Under the Lens: Leo Venegas

" No matter how hard things get and how many challenges you face don’t give up, keep pushing through."

"No matter how hard things get and how many challenges you face don’t give up, keep pushing through."


Ever wonder how researchers develop diagnostic tools for detecting diseases? Leo Venegas, a senior member of Dr. Brian Kay’s lab, conducts research that has direct diagnostic implications. I’ve had the pleasure of beginning grad school with Leo, and I’ve seen him grow from a fresh faced graduate student into a professional, respected scientist. From his time as president of BGSA to his transition into graduating, find out what’s made Leo successful both in and outside of work. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why did you want to be a PhD student?

I started college with the intent of going into medicine. I quickly realized it was not for me after my first year. I did volunteer work at a hospital and said no thank you, I don’t want to be responsible for people dying. I found myself at a crossroads. I liked biology, but I didn’t know what to do.

I continued taking classes and in my sophomore year I applied to the McNair Scholars program and was accepted. My first research experience was at Notre Dame and I loved it! I studied a gene involved in cardiogenesis.

That next summer I did research at St. Edwards’ University that continued through my senior year. After graduating, I worked at the University of Texas in El Paso in an HIV vaccine lab as a research assistant 2. I knew that I needed to get a PhD to advance towards the career I wanted so I applied to PhD programs and ended up joining the MCDB program at UIC.

Why is your research interesting?

Because you can see the impact your research has a lot faster than other fields. By making a diagnostic tool you can ideally see it used a lot sooner to determine whether or not patients have a certain disease. The possibility of contributing to saving a life is what gets me out of bed every day.

Describe your research to your grandma/ 7-year old

I work in Brian Kay’s lab using directed evolution to develop affinity reagents as diagnostic tools for disease. If I were to explain my research to my Grandma or a 7-year old, I would say that a lot of times when we’re sick our body sends out little signals. For example, when you have a cold your body sends out a different type of signal that lets the doctor know what’s wrong with you. Sometimes these signals are hard to detect or are similar to other signals so the doctor gets confused. I’m trying to develop a way to detect these similar signals that will tell the doctor right away whether you’re sick or not.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?

The fact that I get to wake up and discover a new fact about the world and create something that the world has never seen before.

Do you have a “best moment” that you’d like to share? An achievement or a specific fun day in the lab?

My best moment in grad school was when I was at a conference with my undergrad and he won an award for best poster presentation. That showed me that I had learned the skills to mentor and teach the next generation of students.

Can you describe how you helped or have been helped by someone else in a research-related project?

When I came into the lab one of the senior students really took me under his wing and taught me how to think about certain problems, design experiments to answer my questions, and taught me the techniques that I use today.

What advice do you have for other PhD students?

No matter how hard things get and how many challenges you face don’t give up, keep pushing through.

What do you do when you’re not doing research?

Paddle boarding, kayaking, and hanging out on the beach in the summer. I’m also known to play the occasional video game and I volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years/ What do you plan to do after your PhD?

I would like to be a group leader in biotech in San Diego. I see myself surfing, mountain biking, and learning how to cook more than a peanut butter sandwich in my spare time. If that fails, then hopefully I’ll have the money to order take out. 

Favorite TV show?

“Modern Family” and “South Park”

Last non-science heavy book you’ve read?

“American Gods”, a book that’s about how gods exist because humans thought of them. Since people are moving away from religion, the gods are struggling to survive and trying to get people to believe again. New gods are coming in, like the god of TV, media, etc. to replace old gods. I would recommend it!

Is there a place that you frequent in Chicago? City outings.

Wrigley Field, Go Cubs Go!

Favorite restaurant in Chicago?

Lao Sze Chuan!

If you weren’t a PhD student, what would you be doing?

Making money!