Student Spotlight: Jorge Moreno

Student writer: Ava Daniel
Student editors: Ana Lyons

23andMe editor: Cindy Kosinski, Thao Do

Jorge Moreno—a senior, evolutionary biology major at the University of Iowa—has always had a knack for discovery and innovation. Biology has peaked Jorge’s interest from an early age, which from then on sparked his desire to explore the unknown. Through research, he has been inspired to make a difference not only in science, but in his community, as well. In addition to working in the Nieman Lab at Iowa University for 3 years, Jorge became an involved, passionate community advocate for science and genetic literacy for local students. He became an active member in programs such as the Iowa City Science Booster club, Iowa Personal Genome Learning Center, Iowa Biosciences Academy, and Association for Latinos Moving Ahead. In this interview, Jorge shared with us his impressive journey and findings thus far in the field of genetics discovery, as well as his plans for his future.

You mentioned you are majoring in Biology with a focus of evolution. How did you choose your major?

It’s actually a funny story. When I was growing up, I was really into Pokémon and I kept that interest as I grew up and continued into high school. Once I got into college, I realized that it allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for natural organisms.

I don’t know if you know too much Pokémon, but essentially there are these very specialized organisms that live in different niches. They have specific powers that they’ve evolved over time to help them survive and complete tasks in different, specialized ways.

So, when I began looking into what majors to choose, biology was one of those areas that when looking at evolution, I thought of how interesting it was that populations of organisms can change over time and develop traits that help them adapt to their natural environment—just like in Pokémon.

I thought about how there is such a large diversity of organisms across life and I thought at the time that this vastness seemed incompletely explored, especially to me. So, my interest in video games and in science came together to this one major, and I think it was a pretty cool way for my interests to come together and help me to pick my major.

Was there anything specific that sparked your interest in the field of genetics?

One of the things that got me interested was joining the Association for Latinos Moving Ahead, like I mentioned before. I joined mainly based off the fact that both my parents are from Mexico, so I wanted to be more in touch with my background and roots as I started off in college.

A friend had brought up to me that there was also a Native American’s Association on campus, and I mentioned “well, I’m not Native American,” but they responded saying “in fact yes, you are; most Latinos are.” This led me to want to figure out what my heritage actually was, since I didn’t know that I could also have Native American roots. And so, I actually looked into genotype tests, like 23andMe, that could answer this for me.

This experience drove my initial interest in genetics. After I got involved in that and found out what my ancestry really was, my interest shifted into finding out what kinds of genetic studies have been conducted for different diseases.

I began looking into how Latinos compared to other populations in terms of disease. I came across these really interesting papers that looked at GWAS studies of European-Americans, but there were no studies or data for Latinos or other minority groups.

This really sparked my interest in the field of genetics, since I wanted to change that lack of information. So, overall, I’d say my own heritage really sparked my interest in genetics.

For someone who may not have an extensive background in scientific research, which may be the case for some of our readers, how would you explain your research project?

What differentiates the organism we work with—Potamopyrgus antipodarum—is that the same species exists in two forms: asexual, in which one individual can duplicate and make an exact copy of itself, and sexual, in which a male and female individual are both necessary to produce offspring.

What we’re specifically looking at is how the genomes of these organisms can change and be altered due to the mode of inheritance of these copies. In other words, the way in which an offspring receives its genetic information from its parents may change how mutations can accumulate in their genome. The asexual form has an extra genome copy relative to the sexual form.

What are the questions you hope to explore and answer with your research?

The unanswered questions we hope to address are 1) how transitions from sexual to asexual reproduction can lead to an extra genome copy in the organism, and 2) why sexual reproduction is still favored and common, when it seems as though asexuals should be more effective at dominating the population due to their extra genome copy.

What implications or impact do you foresee this research having in the broader field of genetics?

In regards to polyploidy, which is an increase in genome number (like in the case here with the asexual snails), this is something that is widely observed in cancers.

We aim to understand these natural occurrences of polyploidy, since knowing that these snails are still alive and can still compete with their sexual counterparts can lead us towards understanding more about cancer and how it works.

We do know that these asexual snails are able to grow faster when they have more copies of their genome, which are the same observations that are made in tumor cells.

We want to get to the bottom of how these genomes are able to expand and still be extremely viable, since we don’t usually expect this to happen together. Once we can understand why these extra copies of this genome aren’t automatically killing off this organism, we will essentially be able to figure out how cancer works, and why they are so proficient at proliferating even though they have so many mutations.

Do you foresee yourself continuing this research after you graduate in the spring?

Yes, absolutely. I am currently applying to graduate school, mostly in the genomic, molecular biology, and bioinformatics areas. I hope to continue to work with genomes and other large data sets with the hope of finding correlations between certain phenotypes and their respective genome.

One thing I hope to explore in the future is something along the lines of regeneration, since we know that many organisms are able to regenerate–humans being organisms with a slight ability to regenerate. I’d hope to compare the genomes of humans with these organisms that do readily regenerate and see how much they differ, and what kinds of costs are there, like for example, if the genomes in regenerative organisms have more harmful mutations compared to humans.

If we are eventually able to look at all the genomes available, we could have the power to maybe look back onto human genomes and explore the possibility of regenerating limbs and stuff like that–obviously, that’s a very long term goal, but something very intriguing.  

How would you describe your research experience as an undergraduate at your university overall? Have you acquired any key takeaways, life lessons, or skills?

Doing research has definitely been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an undergraduate.  Knowing that the work I’m putting in is not only increasing my own knowledge, but is increasing the broader knowledge of science across the world–no matter how small my project may seem–is an amazing feeling.

You’re constantly doing something that’s never been done before. That’s the way I love to think about research. You go into a lot of things blindly, but you learn a lot about self-motivation and perseverance, especially during tough times when experiments don’t go as planned.

You also learn self-discipline, as you need to show up and complete your work on time whether or not other people are constantly checking up on you.  You learn how to be respectful of other people’s time as you collaborate on teams with other scientists across the country or world.

As far as life lessons go, research teaches you how to be personable and communicate everything you’ve learned. This is a great skill, as in the future scientists will need to communicate with policy makers about getting grants, or to the general public about what discoveries they are making. Overall, it’s been really rewarding for me, and I would definitely recommend partaking in research as an undergraduate if you can.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Just some general advice for anyone who hopes to go into the field of science is to never be afraid to ask questions.

I think a lot of people could be intimidated by the fact that they would go into research and not know anything, and wonder what they’d be able to contribute. But you can also look at that from the point of view that no one knows everything; if people did, then no one would do research, because we’d have all the answers.

So definitely ask questions, go to people for help, and start as early as you can, if this is something that may interest you. I wish I got involved in my research earlier since I’ve ended up enjoying it so much.

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