BBS student Q&A: Jonathan Villanueva

Jonathan Villanueva

Ph.D. Candidate, Danko Lab

Q: What is your area of research and why is it important?

Colorectal tumor formation is driven by somatic mutations that disrupt gene regulatory mechanisms. Different combinations of mutations can lead to unique cell phenotypes, such as resistance to certain therapeutics. My research focuses on understanding how different combinations of mutations rewire gene regulatory mechanisms (microRNAs, enhancers) to promote colorectal tumor development and survival. This research will be important for understanding the molecular differences between patient tumors, or inter-tumor heterogeneity, that can affect treatment efficacy. Successful completion of this project will highlight candidate therapeutic targets for different mutational contexts and serve as an important step in the advancement of precision medicine for colorectal cancer patients.

Q: Can you speak to the initiatives and activities you are involved in within the BBS program?

Since joining BBS, I have tried to make it a point to give back to the community that has helped me grow as a scientist and an individual. This has included helping organize BBS sponsored events such as the 2019 BBS Symposium and Dr. Cassandra Extavour’s virtual visit in 2020 for the BBS3 seminar series. I have also been involved in multiple BBS student-led groups (BBS Graduate Student Society, BBS Peer Mentor Program, BBS Diversity Council) that are designed to help support the students during their PhD. a Graduate Student Ambassador, I have had the privilege to recruit at SACNAS, ABRCMS, and the NIH Graduate & Professional School Fair. At these events, I have met so many brilliant young scientists and I try to do what I can to give them the resources/support they need to put their best foot forward during the application process. Through my involvement in these different arenas, I have been requested to speak as a student representative on multiple occasions, including at a CVM Town Hall and the Baker Advisory Council Meeting. I find it important to take advantage of these opportunities to ensure that student voices are heard by the administration.

Q: What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research and scholarship?

Outside of research, I enjoy partaking in science outreach initiatives. As a part of the BBS Fall Into Science program, I have helped develop workshops/tools to teach various concepts in science to students ranging from elementary to high school. This includes helping design a coding workshop for Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) to provide participants with an introduction to coding. During the pandemic, I created YouTube videos with BBS students and faculty to help answer questions about the COVID19 pandemic. To relax, I enjoy going for runs with friends. I also enjoy playing video games such as Super Smash Brothers and Monster Hunter.

Q: What advice would you give to an entering first year Ph.D. student?

Start to develop good self-care practices earlier on. I know your first year is tough, but you will only get busier as time goes on. I always thought if I just keep pushing myself, that translates into better productivity. Took me a long time to realize I can focus better, make fewer mistakes, and am overall more productive when I take some time to take care of myself. Seriously, all my dumbest mistakes have happened when it’s late and I think “I’ll just get this one last experiment done.” Whether it involves exercising, talking to a licensed professional counselor, or just taking an extra hour to sleep, make sure you do what you can to take care of yourself.