Episode 51: Robin Aguilar on Genetics

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Charles 0:23
Hello and welcome to Assigned Scientist at Bachelor’s. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.

Tessa 0:27
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.

Charles 0:29
And today as our guest, we have Robin Aguilar. Robin is a PhD candidate and NSF GRFP fellow in the department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington, studying satellite DNA and human genomes. They are passionate about community building, which includes the co-foundation of the Genome Sciences Association for the Inclusion of Marginalized Students, that provides peer support and mentorship in genomics. Further, Robin also uses their platform to develop workshops, curricula and arts centered on storytelling and science and educational aspirations. Robin, welcome to the show.

Robin 1:03
Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here.

Charles 1:06
Thank you for coming on. To begin with, we normally like to ask people, how did you get into science?

Robin 1:11
Honestly, like when I was growing up, I didn’t have necessarily a lot of like, direct role models and stem. But I was kind of always curious about, like, where I was living and like, different things that were happening in my community, I was kind of always like, I guess you could say, like a little bit of like a question asker. And I grew up in East Los Angeles as a reference to so I would definitely say that, like, I kind of didn’t get like a push that I could be good at science until I was maybe in like, high school or so I actually had like another science teacher who was also like a chemistry professor. And she was like, super, super awesome, and was like, hey, like, you’re pretty good at this stuff. Like, you should honestly keep going. And I feel like having a little bit of that, like, acknowledgement, and also visibility. My teacher was also like, in immigrant from Guatemala, so having kind of like that role model there really helped shape and have someone say, like, hey, I can also do this, too, you know?

Charles 2:13
Absolutely. How did you get interested in genomics, then?

Robin 2:17
Yeah, like that? That’s a really interesting question. So like, for me, I, you know, like, kind of like in high school and like early on in your career, you’re more likely to learn about like, just like, you know, general basic stuff like bio chemistry, physics, like, just be like, you know, those big umbrella type fields. But when I was in college, I actually had this really great mentor, Dr. Dan Gurmann. And he kind of like, helped take me under his wing a little bit during like a summer internship. And he was actually, his lab, like, focused a little bit on doing Rare Disease Research. And it was kind of in this internship that I learned so much about, like big data, and how much information we just don’t know about, like, human health and disease. So that kind of led me into like this, you know, relatively big area that is like genetics, and like big data with Human Genome Research.

Charles 3:16
Can I ask about what years this was?

Robin 3:19
Oh, my goodness, yeah. So this was in probably like, 2015-2016. So like, what’s kind of cool about that time period, too, is like, a lot of people were kind of like getting into genome sequencing, just because like the cost had dramatically decreased to be able to like sequence genomes in general.

Charles 3:40
I was about to say, because – I started my master’s in 2015, and it was in a phylogenetics lab, which was using, like, whole genome sequencing, because that was, that was really the time period when people were starting to get into that more and more.

Robin 3:56
Yeah, and like, I think there was like a, like, a lot of excitement kind of in that area. And it was funny, because like, I kind of started off doing a little bit more like, wet lab research, like, you know, working with pipettes and chemicals and like, actually doing the hands on lab work. And I kind of got, like, burned out from that. I was like, I don’t know if I like this, like I kind of want to try to learn how to code. So I picked up coding by honestly, like, this was like such a huge process. Like I had, like mentors who kind of worked with me, but then like, most of it, you know, like, the way you learn coding is just like Stack Overflow.

Charles 4:31
It feels like going into biology, starting in a wet lab and then ending up a coder – tale as old as time.

Robin 4:39
Yeah, yeah. And like now in my current research, I, I do both like I have done a lot of code, but a lot of the stuff that I have to develop, your code has to be tested in the lab by someone and that someone is me, so.

Charles 4:55
No, I mean, this is a perfect segue to, what is your urrent research on

Robin 5:01
Yeah, so right now, I would say that my main project is studying these hugely repetitive elements that are basically like DNA sequences that are repeated over and over and over again, called satellite DNA. Typically, when I talk about my research, I kinda like to pivot it actually is like, back in 2001, there was this huge paper that came out that said, Hey, everybody, we finished assembling the human genome. And that technically wasn’t true. Just because there were a lot of patches, like you can call them patches, if you want to think of like, maybe the genome was like some type of quilt or something that were just missing, like, all of the primary parts of the genome that you know, code for genes that are considered active were there, but there were lots of patches. And the reason why there were patches that were missing was because those patches are really, really hard to actually map correctly, because they’re so repetitive, like they exist as these sequences over and over again. And functionally, we don’t exactly know why they’re there. Well, could

Charles 6:08
we actually pivot a little bit because I think gene sequencing is something that I imagine a lot of people know about in a very vague way. But the actual methodology of how it’s done, might be pretty mysterious. Could you talk about how people actually a sequence DNA, and then also know what order things should go in

Robin 6:35
sequencing DNA means that what you’re trying to do is find the order of chemical building blocks, or DNA bases that make up a DNA molecule. So this sequence is able to tell us how a particular segment of DNA basically just is like, if you were to take like the piece of DNA and stretch it out in a linear way, what is the order of those bases like ATCG, as they exist, so that’s kind of the idea of what sequencing is, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to determine what specific elements exist in the structures of DNA. So there are different technologies or tools that you can use, like, there are different sequences. And what you typically do is you have to take DNA out of a sample, like you know, some type of like cell or tissue, and prepare a library. And this library contains tons of these little fragments of this large DNA sequence that you have. And what you want to do is take those individual fragments and make lots of copies of them, these samples then go into a sequencer, and that what this is able to do is then provide information about where these bases are located. Because most of the genome is like non repetitive, we kind of have a sense of where to map and align all of the bases that more or less aren’t repetitive with each other. But this challenge of being able to create a reference for something that, you know, is like a head to tail sequence like ATCG, ATCG, over and over again, for like millions of copies, it’s kind of hard to say, does the ATCG first start to the far left, or like Where Where does this pattern start and stop, basically. So that’s kind of why those bases that are so repetitive, at least in tandem, were really, really hard to map for a long time, just because the length of the reads that we’re able to provide are too short to kind of determine uniqueness. If that makes sense. I think the reason why we were able to overcome this is because that technology for sequencing has just only gotten better in time. So now what we’re able to do is do what they call long read sequencing, which it kind of the name kind of alludes to it we’re able to just sequence longer reads of DNA at a time. And the reason why that kind of solved the problem is because what we’re able to do is uniquely say, oh, like we can tell where this long sequence is unique, and how it maps and where it maps in reference to all of the other components we have in the genome.

Charles 9:22
Well, I think you referenced it before. So satellite DNA, these long, repetitive sequences, and I think you indicated that they’re non coding regions,

Robin 9:32
right? So a lot of these satellite DNA is like in terms of like, structure function. They’re commonly located at what we call the centromere of these like chromosomes, at least in the human genome.

Charles 9:48
I think it might behoove us all to take a moment to talk about the physical structure of DNA and how it’s packaged in the body. Can you walk us through sort of the stages of DNA organization

Robin 10:00
we kind of have. So we have this double helix of our four bases, ATC and g, this double helix essentially the string of DNA is wrapped around histones, which kids then compacted into what you could call like chromatin fiber. And these types of fibers can be compacted into what we know as chromosomes. And then the centromere is Yeah, and the centromere is basically just kind of like the middle piece of the chromosome, it’s kind of like looks like what holds the chromosomes together.

Charles 10:33
So if we’re imagining, invite everybody to imagine the image of chromosomes in their head, where it’s kind of like two wishbones stuck together at a center, or maybe just an x is an easier way to think of it. And then the centromere is at that sort of point of the X in the middle, right,

Robin 10:50
it’s right at the middle of the X. And basically, what it’s used for is that region specifically is what’s used to help assist the cell during cell division, like that’s what allows basically cell division to go on.

Charles 11:05
So the so maybe the idea is that the satellite DNA pieces at the centromere are so repetitive, because they’re not, they have a functional purpose. But it is more of a physical purpose rather than a coding purpose.

Robin 11:18
And I think right now, a lot of folks are kind of exploring what that coding purpose is, because we know a lot more about what it does functionally, I think that I would say what it does like in terms of more of like the biology, because there’s been a lot of work that’s shown like, Oh, if you disrupt parts of the like centromere, you end up with just like poor cell division, or if there’s a mutation or certain numbers of copies that are mess left out or added, it’s been shown to cause like, different forms of like cancers. So I think there’s still a lot about these regions that have more or less been missing from Genome assemblies that are being led on like, we’re trying to really like kind of get to the bottom of what those repetitive DNA pieces are doing.

Charles 12:06
Yeah, well, and then that gets to kind of, I think, there are large portions of DNA that are coding, but then there are also these huge expanses that are, as far as we know, non coding, and by which we mean, they don’t get so the, just to just to go back to the central dogma, right, of DNA is then

Tessa 12:32
translated into RNA, which then is exported out of the nucleus to the ribosome and converted into protein. Yeah, so

Charles 12:40
then the central log, so then they’re thus the question of why so many pieces of DNA that don’t get directly translated into proteins in that way.

Robin 12:51
It’s just interesting. Like, I think there’s just a lot of like, proteins that are around the centromere that we’re still trying to, like, uncover like, what is their actual function with like maintaining how this huge expanse of linear DNA is packed into such a tiny nucleus in the lab that I’m in right now, one thing that we’re really focused on is kind of like the structure function relationships of how is DNA packaged in the nucleus? And how does its organization affect that like, correct, or unstable genome function, basically.

Tessa 13:24
So essentially, that, you know, these non coding DNA segments may be structural,

Robin 13:30
right? Yeah, like they could very well be playing a structural impact by just being in proximity to other interesting or relevant or biologically active genomic sites. And one great way to do that is to be able to use imaging and microscopy, which is totally my jam. So that’s kind of a little bit more about what I’m doing in my research. I’m developing tools and technologies to specifically visualize satellite DNA. So that way, we can undertake these larger biological studies of like, looking at these pieces of DNA that we’ve never really had access to the sequence before. So that’s kind of like at the interface of a lot of cool biology stuff that’s going to be happening.

Charles 14:16
Well, Could you could you talk more about what the like, what the difficulties of imaging these sections of DNA are?

Robin 14:24
Yeah. So I think one example is some to make these repeats even more complicated. Some of them between different chromosomes, at least in the human genome, are nearly identical. So say, if you said oh, I want to go specifically after chromosome a, I’m just gonna give like, you know, some arbitrary letter, it might have the same sequences in that repeat as chromosome B. So guess what you might target more than one chromosome, even though you only intended to target one Qaeda when that happens. To me hate it when that happens, right? So like, it’s actually very difficult to be able to uniquely tag and target these repeats because they share so much structure with so many other biological repeats that exist in the genome.

Charles 15:15
Yeah. I don’t have a solution to that problem. But the good news for me is that it’s not my problem. Yeah.

Robin 15:23
And like, it’s, it was tough. It was definitely tough solving it, because like one of the tools that I’ve developed for imaging kind of does that it like, overcomes that. But I’m happy to talk about that a little bit more. But that was definitely like a huge bug that I had been working through in my research for at least a year.

Charles 15:39
Yeah. Well, I would love to, I would love to hear what the solution was.

Robin 15:43
Yeah. So basically, I am currently in the process of like writing up a paper on this tool that I’ve developed called Tiger fish. And everybody always asks me, how did you come up with the name Tiger fish. And at the time, when I was like, first, working on this project with my advisor, I thought about tandem repeats. And I was like, Okay, I want a letter that has a T and an R, in it, tandem repeat, and then Tiger kind of just came out of that. And fish is the technique that we primarily use in our lab to be to visualize genomic positions, which is, it stands for fluorescence in situ hybridization. So tigerfish is kind of just how that name came to be.

Charles 16:25
Well, could you describe just briefly what fish actually is? Like, what it’s doing and how it doesn’t? Yeah, absolutely.

Robin 16:32
So fish is a molecular biology technique that essentially, it’s honestly mostly used for cytogenetics, which, basically, what cytogenetics is, is a way to tag or paint chromosomes or genetic DNA. So the way fish works is you’re using fluorescent probes, that binds to specific parts of a nucleic acid or just a DNA sequence. And it does this with a high level of specificity. So if you imagine the way DNA bases bind, in a complimentary way, what you’re doing is you’re taking a probe or in this case, we work with these small synthetically developed sequences called oligonucleotide probes, or we just call them all of those for short. And each of these oligos is tagged with this fluorescent marker or probe. And that way, it will bind to our genomic region of interest. So when you go to the microscope, you look for that specific fluorophore. And it’ll light up that genomic region, so to speak,

Charles 17:39
tremendous. So you were using tigerfish? To Yeah, to basically

Robin 17:43
tag a lot of these repeats and being able to tag them independently. So if I want to go after chromosome one, when I go to the scope room, I should only be saying chromosome one

Charles 17:55
has this, is this still sort of in working get out stage? Or is it at the point where other people are using your technique?

Robin 18:02
Yeah. So we’re actually at the really exciting point where it literally on Friday, I imaged my last two chromosomes that I had been debugging for so long. So I can say that I’ve officially imaged at least all of the chromosomes in the human genome independently. Wow, hey, and we’re starting to move into working with different types of samples. And we’re hoping to be, you know, publishing this pretty soon. So that way, we can get it out there for other folks to use. And what’s really exciting about the stuff that we’re out as we used the latest version of the human genome, I kind of just want to give a shout out to other people’s work here. But the telomere to telomere consortium has done an enormous job of being able to implement that long read sequencing technology that I was mentioning earlier. But being able to apply it to finishing a full assembly of a human genome. I’ve been using that latest reference to actually design some of my repeat specific oligo probes. And what’s really cool is I’ve actually found like new novel repeats, like different repeats that totally didn’t exist in the previous version of the human genome. So I think there’s a lot of really exciting space to be exploring for imaging and kind of looking at that structure function relationship, and like, you know, high level,

Charles 19:22
it sounds very, it sounds thrilling. And that’s not sarcasm. Yeah. So you keep talking about the human genome. And like, frankly, I think humans biologically are among the least interesting no offense to everybody collected and everybody else in the world, but come on, we all know that insects are the best. Obviously. Are there particular challenges to using this technology with humans versus other vertebrates versus invertebrates?

Robin 19:53
I’m like so happy that you asked this because like, so far, I’ve actually implemented Tiger fish on a couple other genomes to so I’ve run this and mouse and fly as well. And fly was really interesting actually, because I reached out to another person who does repeat biology and for Sofala. And what he was able to do was kind of give me this genome sequence that has additional patches of that repetitive DNA. It’s not necessarily like a linear, fully assembled sequence, like what the telomere to telomere consortium did. But this has a lot more of the repeat patches that were missing. And tigerfish was able to find repeat probes against the different chromosomes on fly at least. So I’m hoping that maybe I have those stored and I’m like, waiting for the right time to see if I can, like try to image that or like work with somebody to kind of get a project off the ground and that area?

Tessa 20:51
Actually, that’s a good question. How conserved evolutionarily speaking, are these sorts of satellite DNA sequences? Are they mostly a mammal thing? Or a human thing? Do you find them throughout? You know, the animal kingdom? Or even more beyond that?

Robin 21:07
Oh, my goodness. Yeah, that’s such a great question. So repetitive DNA is kind of all over the place between different organisms and species. So you see them and plants, plants tend to have very repetitive genomes. I’m specifically thinking of maize, like corn like that genome is like pretty much like mostly repetitive DNA, I think between like, you know, vertebrates, like I would say, in humans, humans tend to have like, maybe like 10 to 15% of their genome is maybe like repetitive DNA. But this can also vary substantially between other mammals too. So even between, like within species, one thing that’s really interesting is that like, in flies, there has been shown to be a lot of variation of just like satellite DNA content, in general. But like, I think, even between the sequence versus composition, there’s still a lot of variability and differences. So that’s kind of an interesting thing that I think a lot of folks are still trying to unpack, like, what, what does this mean, I think evolutionarily to have, like so much or so little repetitive DNA?

Charles 22:12
So what is the ultimate end use for the this kind of technology, this kind of looking at satellite DNA sequences? Like what kind of ultimate questions are the researchers who use it trying to answer about evolution or genetics, it’s

Robin 22:29
sure, I could hope they’ll give you a few examples. So like this technology, I think it’s going to be helpful for a couple of different emerging areas. One of them I think, is maybe just validating genome assemblies as they’re being made. So one area I can think of is that a lot of new genomes now that we know that we have the technology to be able to assemble them telomere to telomere so to speak, like, well, could

Charles 22:55
we take a moment? What is the telomere?

Robin 22:57
What is it to Mara telomere is like the very tail end of a chromosome. They’re basically like the too far and left, left and right ends of chromosomes.

Charles 23:08
And I think potentially people who are listening might have heard about telomeres, because they’re often invoked when people talk about aging and the deleterious effects of aging on the body of the idea that every time DNA gets copied over telomeres maybe get eroded a little bit, right. So telomere due to

Robin 23:28
the idea of taking it a sequence or getting a sequence from one end to the other without any gap or, you know, decoy patches, and like what I mean by a decoy patch, just kind of saying, hypothetically, we think 60 copies of the sequences there. So like none of that it’s basically just a full correct assembly of what’s actually there on the chromosome. So I think being able to, there’s going to be a lot of power and being able to use imaging techniques to say, hey, we have x many copies of some repetitive DNA sequence within this area of a central mirror, or we want to tag if this repeat, is there on this chromosome? Can we do it with imaging and tigerfish would be able to help users answer those questions. Another thing that this will be helpful for is just kind of stepping back and looking at some of these like biological questions like Is this type of repeat present in certain forms of like cancers is like another area that I can think of? When it comes to studying evolution? I actually am going to kind of jump back to into flies a bit just because I think that’s a good example. But there’s been some really wonderful work where people have tried to map the presence of different satellite repeats in different species of Drosophila which are just, you know, fly, but looking at different clades that exist within different parts of the world and seeing if they share some of those repeats or not. And it’s been able to help people make up what the evolutionary history is of say, like the simulans clade, which is just one of the Drosophila clades?

Charles 25:07
Well, this example is the most exciting to me, essentially, you’re saying that it’s sort of a tool of getting very granular phylogenetic information based not just on similarity of genes overall, but specifically looking at the evolutionary informativeness of these particular satellite DNA sequences, right.

Robin 25:30
And I think like, that’s kind of why I think like this tool, like, I am interested in so many of these different directions, but obviously, I can only chase a few. And the evolutionary stuff is like, so fascinating to me, just because I think seeing that relationship between how satellite DNA might be driving speciation, it’s just fascinating.

Charles 25:50
Well, evolution is the best.

Robin 25:53
Combined, I think there’s gonna be a lot of exciting work to use this tool, especially to just like, yeah, do imaging and validations. Related to imaging, carrier typing is another thing that I can think of where it’s like, Oh, if you want to check, yeah, between two individuals, or in a genome, if like some type of repeat is there, what you could do is just take one of these sequences or these probes, and just do fish on it, and then see if like, that lights up in your sample. Another thing that’s really cool, just about these Tiger fish probes in general is that like, because we’re going after repeats, you actually typically only need a small handful, or like maybe one to two probes to actually target a specific repeat, just because there’s so many copies, it’s basically like, the probe will see it and be like, wow, there’s like tons of binding sites here. I can totally light this up. So you end up more often than not with like, really bright spots, which looks super cool under the microscope.

Charles 26:47
Well, what is sort of best case scenario? Like? What would what would be the day where you reach the mountaintop? And you think I’ve done it? If that question makes any sense, like related to this project, or in your life, but probably related to the project,

Robin 27:06
okay, so I can say, like, related to the product. So I kind of have some plans after tigerfish is fully like, you know, packaged up deployed, where I’d like to make a community resource of like, repetitive DNA oligos, not just for human, but for many model organisms, insects, like, as a lot of these genomes are being completed, I’d love to just be able to, like, run my pipeline through different genomes, and like, have those probes there for people so that way, they can actually, like, use them in their own research as they want to validate, you know, whatever cool findings they got, I think that’d be really cool. Because currently acid exists, there’s like, no way or no good way to do this, like, I did find some prior repetitive DNA probes. But like, I had to go to this paper, use the Wayback Machine, click on this, like one website from this one lab in Italy, that doesn’t exist anymore to get like these like five sequences. And I was like, okay, like, I would love to be able to make a resource that could actually like, help the research community get like more open access to better imaging protocols and stuff. So that would kind of be like, my big pie in the sky dream, at least for this project. Hopefully, I’d love to be able to just like, package that up before I graduate.

Tessa 28:21
Long those notes like, is the stuff you’re working on more focused on the computational aspect of it like actually programming? Okay, here’s the data. Here’s how we analyze it, or is it more in terms of like, the actual lab procedures?

Robin 28:35
Yeah, that’s a great question. So right now, I think the main focus of my thesis has been working on developing these computational tools. So I’ve been doing a lot of the software engineering and coding behind making these workflows exists. And the idea is that publicly, these sequences will be a resource that they can like use drag and drop, download, and they can order from wherever they’d like to get their oligos from, and then they can do that those experiments in the lab, but because this is kind of like my method that I’ve been working on, like, I’ve been finding, I’m like, Okay, wait, when somebody finishes all this code, they’re gonna have to test these probes. Oh, that’s me, just looking in the mirror. So I have kind of had to pick up not just the coding hat, but also the me being in the lab doing the fish myself hot, which definitely an interesting pair of hots to juggle, but I bought it. I’ve enjoyed it so much. It’s super cool to kind of see that story go from like, start to finish.

Charles 29:40
This is a wildly speculative question. So it’s fine if you don’t have an answer to it. But what do you imagine is sort of the next horizon after we’ve really nailed down genome sequencing like once we get to the point We’re like we can get everybody’s genome, no problem. What’s next after that?

Robin 30:06
Yeah, that is honestly such a fascinating area to talk about. So I know that there are lots of projects actually through to this is just like, I only use this as an example, just because this is a little bit more what I’m familiar with what like some of my research areas, but the human pan Research Consortium is actually in the process of like trying to sequence more individuals, because they’re like, hey, obviously, just having a single human references bad that doesn’t exactly represent or account for diverse human populations, there needs to be I think the next big horizon needs to be more specific work that understands and unpacks the ethics and ethical implications behind DNA sequencing with specifically working with black and indigenous groups. Because I think right as a, as it stands right now is like, there needs to be substantially more work with education, understanding and effectively collaborating with communities in research in that way. Like, I think like DNA sovereignty is kind of like, it’s going to be a huge area that a lot of folks should like, be very informed about, because like, data and privacy related to genome sequencing, I think a lot of folks are still trying to, like, understand that as a whole. But I think like as researchers and genomics, like, one thing that I definitely want to push for is just for like, that continued self and current education about practices, especially with DNA sequencing, like because I work more interactive, like I am not necessarily in the assembly world, or like putting these samples together. But I think it’s really important as a community to be extremely informed, and like trying to advocate specifically for marginalized communities that are most impacted and most vulnerable.

Charles 32:07
And I think that’s a great, do you have anything else that you’d like to say about your, like scientific research in particular that you haven’t gotten to,

Robin 32:16
um, I would say, like, I think I touched upon like, the main stuff of what I’m really excited to do, I’m honestly looking really forward to like collaborating and mentoring with like more students and getting them excited about imaging and tech dove. I think technology development and genomics is like, it’s super, super niche. But it’s also a really, it’s a ton of fun, if you’re like in the right environment and space. And I’m really, really excited to kind of work a little bit more in that like, advocacy area with like, developing curriculum specifically about the ethics of work in genomics, but also just being able to, like, be a person too, that other students can kind of like rely on and just, yeah, learn to kind of love science with.

Charles 33:00
Yeah, well, I think that’s a great segue into if you’d like to talking more about your outside of the lab work, both in supporting marginalized students and also in art and storytelling.

Robin 33:13
So I’ve had a lot of really exciting projects kind of in this direction lately that I, I’m looking forward to kind of expanding on a little bit more. So like, I actually recently just got a cover accepted to ACS bio, or chemical biology actually, for a really great series that they have called like the diversity and inclusion cover series. But what they’re doing is they’re specifically calling for artists from different diverse backgrounds and drawing covers for their each of their issues. And I was actually able to get selected for one of these and was super excited because this is like my first illustration that’s made it on like a journal cover. That is exciting, then I don’t know I’ve been really really hyped about just like working more in scientific illustration and connecting with other people who are also illustrators, because I think drawing and art is something that definitely drew me into science. I think I’m like a very visual learner and a very visual person and sometimes, like, it’s really cool to be able to put a story together. That is, that’s a little bit more accessible and easier to understand.

Charles 34:24
Yeah, well as you, you put it in your bio art centered on storytelling and science. Could you talk more about what that storytelling means?

Robin 34:32
Right? So for me, I’m actually moving into studying and doing a little bit more work on like, this is gonna go hand in hand but like, so I love graphic novels, okay. Like I read comic books, and like, I love some manga series like Dragonball Z and stuff. And it’s funny but learning how to storyboard a comic is nearly like the same for storyboarding, say like a scientific illustration. Like if you’re Putting together like a panel or like, either a paper figure or doing like, an infographic might be a little bit more, like close. It’s that type of storyboarding is like super, super common. And it’s actually helped me put infographics together from start to finish, just like kind of applying that idea. And I am kind of hoping to actually move more into that space too. And just like, see what other fun infographics I can make about like, repetitive DNA, or like, how does sequencing work stuff like

Charles 35:33
that? Well, I think a visual approach is, is particularly well suited to biology, which is the very visual science and a lot. So as you said, you’d like to move more into the art side of things. What does that look like? Like? How, what is the breadth of your ambitions?

Robin 35:50
I would say that, like when I started working more with illustration, like this honestly started with me putting research talks together, but honestly, like, I think I started drawing more scientific illustrations like, in like the margins of notes when I was like, in classes still trying to figure out like, okay, but like, what is happening in genetics really like, what like, just like, kind of reading through old papers and like, looking at those notes, like those little doodles, really, like, helped me I realized, learn more about the field. So I was like, oh, you know, I’m honestly going to try to like implement drawing figures more as like a style for note taking or for my presentations, just because I wanted at least to kind of have that like visual reference for myself, just to make sure that I was even understanding what I was doing and communicating it correctly. And that has really, I think, like taken off for me in terms of just like being able to like either help folks design figures being able to use like color schemes that makes sense transitions that help maybe take that story of how did this project come about to where are you out now? And what are you excited about doing? In a way that’s like, a little bit more engaging, and I think friendly, like, right now, I’m kind of using this as a tool to help other people learn about my science, as well as helping me make sure that like, I’m also like, working through my experiments and science correctly. And I’m hoping to kind of share maybe more stories and this after grad school to like, I would like to maybe have like a graphic novel someday, about like, maybe some of like my own experiences and stuff. But also, just to do it for fun, I got a lot of cool story ideas that I would be excited

Charles 37:34
about. Well, speaking about your own experiences it from your website at all, it seems like part of that storytelling is a talking about the science that about the biology itself, but also expanding sort of the image of people involved in science, would you like to talk more about your work in sort of supporting marginalized students.

Robin 37:56
So honestly, like, I felt one of the biggest needs when at least, I’ve been in science through undergrad and grad school has been, I think it’s so important to have a community that is there for you. And I think, especially for folks with marginalized identities, one thing that I can think of is that it’s sometimes very, very isolating in STEM, especially in like PhD programs, like, I know that a lot of privileged folks typically from like, upper class backgrounds are there. And a lot of the times, like if you come from a low income or for strong background, or due to a number of factors, this could be like your race, sexual orientation, gender, there can be a lot of situations where sometimes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. And I think it’s incredibly important to have that community there who not just like, at least can empathize with your lived experiences, but also just uplift you as a person and just be like, You are totally like more than this PhD program and just seeing you authentically for who you are. So that’s kind of been my goal with being an empathetic mentor and trying to carve spaces in science, like I want to move away from just, you know, people just seeing you for like, what you do outside of the lab or who they think you are, like, I think I want to create spaces that are a little bit more like holistic, and like actually is just like empathetic. So when I created GSI Ames with other students, we were very, very invested in wanting to make sure that not only did we have access to mentors who were representative or actually shared many more of our collective experiences or identities, but we wanted to have research role models, right. And people who we could network with people who we could talk to and being able to develop the skills and community in a really unique way. I think is a powerful way to advocate for ourselves and also advocate for our needs as a community. It’s so hard to kind of explain sometimes how wild academia can be unless you’re just in it or unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. And like, I think being able to just even have that shared community of understanding and awareness is, it’s huge.

Charles 40:26
Okay, so did I send you the list of episode ending questions? Yes. Do you have one that you would like to answer?

Robin 40:34
Okay, maybe this time? Probably one.

Charles 40:36
Okay. So if you could travel to any period of geologic time, when would you go?

Robin 40:42
Okay, so this one is gonna sound very random, but I had a friend recently travel and hike around and took some pictures of like, the Burgess Shale. And I was like, you know, it would be cool to kind of see what Cambrian life would look like and probably be a bit scary, because they would look like bigger insect ish type things kind of running around or in the water. But honestly, it would be kind of cool to see that.

Charles 41:07
That would be honestly, yeah, I totally see the appeal right there with Yeah, yeah. When is the Burgess Shale specific?

Robin 41:15
It’s in like the British Columbia area. But it just blew my mind. Like if you think about how much water that was on earth at that time, and that’s just like, I don’t know, it’d be kind of cool to see different critters.

Charles 41:25
This is exciting, because we haven’t answered this one on the podcast yet. You’re the inaugural answer of this question.

Robin 41:34
I stand the Cambrian period. I was like I would because like, she took some so my friend who went took some cool pictures of these fossils. And I was like, wonder what that would look like alive though.

Charles 41:45
It’s pretty cool. I think. Yeah, I would definitely I mean, my answer is just going back to anytime I could see giant insects, like the like the, like the really big ones. Let me see, let me get a precise date on this one. Looking at a fossil losing my mind. Love that I would actually because the other time I would like to go is like sometime in the carbon and for us to find because the the the the ideal for me is developing time travel, but only using it so that biologists and geologists etc, etc can go back in time and get contemporary samples study because like we have fossil insects, but you can’t like DNA extracted guys. So I would love to go back to the Carboniferous and like identify the roach oId ancestors of modern Dixie Optra. And like, bring some back. I just the most exciting possible thing. I think that’s a win. Would you go?

Tessa 42:59
Yeah, no, that’s a little tough for me. Probably either like, the Dan, or the Korean just to see like, what really early, early life looked like, I feel like my advisor would never forgive me if I didn’t do something to shed light on the origin of life. But also, it might be cool to check out the middle tertiary ignimbrite flare up from a very long distance away. For those of you don’t know, that was when we had the most explosive volcanic eruptions, as far as we know, in the history of Earth. Oh,

Charles 43:33
yeah. I will say, for anybody who’s thinking about this in the future, I will accept the far future as a period of geologic time. Like way post humanity on Earth. That’s also acceptable. I wouldn’t go there because I think it would bum me out. Yeah. I will accept that as an answer if anybody wants to answer this in the future. Tremendous. Well, I I think that’s, that’s a podcast episode. Great job, everybody. So Robin, if people would like to learn more about you or your research, where should they look?

Robin 44:18
Yeah. So feel free to hit me up on Twitter. I honestly haven’t been on there too much these days. But I’m slowly making my way back as I’m like sharing more art and mentorship resources.

Charles 44:28
I’m, I’m in it might be in your best interest. It’s kind of a bummer there these days. UBH.

Robin 44:36
Yeah. So like my handle is at see small things. It’s just one word across and you can find me on my website. Robin aguilar.com.

Charles 44:50
Tremendous. Well, I am on Twitter. Against my mom’s recommendations at cockroach orals and Tesla I I’m

Tessa 45:00
on Twitter at spacer mais SP AC er and ASC or on my website Tessa fisher.com.

Charles 45:06
The show is on Twitter at ASAP pod or at our website where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode ASAP podcast.com. And if you liked the podcast or you think other people might like the podcast, please tell them about it. Word of mouth is the number one way that podcasts grow.

Tessa 45:23
And until next time, keep on science-ing.

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