Sarah VillaBiochemistry & Molecular Biology
University of California, Los Angeles
As Sarah Villa describes it, Arabidopsis is "just a little meadow weed—it doesn’t have much value, but it’s a model plant." This modest creature, however, might help researchers identify a substance that could erase lines and wrinkles on human faces and help slow the progress of aging.
Like all living things, Arabidopsis suffers cellular damage over time and generates proteins to repair itself. Sarah is looking at one of those repair proteins, called PIMT for short. Because Arabidopsis doesn’t make PIMT in huge quantities, Sarah grinds up the plant’s leaves, extracts DNA, and clones it into E. coli, turning the bacteria into "a little factory for the enzyme."
Sarah’s goal is to understand how the enzyme works and how fast, what temperature it likes, and how it recognizes the damaged proteins that need to be repaired. If PIMT turns out to be particularly successful at its repair work, the applications could make headlines. With genetically engineered plants to make more PIMT, the substance could eventually find commercial applications in "cosmetics or drugs that could help repair damaged skin," she says. Arabidopsis turned out to be a good model for her research because "it grows quickly, doesn’t take up much space, and is cheap and easy to use," Sarah explains.
Long before she met Arabidopsis, however, Sarah found out that she liked chemistry—so much so that she took more chemistry and biology "for fun." At Pierce College, Sarah was looking ahead to nursing school, following in her mother’s footsteps, when UCLA’s Bridge Summer Research program, part of the Center for Academic and Research Excellence (CARE), gave her an opportunity to work in a UCLA lab for a few weeks. She transferred to UCLA for her undergraduate degree, and supportive faculty, including Richard Weiss and Sabeeha Merchant, persuaded her to stay on for graduate studies.
Soon, she found herself "surrounded by people who wanted to learn biochemistry, who were really excited about it." Faculty had urged her to apply for fellowships, and she found information about the Ford Fellowship online. Professor Guillaume Chanfreau helped her to draft a proposal, and she was a successful candidate.
Besides supporting her graduate studies for three years, the Ford has provided extra funds to buy equipment, and this year, it sent her to a conference of the American Society of Plant Biologists. She has also attended annual conferences of Ford Fellows. Although those don’t have "as many people in the plant sciences," Sarah says, she enjoyed workshops that provided advice on being a woman in the sciences, balancing work and life, and generally insisting "that it can be done."
After her doctorate is in hand, Sarah hopes to do postdoctoral research and then find a faculty position, perhaps at a smaller campus. She’s discovered that she loves to teach, in part through a mandatory first-year experience as a teaching assistant and in part as a teacher/mentor in CARE’s program for entering minority freshmen, offering a science workshop.
"I really appreciate what CARE did for me," she says. "If you had told me in high school that I would be a PhD candidate in biochemistry, I would never have believed it. I never thought I had the aptitude, but I got here because so many people were encouraging me."
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