“If I Can Do This, Others Can, Too”

March 23, 2021

Hard Work Reaps Prestigious Post-Doc Support

The first in their families to graduate from high school, UCI biologists Edwin Solares and Leonila Lagunes have gone on to tackle compelling issues relating to climate change and human health. Their hard work and commitment to serving others have earned them prestigious UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowships. The program encourages outstanding women and minority Ph.D. recipients to pursue academic careers at the University of California.

Edwin Solares is a sixth-year student in the laboratory of Brandon Gaut, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He studies unclassified and poorly understood genetic material in plants. The fellowship will help fund Solares’ postdoctoral research at UC Davis, where he will investigate why some plants better adjust to climate changes, focusing on those that bear fruit. “If you can find a genetic snippet that helps with adaptation to dry areas and areas of high salinity, you can grow these plants in larger areas, in other areas outside of tropical zones and produce greater amounts of food,” he said.

His interest in fruiting plants stems from his childhood in California’s Inland Empire. His parents grew apricots, plums, aloe vera, corn and other produce in their yard. His father’s relatives had farmed in their native Guatemala until violence forced his parents to seek asylum in the United States. When Solares graduated from Corona High School, he started an IT consulting firm to help support the family. His responsibilities grew further in 2003 when he became a single parent.

After the 2008 financial crash decimated his business, he decided to go to college to pursue his lifelong interest in science. With money scarce, he shared a room with his young son and the two traded turns at the desk to do their respective classwork. At UCI, professors encouraged him to pursue graduate school and he ultimately joined Professor Gaut’s lab.

“Edwin is remarkably creative and energetic,” said Professor Gaut, noting Solares’ help in assembling the genome of chardonnay grapes. “He came up with a clever method to improve the assembly that was completely novel. We published a paper just on that technique.”

Leonila Lagunes earned her Ph.D. last June as a graduate student with Lee Bardwell, professor of developmental and cell biology. She immediately began postdoctoral work in integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, where she probes a fundamental question on protein degradation through computational mathematics. “Our cells have a giant protein complex that destroys other proteins that shouldn’t be around,” she said. “I use math to create simulations to try to understand this process.” Uncovering its secrets could help in developing ways to fight cancer and other diseases.

Her parents immigrated from Mexico to Orange County, where Lagunes was born and grew up. She developed an early interest in science and then discovered a love of math as an undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton. Upon earning her diploma, she entered UCI’s Mathematical, Computational and Systems Biology program before joining the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology.

“She is one of the most promising students I have ever taught, and I have been teaching for 20 years,” Professor Bardwell said. “Not many scientists can do both wet work and math computational analysis, and she does them superbly.”

Solares and Lagunes have dedicated time to volunteering and mentoring alongside their academic demands. Solares co-founded and served as outreach chair for the UCI chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, or SACNAS, and volunteered with the California Alliance for Minority Participation, known as CAMP. He also helped renew UCI’s Verano Place Community Garden and established the Verano Orchard. Lagunes has participated in the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) mentoring program since it began. In addition, she has served as a mentor and tutor for the UCI Math Community Educational Outreach, or MathCEO, program.

Both hope their achievements will encourage more minorities to pursue an education and career in the life sciences. “It is imperative that we have greater representation of black and brown scientists because it will bring in new ideas and creativity,” Lagunes said.

Solares said that when he speaks to underrepresented minorities about studying biology, “I tell them that yes, it is tough and there will be naysayers, but we have to look past that. There is funding available and many people who will help you along the way. If I can do this, others can, too.”