Under the Lens: Deanna Arsala
Meet Deanna. She’s intelligent, artistic, funny, and most importantly kind- all packed in one. Try finding that in the usual science space! Deanna is a 5th year PhD student in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology who has recently undertaken an unconventional sequencing approach to study embryological gene expression in the jewel wasp, Nasonia.
How have you come about loving biology?
My parents used to take me to natural history museums as a kid, and I think they unknowingly introduced me to biology. I loved looking at the insect collections and hearing about Lucy and other early hominids. When I learned about how DNA is the blueprint for our body-plan, the eight-year old me nearly lost my mind.
Where were you before you joined UIC and what were you doing?
Before I joined UIC, I was an undergraduate at Fresno State in California where I double-majored in Biology and Anthropology. I was fortunate enough to do research in both areas during my undergrad – splitting my time between archaeological research and molecular biology. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, biology won out (that, and I decided digging made my knees hurt and I didn’t like dirt up my nose 24-7). Outside of class, I was working in retail and playing way too many video games.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD? How did you prepare?
During the last two years of high school, I enrolled in a science & technology program that gave me a great experience at the bench. I loved being able to think critically about a problem and working with a team to solve it. When I started undergrad, I emailed some professors whose research I found interesting, and I was able to work in a plant genetics lab for 5 years. Because my favorite part high school and undergrad was science and research, I felt a PhD program would be a good fit for me.
Describe your research to a general audience. What do you do and why?
During the earliest stages in embryo development, there are a lot of changes happening to the DNA. Certain chemical marks, such as DNA methylation, will appear and disappear throughout the genome, and they dictate the level of which a gene is expressed (ie. turns “on” or “off).” Many of these genes expressed early in embryo development are important for setting up the animal body plan, and it’s important to understand how they are regulated. I work with the jewel wasp, Nasonia, to study this process. It has a simple embryo and has a specific type of DNA methylation (gene body methylation) that seems to play an important role in embryo development that’s shared with vertebrates, including humans.
If we could visualize some day to day tasks in your laboratory, what are you doing?
50% of the time, I’m trying to make an R package run and analyze my data. 45% of the time, I’m either looking at wasp embryos under a microscope or working at the bench. The other 5% of the time, I’m probably drinking tea, telling myself I should read more papers, and/or looking at dank memes on Reddit.
Do you have a favorite moment, an achievement, or a specific fun day in the lab?
I had to establish and perform a relatively new chromatin profiling technique (ATAC-seq, an efficient way to sequence parts of the DNA that are accessible or inaccessible) for wasp embryos. This particular technique had never been done in wasps, nor had it been carried out on any insect embryo at the time. It took me 2 months of planning, several days of freaking out and thinking it won’t work, and then a couple weeks anxiously waiting for my results. It worked. The data is beautiful, and I celebrated with a lot of beer and pizza.
Have you faced any challenges and were you able to persevere?
One of the biggest challenges during my PhD was learning how to work with a variety of personalities. Thankfully, I have great friends and a fantastic support system here in Biological Sciences, including my advisor and committee members who have helped me navigate through stressful times. I cannot stress how important it is to seek out a good support system during your PhD. Things will get hard, and it’s a lot easier with people in your corner.
Could you share some advice to other PhD students that are just starting off?
Some of the best advice that was shared with me was: “Everyone in academia is smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”
Do you have an idea what you will pursue after your PhD?
I’m hoping to land an academic post-doctoral position where I can continue to explore and study transcriptional regulation in the context of development and/or disease.
You are a great artist! If you hadn’t become a PhD student, would you have chosen an artistic career path or something else?
Thanks! Art is a great way for me to de-stress. If I didn’t become a PhD student in Biology, I probably would have continued with Anthropology.
Can you tell us what is the last book you read?
I have a bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously… But one of my favorite books I’ve read this past year was The Three Body Problem. If you’re a fan of hard science fiction, I strongly recommend this one.
What do you love about Chicago? Any recommendations of what to experience in the city?
Everything! Coming from a small town, Chicago is packed with things to do (especially during the summer). I love hitting up music festivals, exploring arts and crafts fairs, and getting fresh produce at the farmers’ markets. The museums are also great, and they offer a lot of free admission days during the winter. If you’re a fan of beer, there are a lot of great breweries in Chicago that make excellent craft beer.