Lizzie Aguiniga, a fifth-year PhD student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), studies in the department of Urology. Aguiniga’s love for science blossomed while spending the summer after high school in a research program at El Paso Community College, and attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. Inspired by the energy of the conference and a talk given by Mina Bissell, PhD, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the conference, Aguiniga knew she wanted to be a scientist. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and following college graduation she joined the Post Baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at the University of New Mexico before coming to Northwestern.
Where is your hometown?
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, it’s part of the Chihuahua Desert and there is always a lot of sunshine there. It is also a much smaller city, and I really miss the slightly slower-paced lifestyle. I go back whenever I get the chance to visit my family and friends. I do absolutely love Chicago, though. I love being able to bike along the lakefront to school on warm days.
On what does your research focus?
I really love the idea of doing research that translates to a clinical problem. I am interested in how microbes interact with the host and can alter immune responses. In the past I have worked on mutating the lipopolysaccharide of a urinary tract infection (UTI) isolate and used the mutants to characterize adaptive response skewing to make the host more susceptible to reinfection. It really fascinating to see how a small alteration can cause great differences in the host immune response.
What exciting projects are you working on?
The Klumpp lab works on several different projects related to complications with the urinary tract, including UTI and interstitial cystitis. I have worked on both during my time here. I am currently focusing on how an inflammatory lipase can alter lipids to induce the expression of a stress response hormone (corticotropin-releasing factor) to ultimately promote bladder dysfunction and pelvic pain. I am also characterizing the transcription factors that regulate CRF gene expression. It is very fascinating work, and I am very glad that my research has clinical application.
What attracted you to the PhD program?
I chose to do my PhD at Northwestern because I really liked that the DGP program was an umbrella program. At the time I was pretty sure I wanted to work in the department of Microbiology/Immunology but I also wanted to explore other areas of research; this program allowed me to do that. Also there were many different faculty members whose research I was interested in that were under the DGP. I felt that when I had any questions about the program the administration would contact me almost immediately to answer any of my concerns. I felt that the administration really took the time to address any questions or concerns I had.
What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
Feinberg is so friendly and collaborative, and that allows for a great learning environment. On several occasions I have done experiments outside the area of expertise of my lab, and have had a positive response from other labs to help teach me the techniques I need to learn. You can always send out an email to borrow reagents or a piece of equipment from other labs. There is a very strong sense of community at Northwestern, especially among the students.
What do you do in your free time?
I really enjoy being outdoors. I try to bike a lot during the summer and just get as much sunshine as possible. I have also picked up running recently, and I love running along the lakefront and the museum campus. There are such amazing scenic views around here to enjoy! Chicago is culturally diverse, so I also like to try different types of foods and check out different neighborhoods around the city.
What are your plans for after graduation?
Ultimately I want to work in outreach. I have participated in several programs geared toward recruiting minorities into the STEM careers, and I really want to pay that forward. I think many students are not aware of the opportunities available to pursue higher education, and it is very important to help educate them about the different resources and financial opportunities available.