No One Sees, but We’re Always Working to Answer the Big Questions in Science by Monserath Mendoza

I will never forget the first day of the SPARK program at the UC Davis Institute of Regenerative Cures. I was mixed with emotions, ranging from nervous to excited all at once. I met with the other 9 lucky students who had been accepted as well and started conversation, getting to know the people who I’d be spending my entire summer with. A new friend group with people with the same drive and passion as I was found. I developed strong friendships, especially with Giselle Toscano who I now consider one of my closest friends. We sat together in anticipation as our mentors and other future colleagues walked in. I didn’t know what to expect from it all; questions and worries flooded my mind and my heart raced with anticipation. Then, I found out that I would be working under Dr. Karen Pepper under the vector core, as well as with Catherine Nacey. We went through the safety lectures and then made our way into the lab for the first time.


Before this summer, I imagined a lab that was very strict and hard working. People would go in, do their jobs, and then leave. However, at the Nolta Lab, that isn’t exactly the case. Hardworking yes, but also very lovable and kind. As the weeks went by, I familiarized myself with the people I was working with and began to grow a bond between them. The graduate students and the other mentors slowly became more than just acquaintances. On Thursdays, we would do yoga in the hallways and in our spare time, visit each others bays and learn more about the different disease teams. On Wednesday, the SPARK students and Graduate students would go to a class together held by Dr. Bauer. We struggled studying for tests together but we were able to succeed under Dr. Bauer’s wing and guidance. He may seem intimidating at first, but he has a big heart and care for his students. Everyday, laughter and smiles would be exchanged just as people roamed the hallways past one another.

Every student’s main goal was to begin a project focusing on the disease team they were placed under. Since I was with the vector core, my project this summer focused on gene therapy and vector/virus development. Together, we attempted to create a treatment for Sanfilippo syndrome, a disease that affects children’s development and is often referred to as childhood Alzheimer’s. I spent hours on Google and YouTube trying to understand the nitty gritty details of the disease to be able to further understand it.

MonserathMendoza_pipettingWe started off slow, learning the basics about vectors and how they function and how what we do could potentially save lives. Then, we were able to start the lab work. I did mini-preps and maxi-preps, gel electrophoresis, and worked with other various machines to be able to create my vector. All in proper PPE, of course. And after weeks of this, we finally finished building our vector. I was over the moon when the final gel ran and we saw the confirmation. My mentor and I prayed to the kpop gods every time and I guess it worked. We high-fived and did a happy dance with our director, Dr. Jan Nolta. Dr. Karen Pepper made me laugh so hard my cheeks hurt and made me feel comfortable being myself around her. I will always appreciate her and all the work she put in for us. Knowing that I contributed to something so big that could potentially save lives was like no other feeling. This was research- the behind the scenes of medicine practice. We’re like the guy in the chair of superhero movies. No one sees, but we’re always working to answer the big questions in science.

MonserathMendoza_heartglovesOccasionally, I would work with Catherine Nacey. She is such a lovely person who slowly earned the title of being the “mom”. I mostly worked in the biosafety cabinet. At first, I was incredibly intimidated by the big machine and worried about doing something wrong. But, Catherine would take loads of care of me, guiding me through every passage slowly until I learned to work in the hood confidently. During those few hours, we would talk about everything. She made me feel safe and welcomed. I will always hold a special place in my heart for these two women.


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