Undergraduate Research Leads Alumna To PhD Program
Inspired by access to research she treasured as an undergraduate at Dominican, Kaitlyn Vitangcol ’18 is making the transition into the PhD Program in Metabolic Biology at UC Berkeley with a goal to improve her skills as a scientist.
“The best part about my Dominican experience was the opportunity to do research,” Kaitlyn says. “I got to learn how to run protocols like PCR, how to apply for grants, and how to present my research. These are critical skills that I've learned firsthand, which have helped me choose this career path.”
That path, which included an internship at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, started when Kaitlyn graduated from Davis High School and found Dominican and the School of Health and Natural Sciences.
“The moment I walked on the Dominican campus, I felt at home. The campus is surrounded by nature and was just so beautiful,” she says. “I also knew that I wanted to go to a school with smaller class sizes. I wanted to utilize the one-on-one time with teachers so they knew me and the work I do.”
By her sophomore year, Kaitlyn had decided she wanted to pursue a doctorate. That’s when she continued her research with Dr. Meredith Protas, MS Biological Sciences director in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. She was introduced to Dr. Protas’ study on examining the genetics behind the eye degeneration in cave-dwelling crustaceans.
“Dr. Protas has played an integral role in inspiring me to take this path,” Kaitlyn says. “If it weren't for her guidance, I would not be where I am.”
Kaitlyn said one of her highlights at Dominican — and in her life — was participating in the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) at the University of Memphis in 2017. She was fascinated by the research presentations of her peers. Her presentation was about the loss of pigmentation in cave animals.
Eventually, Kaitlyn narrowed her research focus to metabolic biology.
“What I find so fascinating about metabolic biology is how the expression of certain proteins in your body can alter your risk of developing diseases like diabetes, cardiac disease, and cancer,” Kaitlyn says. “Metabolic pathways are like a chain reaction. One protein is inactivated, which causes a domino effect on the expression levels of others, which could be either beneficial or detrimental. How cool is that?!
"My ultimate goal is to run a lab focusing on the sexual dimorphic effects of metabolism. Biologically, men and women are affected differently by their diet, have varying risk of developing diseases, and even have different lifespans. Not enough research has gone into these topics so I would love to explore more about them.”
In May of 2018, Kaitlyn took another big step on her career path when she joined the Buck Institute, an internationally acclaimed research center that partners with Dominican's research-intensive MS Biological Sciences program. She read about an internship opportunity for Dr. Brian Kennedy's lab on LinkedIn then submitted a cover letter and CV and, Kaitlyn says, “three minutes later they asked me to come for an interview! They helped me get my foot in the door in academia.”
Kaitlyn quickly advanced from an intern to a Research Associate. One of her projects was researching how low doses of ethanol cause weight loss in mice leading a high-fat diet.
“I was tasked to do the research on my own, which put me in a unique situation. I had wonderful mentors, Dr. Lear Brace and Stuart Adamson, who taught me how to work in a professional lab setting in the beginning,” Kaitlyn says. “However when they left the Buck, I had to conduct the research myself. In all honesty, it was the most fulfilling experience of my life, preparing me for a PhD program.”
A bonus for Kaitlyn at the Buck Institute was an opportunity to train interns, including some from Dominican. One of her goals is to someday teach a course in biochemistry or metabolic biology.
“Watching my students engage and contribute to my research at the Buck Institute was incredibly rewarding,” Kaitlyn says. “I knew that I wanted to become the catalyst that inspires students to go into research and to study their passions.”
That is how Kaitlyn felt when she came to Dominican.
“The best thing I took from Dominican,” she says, “is that the more effort you put in, from engaging in class to presenting at conferences, the more enriching education you'll receive.”