Stay Informed:
Baskin Engineering COVID-19 Information and Resources
Campus Roadmap to Recovery
Zoom Links: Zoom Help | Teaching with Zoom | Zoom Quick Guide

Paloma Medina: Graduate Student

Biomolecular Engineering
Degree Program: 
Ph.D., Biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics
Los Angeles
Undergraduate Institution: 
Scripps College
Graduate Institution: 
UC Santa Cruz
Russ Corbett-Detig
Paloma Medina

Tell us about your research

Right now I’m in the Evolutionary Genomics Lab with Russ Corbett-Detig. I’m working on a couple projects. I study genetic ancestry in drosophila, AKA the fruit fly. The goal of this research is mainly to understand how we can incorporate diverse populations into our study. A lot of times when people of mixed ancestry try to participate in medical trials or tests, they aren’t always accepted because we don’t fully understand how mixing of genetic ancestry really looks like. Understanding that will really help bridge that gap and make our studies more diverse.

I also study symbiosis between insects and bacteria. I’m particularly interested in a bacteria called wolbacchia because it does some cool reproductive manipulations in its hosts. It basically provides a fitness advantage to females so it can effectively feminize entire insect populations. I’m interested in sex and gender diversity in nature and then here comes this bacteria doing all this crazy stuff so it really caught me on that wolbachia train. It’s a really hot bacteria right now because it helps stop the spread of Dengue and Zika and other infectious diseases because it’s almost as if when wolbachia is in an insect, the insect can’t carry other infectious diseases. There’s a huge international project called the World Mosquito Program and they’re infecting mosquitoes with wolbachia and releasing them into the wild to help stop the spread of infectious human diseases. Studying the diversity of wolbachia is important to understanding how this model and this tool could be used to serve public health.

What made you decide to come to the Baskin School of Engineering for you PhD?

I chose Baskin Engineering because it has a great Biomolecular Engineering Department. It first attracted me because the human genome was sequenced here and I was interested in genomics and a lot of sequencing technology has developed here. I found the collaborations between industry and research to be really strong here and that’s been a large part of why I chose it.

What do you like about UC Santa Cruz?

I’ve been really blessed to feel very supported in my various interests. I can communicate things I’m interested in in my research. My PI is so receptive to that. I think that’s really special. I also feel really supported in wanting to bridge science and society. There are resources and mentors and societies for that here, which far exceeded my expectations and I couldn’t think of a better place to be right now.

What’s something unexpected you’ve learned about sex and gender?

Something unexpected about sexuality and gender in nature, for me, was that sex is conferred in so many different ways and this dance that happens when something is developing—a relationship with bacteria, a relationship with chromosomes, hormones, the environment—all those things play a role in shaping someone’s sex and I think looking broadly among the tree of life, as you move farther away from mammals to reptiles and into plants, there are hermaphrodites and things that occur naturally that many of us don’t really think of as being “natural” when we think of humans, but are natural in life. It’s so natural. It happens everywhere and I think that’s something that drew me to that diversity and seeing that across so many different life forms.

One specific thing I think is really cool is that a lot of reptiles use this thing called environmental sex determination, which basically means that they don’t have sex chromosomes. The sex is determined by the environment so when an egg is on the beach, the temperature of the sand will determine the sex of that egg. So it was a really cool way to view sex as a relationship with an organism’s environment and that restructured the way I thought about sex.