Meet the PRAs: Ariana Rojas

Meet Ariana Rojas ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies.

What is the focus of your research?Meet the PRAs - Ariana.

My research interests mainly include developmental biology and genetics and my research so far has mainly focused on evolution of development. Evolution of development essentially tries to understand how certain developmental processes evolved. Previously I participated in an REU program at the University of North Florida with Dr. Frank Smith. There I studied the evolution of the Tardigrade gut patterning mechanism. For that past academic year, I have been working in Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch’s lab studying the development of double layered body wall in the Milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, and helmet development of the treehopper, Entylia carinata. For my SURF project this summer I was studying the evolution of the insulin signaling pathway in insects by using bioinformatics techniques.

Why did you get involved in research?

 I love working in science because science is fundamentally creative. I wanted to get involved with research because I wanted a way to really get creative with my science education and the topics that interested me. I knew that research was a whole other world of learning, which was different from learning in the classroom. I was excited by the idea of being able to apply the concepts I was learning about in my classes, past being in a classroom lab. I wanted to use research as a way to supplement my science education and creativity, and I’m so happy I’ve had wonderful opportunities that allowed me to do exactly that.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

Many freshmen feel as though they need to get involved with a research project right away, or they will be behind. My advice to freshman is that you should take the time to really explore your interests and to try new things. There are so many different things you could be interested in doing, that you may not even know about just yet! Take the time to explore what fields may interest you and try to get creative. Don’t feel pressured to start anything right away if you feel you’re not ready. I didn’t start my research career until the summer after my Junior year, and I am grateful for my experiences before that summer.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

I love studying evo-devo because it’s a field of science that combines so many different disciplines. When I first learned about the field, I was absolutely fascinated with the idea of applying my love for genetics to unlocking the mystery of the universe. In a sense, I imagine myself as a historian, trying to understand what happened in the past by using genetics. Furthermore, my research allows me to apply what I am fundamentally interested in, which is genetic and molecular processes, to a field I have never worked with before. Since I am not trained in evolutionary biology and have only taken a handful of classes concerning the subject, I am constantly learning during my research. It is so much fun to always be learning new concepts through research rather than through a class and a textbook.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest accomplishment so far has to be how far I’ve come in almost a year. I first started my research career when I began my REU program at the University of North Florida during the summer of 2019. Since then I’ve presented my research about 4 times, two of those times being at major conferences. I’ve also received multiple grants to support my travel to those conferences, as well as the SURF grant to conduct a research project of my own. When looking back at how much I’ve done in the past year, I am extremely proud of myself. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support of my incredible mentors, both at UConn and at the University of North Florida. I cannot wait to see what the next year has in store for me.

Click here for more information on Ariana and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.