Student Profiles

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan in lab
Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan grew up in Houston, Texas, and received her B.A. in mathematics and biology from New York University. She was first introduced to biological research in her undergraduate studies. During her sophomore year of college, Elizabeth began volunteering in the laboratory of Dr. Erika Bach at the New York University School of Medicine, and fell in love with research and decided to pursue it as a career.

"Cancer research is moving away from a ‘one drug fits all’ cure to cancer and more toward a personalization of medicine whereby each patient’s treatment regime is tailored to the genetic diversity of their specific tumor. However, extreme molecular intratumoral heterogeneity makes it difficult to identify authentic intervention targets and to link patients to the appropriate treatment. Current therapeutic strategies are also very limited in the range of biology they are capable of targeting. My research revolves around using massively parallel screening methods to identify a novel, mechanistically diverse cohort of drugs capable of contending with disease heterogeneity together with algorithms that can link drug activity to the complexity of cancer genomes by assigning enrollment biomarkers to each drug."

“When I was considering graduate programs, I knew I wanted to pursue computational cancer biology. Because it is such a new field of cancer research, most of the graduate programs I was looking into had only one or two labs with interests similar to mine. In contrast, because of the large and diverse faculty at UTSW, there was a wide range of labs I was interested in joining. The biggest draw of UT Southwestern is the breadth of research and the open collaborative atmosphere. You are openly encouraged to collaborate with experts in various fields, which greatly helped me to foster my growth as scientist as well as my professional relationships,” she states.

Elizabeth McMillan
Computational and Systems Biology
Cell and Molecular Biology Training Grant Recipient: 2013–present
Mentor: Michael White, Ph.D.

Tony Vega

Anthony Vega in lab
Tony Vega

Tony Vega grew up in San Antonio, Texas, receiving his bachelor of science in physics from St. Mary's University. The idea of graduate school was first introduced to Tony during his freshman year in college through his physics professor, Dr. Robert Laird. It was when he took his class, Modern Physics, the following year that the idea completely took grasp. In that course, he learned about and experienced first-hand the research done in the 20th century that revolutionized physics and arguably the entire discipline of science. He received the competitive Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) fellowship the same year, which funded subsequent research at MD Anderson and Stanford University and allowed him to both develop his computational skills and apply his physics background to different biological settings.

“The strength of the Molecular Biophysics program at UT Southwestern stems from a concentration of diverse and collaborative faculty that enables a multifaceted approach to answering scientific questions. While the program is known for its superior structural biology research, there is a strong presence and continuing growth of other areas of biophysical research in labs as well as available classes and seminar series.”

Currently, Tony is working on a project in collaboration with the lab of Professor Michael K. Rosen at UT Southwestern, where they are employing in vitro reconstitution, light microscopy, and computational image analysis to establish the role of the cortical-actin (CA) meshwork in regulating the clustering and mobility of Linker for activation of T-cells (LAT) complexes in the membrane. The mechanism by which cell membrane components are organized remains poorly understood although it may play a critical role in how cells regulate the initiation and maintenance of signaling processes.

“The sense of community in the MB program makes it easy to seek advice or assistance from faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and fellow graduate students when troubleshooting or learning a new technique in your research. The ease at which diverse expertise can be obtained from members of the program fosters an optimal environment for success,” he said.

Anthony Vega
Computational and Systems Biology
Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) Training Grant
Mentor: Khuloud Jaqaman, Ph.D.

Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza in lab
Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and always had an interest in mathematics and science. In high school, he participated in the Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) program, a collaborative effort with Stanford University. He received a bachelor of science in biochemistry from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 2003. 

Before completing his bachelor’s degree, Juan worked in Silicon Valley in the computational field for several years. While at SFSU, he began doing laboratory research, which also used his programming experience. During this time Juan decided to converge his passions: computers, biochemistry, and a desire to understand protein folding at a more fundamental level.

“When I was considering graduate programs, I was looking for an environment that fostered a multidisciplinary approach to answer scientific questions. The Molecular Biophysics Program here at UT Southwestern was the right choice for me to pursue my goals and interests,” Juan said. “The faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff create a culture of community and an environment for success.”

Juan’s dissertation project applied novel computational and biochemical approach to study the protein folding pathway of CFTR, complimenting traditional biophysical tools such as absorption spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and circular dichroism (CD) to understand the mechanism by which misfolded proteins cause or contribute to disease, specifically with cystic fibrosis. 

“We hope our findings will have a significant impact on the discovery and development of cystic fibrosis therapeutics,” he said.

Juan L. Mendoza
Computational and Systems Biology
2011 Dean’s Discretionary Award for Academic and Research Excellence at UTSW
Mentor: Philip Thomas, Ph.D.