Alec Santiago is a fourth year PhD student in the Microbiology & Infectious Diseases program in the lab of Kevin Morano, PhD. He is studying the preliminary underlying cause of unbalanced protein homeostasis, which may compound over time into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Alec’s interest in science began in an undergraduate microbiology class. This class sparked his interest in exploring life’s simplest form.
Santiago joined the GSBS in the summer of 2017. After starting his rotations in the early summer, he joined the lab of this third rotation. However, soon after joining, his lab moved across the country early on and he decided to stay at the GSBS. He then settled in the lab of Dr. Morano. He has worked on many of his personal goals throughout the years and would like to transition his career into venture capitalism. In this interview, Alec not only shares his enthusiasm for learning and networking, but also why he chose the GSBS and his advice for first year students.
What ignited your passion for science?
Initially, I never had much of an interest in science. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college, majoring in business, when a friend suggested that I take a microbiology course. Once I began to take classes, I was truly exposed to the intricacies of biology for the first time. There is a beauty in the mathematical precision that lets biological organisms thrive, and an entire universe of energy and motion humming along in every cell and cellular compartment. Biology is the sweet spot between the formula-heavy abstraction of physics and the advanced social complexities of public health. Biology lets us examine the narrative of life at its simplest form by watching and measuring the organic machinery as it harmonizes processes more delicate than the finest watches.
What research project are you working on currently?
I study how a family of maintenance proteins in the cell respond to oxidative stress. These proteins (Hsp70s) generally work to ensure that other proteins within the cell are functional, operative, and non-toxic. Additionally, Hsp70s are shown to play a role in how cells respond to stress by imparting signals to other key stress system machinery. I’ve shown that oxidative stress, such as what we can encounter from smoking or from genetic diseases, can lead to alterations in the Hsp70 system, resulting in an inability to fully manage other proteins and to regulate the stress response correctly. This can lead to toxic protein buildups, which have been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
What does your research work mean to you?
I love my work because it is the foundation of a complicated issue. I study a preliminary underlying cause of unbalanced protein homeostasis, which may compound over time into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. My work is not flashy, but it is fundamental, it is the backbone upon which other discoveries may be built, and I am excited for what others may be able to extrapolate from my work.
How did you choose a lab or advisor?
I started early in the summer and went through my three rotations, then ended up choosing the last rotation to join. However, that advisor soon accepted a new role at UCLA and I had the choice as to whether to follow him or to pick a new lab. As the idea of four people sharing a bedroom didn’t appeal to me, (plus I had a puppy to consider), I decided to stay with the GSBS. It ended up being a fantastic decision, as I then joined the lab of Dr. Kevin Morano and found a mentor that was in tune with needs that I didn’t even know I had. I grew quite a bit during my graduate career, and a large part of that was due to the guidance of my mentor and the relationship of trust that developed.
Why did you choose the GSBS for your research education?
My friend from college, Robert Williams, already attended here, and he highly sung the praises of the GSBS. I actually only applied to this graduate school, determined to join the ranks here in Houston. Once I toured, I was sold by the way every student seemed to have a happy, welcoming demeanor and by the warmth extended to us all by the administration.
What goals do you have for your research career?
As I approach the end, I am happy to say that I have achieved many of my early goals. I published a paper, won awards, found my genuine interests, and made a large number of meaningful relationships with my peers. Going forward, I would just be happy with a few citations and I can hang my hat on that.
What do you want to do after you graduate?
I am thoroughly excited to enter the field of venture capitalism, specifically in the life sciences. Having started many projects on my own, I know fully well how hard it can be to create something from nothing. Often, the belief that you have in yourself is a difficult flame to keep lit, especially if you lack resources or a roadmap. It might just be the chip on my shoulder, but having the means to help others in my previous situation with guidance, funds, and advice would make all of the frustrations worth it. Struggles become experience, which is best used to create bridges for others.
What has been your biggest success?
I am the most proud of the deeply significant relationships that I have grown to share with my peers. There have been many, many lows: failed experiments, overbearing work schedules, and exasperating advisors. However, being in the trenches with my friends has given all of us a resilience and a tenacity that helped us all to grow into more developed adults, scientists, and human beings.
What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
I applied for an F32 and received positive feedback, but did not receive the award. I took that feedback and greatly expanded my work in a new direction for a resubmission. Again, I received positive feedback, but did not get the award. Interestingly, the reviewers of the second submission asked for things that I had put in my first submission, but which I had then omitted due to the feedback and the pivot. I came to realize that there is no such binary category as ‘good science’ and ‘bad science’. What one reviewer told me to take out, the other wanted me to keep in. There is only valid science, and the ever-changing world that we present it in. It was comforting to then learn that I could not please everyone, and it gave me the freedom to rely more on my own metrics for success and validity than that of others.
What advice would you give to a first-year student?
Do not let your work be your only source of self-validation. Your experiments will fail a vast majority of the time, repeatedly, for weeks on end. If you are trusting those results to define your worthiness, you are limiting your value to a broken metric. Do more and be more than a lab participant. Find things that excite and invigorate you, and only compromise time spent outside of lab when absolutely necessary. I worked many long nights in lab, but I also took the opportunity to meet with local innovators, even if it meant leaving lab early now and again. Prioritizing lab first is smart, but so is building a well-rounded life during the phase when you are young, energized, and ready for opportunity to unfold in front of you.
What’s something you like to do when you are not working in the lab?
I love to have discussions with subject matter experts, regardless of their expertise. So much so that I turned those discussions into media outlets. I wrote a blog, hosted a podcast, did a video interview series, and wrote for a local CRO, each time centering everything on the stories of scientists, CEOs, and artists. There’s something in the dance of conversational connection that inspires me.
Anything else you would like to add?
We have really wonderful programs here at the GSBS, and I am thrilled with everything the Career Development office does, but even they can’t possibly show you all of the interesting, niche, and exciting opportunities to build a career after grad school. The best thing you can do is to start looking for breadcrumbs and follow them anywhere they go. Soak it all up, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Do not let shame hold you back. Do not tell yourself no before others even get the chance to. Do not fear that ‘no’ even if it arrives in bold print. We are all given the chance to create our stories, and there are innumerable paths to do so. Curiosity and boldness will help you to make yours as brilliant and meaningful as it should be.