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Student Research Converts DNA to Data

August 6, 2019

A change in plans led one biochemistry student to bioinformatics research.

A student in a lab

Oscar Villalta ’20, intended to attend medical school after completing his undergraduate degree. However after shadowing medical professionals in the field, the Long Island native realized that wasn’t the career path he wanted to follow. Instead, the biochemistry major decided to focus on genetics, one of his favorite classes at Fisher. 

Ultimately Villalta found his fit in the field of bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary field that consists of analyzing large amounts of biological data. It’s especially useful when studying genetics at the population level. This summer, he’s sharpening his skills in both data analysis and hands-on biology in the lab with Dr. Kevin Callahan. He’s enjoying the opportunity to apply the knowledge he learned in the classroom in a real-life setting that will prepare him for a career after graduation. “It’s been great so far,” he said, “It’s really interesting and a lot of fun.”

Villalta is using RNA sequencing and statistical analysis to study the role of special nongenetic bits of DNA called introns. Most DNA and RNA contain genetic information, but introns are more mysterious. Typically, introns are discarded after genetic information is passed from DNA to RNA. Recent research has shown that under certain conditions, the introns may eventually serve a beneficial purpose. His research will use bioinformatics to compare intron activity between different types of yeast under a variety of conditions.

In addition to working directly with DNA and RNA samples, Villalta will use a programming language called R to analyze the data he collects from his research. The ability to work on research full-time in a professional lab has helped him to discover strengths and opportunities as a result of serving as a Summer Research Fellow.

“It’s been very interesting to see what my skills are in the lab, and where I could go with them after college,” he said. “I’m learning to be a little more resourceful and teaching myself things that I've never even heard of before.”