented students. 

What were you doing before you arrived at Northwestern?  

I went to Vanguard University for undergrad, where I received a BS in Biology and a minor in history and political science. After graduating I did a year-long internship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). I worked in the Earth & Environmental Science Division studying how environments affect the activity of methanotrophs, a single-celled organism that metabolize methane as their only source of energy. It was at Berkeley that I was introduced to structural biology and decided to pursue that field of research. I also volunteered at a local elementary school. My work with the diverse group of students at Rosa Park Elementary sparked a desire to get more involved in outreach activities. 

What influenced you to pursue a graduate degree in the discipline you chose? 

I always knew I wanted to pursue a higher degree after obtaining my bachelor's degree. But being one of the few in my family to even attend college, I didn't know how to go about it until I started my internship at Berkeley. Part of the internship program included informing interns about different STEM education and career paths. We had weekly seminars given by LBNL staff and scientists from nearby industries. It was during one of these presentations that I met Prof. Eva Nogales and got introduced to structural biology. I was automatically hooked, and knew I wanted to pursue graduate education in structural biology. 

Tell us about your research in non-specialist terms. 

My research involves investigating the structure and mechanism of chromatin remodeling complexes using electron microscopy. Chromatin refers to the protein-nucleic acid complexes that serve to compact and regulate access to DNA. A variety of protein complexes are responsible for modifying and remodeling chromatin to change accessibility to DNA and regulate DNA centric processes like transcription or DNA repair. I'm working to determine how chromatin is reorganized by a specific chromatin remodeling complex called RSC. By using cryo-electron microscopy, I can investigate the structure of the RSC complex in association with its chromatin substrate. These structural studies will provide insight into how RSC interacts with chromatin and mediates reorganization. 

What is a challenging aspect of your research? 

The competition. As a young scientist in a relatively young lab, we go up against labs with more experience, more people, and more resources. It can be daunting sometimes. But I think the people in my lab do a good job of working together and trying our best to get the job done. 

Describe a typical research day. What do you do in the lab/library/archive/field each day to advance your research? What might an outside observer perceive from watching your routine? 

At the moment my project is at an optimization stage. My typical day involves assembling my protein on a grid for imaging with the electron microscope, processing and analyzing the images to determine if the buffer and assembly conditions are optimal, deciding which parameters to change, and preparing more protein with the changed parameters for further screening. All of this screening serves to determine the right conditions for collecting a large data set and obtaining a high-resolution structure of my protein complex.  

During this optimization stage, I am also working with two other lab members to purify and prepare various chromatin remodeling and modifying complexes for electron microscopy. This involves purifying the protein complexes from yeast strains and using silver stain gels and negative stain electron microscopy to determine the yield and stability of the purified complexes. 

An outsider would observe monotony. But at this stage in my project, monotony is required to determine the right conditions for proceeding. 

What’s one thing you’re passionate about beyond your research? 

Since coming to Northwestern, I have been more involved in advocating for increased diversity in STEM. For the past year I have been serving in a leadership role for Northwestern's chapter of Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Currentlywe're a small chapter. But we're working hard to create a supportive community for all underrepresented and diverse graduate students in STEM. We host a variety of workshop and discussion events, attend regional and national SACNAS conferences, participate in outreach aimed towards increasing diversity in STEM, and explore the food and culture around Chicago. 

If you won the PowerBall jackpot (approx. $420 million), would you still work conduct your research? If not, what would you do first after receiving your money? 

If I won the jackpot I wouldn't be conducting research to the extent that I am now. I'd most likely do research part time and spend the majority of my time pursuing my other passions. I'd like to start a communal research institution, sort of like a communal garden. A space where locals of all ages can come learn to plan and conduct science experiments regardless of their education status. For most people that don't pursue STEM, I don't think it's a matter of them not being able to understand or do researchh- based science. I believe it's a matter of having access to the education and resources that would prepare them for a career in STEM. I would work to make accessibility to science more equitable. 

Or figure out how to use the money to buy my way into space and win an ongoing bet, forcing the loser to become an alpaca farmer. 

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