I was born and raised in Ponce, a small beach town in the southern part of Puerto Rico – with constant access to nature in all its beauty. I grew up in a small farm where I became fascinated by the genetics of animal breeding (I didn’t know that terminology back then – I was just raising cool animals). I started with several breeds of chickens, ducks and rabbits; and then moved to exotic bird breeding. There I was: 14 years old and taking care of over 150 animal species and that changed my life forever. I started college at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico without a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life and could not decide on a major – but I loved science. Mid-way through my first semester in college, while taking introductory biology, I fell in love with life and the biochemical forces that shape everything that surrounds us. So, I immediately declared my major as biology with a second focus on chemistry…and then it all exploded…
I relocated to the USA and started my graduate education at North Carolina State University (NCSU) shortly after finishing my undergraduate degree. My initial journey focused on the cell biology of plant cells using live cell imaging, and completed a Master’s degree in the area of intracellular protein transport in Arabidopsis thaliana. My Ph.D. research with Dr. Barbara Sherry (also at NCSU) focused on understanding how different cardiac cells establish cell type-specific antiviral programs prior and during viral infections (see my Research tab). During my Ph.D. training, I fell in love with imaging viral infections and all you can learn about the cell by studying how it responds to microbes.
Upon completion of my Ph.D. training, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Stanley Lemon at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; where I continued my research on virus-host interactions as a postdoctoral fellow. My research was focused on understanding how hepatitis A virus (HAV), an ancient ‘non-enveloped’ virus within the Picornaviridae family, acquires a quasi-envelope during non-lytic egress from infected cells and the consequences of having this lipid bilayer coat in cellular entry compared to naked virions. I demonstrated that the presence of the HAV quasi-envelope directs these virions to the lysosome for uncoating, and identified key regulators for this process to occur.
After nearly two years of virology training in Dr. Lemon’s lab, I decided to gain further training in the cell biology side of viral infections. This led me to a move across the country to join a multi-disciplinary project under the mentoring of Dr. Priya Shah and Dr. Ben Montpetit at University of California, Davis. My current research aims at understanding how different members of the Flaviviridae (e.g. Zika, Dengue, hepatitis C) hijack cell processes to facilitate their replication.
My goal? To inspire the next generation of professionals to become fascinated by life. Biology has been traditionally taught based primarily on textbooks; and most students are never introduced to current discoveries until too late. Classical science education curricula fails at introducing science as a continuously-evolving discipline and most students are rarely exposed to the diverse careers that exist within the scientific realm. I use Twitter (@NakedCapsid) as a platform to teach biology and engage with the community.
My advice to you? Be open-minded and flexible. Sometimes life pulls you in ways you never imagined and letting yourself go every now and then can be extremely rewarding.
Personal Fun Facts? I am a huge fan of tattoos, love long-distance running, I am working towards becoming a certified personal trainer, nature is my passion, I was the only non-Christian student at my alma mater, I have eaten a whole pack of oreos cookies in one sitting, and absolutely adore dogs (I am the proud dad of five of rescue mutts).
For more info, see my recent interview with eLife!