Ileana Corsi is a fifth year student in the Microbiology and Infectious Diseases program and doctoral candidate in the lab of Theresa Koehler, PhD. Corsi’s interest in science starting as a middle school student watching a Darwin documentary on his theory of natural selection. By the time she was in high school, anything related to biology was her favorite subject. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Florida International University, she joined a microbial ecology lab that studied microalgae communities of the Florida Everglades, and a mosquito genetics lab that studied the genetic basis of human host recognition by Aedes aegypti. Her love of lab work started here with discovering a whole universe of invisible life under the microscope.
Corsi joined the GSBS in 2016 because she not only loved the idea of an umbrella program (the first year is spent taking classes with all incoming students, regardless of program interest), but she also liked being so close to other institutions in the Texas Medical Center so she could collaborate with people in many different fields.
In 2017, Corsi joined the Koehler lab to join her work in Bacillus anthracis. She not only wanted to get experience in animal vectors but also in a BSL-3 lab. She is currently working on sRNA function in the human pathogen Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of the lethal disease anthrax. The long-term goal of her project is to uncover the mechanisms by which sRNAs allow bacteria to become highly successful human pathogens, and to use this information to guide new anti-bacterial therapeutics. After her graduation this spring, she would like to pursue a career in clinical research and medical affairs.
Specifically, she would like to transition into the pharmaceutical industry and use her scientific skills to help develop new therapeutics and interventions.
Corsi’s advice to new graduate students is to seek out as many opportunities as possible. “Join student organizations and committees, maybe do an internship if you can. I think it is very important to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual who can excel in all kinds of environments. Also, try to have more than one project in your lab. The more projects you have, the higher your probability of success. Learning how to multi-task is crucial for the job market. Finally, build your professional network early on.”
What ignited your passion for science?
"I specifically remember watching a documentary as a middle schooler on Animal Planet about Charles Darwin’s voyages to the Galapagos Islands and his seminal observations that led to his theory of natural selection. Something about that documentary ignited a curiosity for evolutionary biology. By the time I was in high school, anything related to biological sciences was my favorite subject. My biology obsession eventually led me to pursue a Bachelors in Biological Sciences at Florida International University. I initially intended to pursue a career as a veterinarian. Eventually I started looking for research opportunities in labs at my university because I knew having that experience would give me an edge in the highly competitive veterinary school applications. However, I found myself joining a microbial ecology lab that studied microalgae communities of the Florida Everglades and a mosquito genetics lab that studied the genetic basis of human host recognition by Aedes aegypti. I fell in love with research through those experiences. I especially loved looking at a drop of Everglades water through a microscope and discovering a teeming universe of “invisible” life! At that point I decided to attend graduate school to continue nurturing my passion for science."
What research project are you working on currently?
"DNA is often called the “blueprint of life” since it contains the genetic information that cells need to build proteins, which control cellular life. RNA molecules are carbon copies of that blueprint which cells utilize to guide protein production. In bacteria, small regulatory RNAs (sRNAs) are special RNA molecules with the power to directly control bacterial cell function, bypassing the need to first synthesize a protein. Thus, sRNAs allow bacteria to rapidly adapt to environmental stress, such as nutrient limitation and antibiotic treatment. Unfortunately, we do not fully understand how sRNAs control the development of disease during human infections. I study sRNA function in the human pathogen Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of the lethal disease anthrax. The long-term goal of my project is to uncover the mechanisms by which sRNAs allow bacteria to become highly successful human pathogens, and to use this information to guide new anti-bacterial therapeutics."
How did you choose your research project?
"I chose this research project because it was a topic previously unexplored in my lab. Previous projects in the lab studied the role of different proteins, not RNA, in B. anthracis physiology and virulence. The idea of doing something different from what everyone else had done previously in the lab was exciting to me! I had the chance to develop new protocols, learn new techniques, and establish new collaborations outside of the laboratory. Of course, it was a difficult journey at times, but this project challenged me and allowed me to grow as a scientist and I’m grateful for that."
How did you choose a lab or advisor?
"I decided to join my current lab because the science was particularly interesting to me. Since we work with B. anthracis, some of our experiments are performed in a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab. I thought having that experience would help set me apart from my peers and demonstrate that I am a responsible and reliable scientist. Additionally, I knew that I could get experience working with animal models. I also joined the lab because I felt an instant connection with my advisor. Her enthusiasm for B. anthracis research was infectious!"
Why did you choose the GSBS for your research education?
"The GSBS stood apart from other graduate schools I visited during my interview. I liked that it was an umbrella program, meaning that the first year is spent taking classes with all incoming students, regardless of program interest. This experience allowed me to make friends and connections with a variety of scientists. I am a microbiologist, but my closest friends are biochemists, neuroscientists, and immunologists. It’s great to discuss science and troubleshoot experiments with people who have totally different life science perspectives! I was also impressed by the Texas Medical Center and the idea of having multiple institutions so close together. I’ve had the pleasure of having fruitful collaborations with people in other institutions which are a quick walk away from my lab."
What goals do you have for your research career?
"I want to transition into the pharmaceutical industry and use my skills as a scientist to help develop new therapeutics and interventions."
What do you want to do after you graduate?
"I have many broad interests, but mainly I want to pursue a career in clinical research and medical affairs. I took a class in design and management of clinical trials through MD Anderson and thoroughly enjoyed it! I also highly enjoy writing and talking about science with others. My long-term goal is to lead therapeutic development to improve patient outcomes."
What has been your biggest success?
"I think my biggest success so far was unconditionally passing my candidacy exam a few years ago. After I passed, my PI and I turned my exam proposal into a successful NIH R21 grant, which became the first R21 to be awarded to our laboratory. I wrote my exam proposal independently and we kept most of the original experiments and writing for the grant. I am a couple of months away from defending my dissertation, so my next big success will be successfully completing my PhD program!"
What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
"I think my biggest 'failure' (although I prefer the term 'learning moment') was getting my first ever paper rejection. However, I was able to incorporate some of the great feedback I got from the reviewers, which led to a much stronger version of the manuscript. Not long after I was able to secure my first paper acceptance! As students we put so much of ourselves and our passion into our projects, so I remember being very disappointed when I got that rejection notice.
"Everything worked out in the end though, and I learned to develop thick skin and confidence in my ability to overcome difficulties."
What advice would you give to a first year student?
"My main advice is to seek out as many opportunities as possible. Join student organizations and committees, maybe do an internship if you can. I think it is very important to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual who can excel in all kinds of environments. Also, try to have more than one project in your lab. The more projects you have, the higher your probability of success. Learning how to multi-task is crucial for the job market. Finally, build your professional network early on."
What’s something you like to do when you are not working in the lab?
"When I am not in the lab, I enjoy spending time with my husband and our corgi Sam. We take him to the dog park and we go on long walks together. I also enjoy weightlifting with my husband. Some of my other hobbies include baking, embroidery, and drawing."