Cailyn Leo

Graduate Student, The Fu Lab

You work in a laboratory. What are you currently researching?

I am currently in Dr. Dragony Fu’s lab researching the cellular and spatial roles of a specific tRNA modification enzyme in neurodevelopment. When the gene for the enzyme tRNA methyltransferase 1 (TRMT1), which catalyzes a certain modification on many tRNAs, is mutated in humans, they exhibit intellectual disability. This phenotype is also seen in a mouse model our lab generated where TRMT1 is knocked out in the entire body. Since we observe a cognitive defect in mice similar to human patients with variants to the TRMT1 gene, we want to explore what changes in the brain, specifically in the cortex and hippocampus, could be contributing to this neurodevelopmental disorder. Therefore, I am looking into changes in cell type numbers, proliferation rates and cell survival rates in wild-type and TRMT1 knockout mice. In addition to looking deeper into the brains of the full body TRMT1 knockout mouse model, I am also determining the spatial role of TRMT1 by conducting many of the same behavioral and immunohistochemistry assays on a conditional knockout mouse model where TRMT1 is knocked out mainly in the brain. My research will elucidate the cellular and spatial roles of TRMT1 in mouse neurodevelopment.  

What advice would you give to prospective students looking to study in our department?

I would say the best advice I can give is keep an open mind when participating in lab rotations your first year. There might be a lab you find super interesting on paper and another that does not pique your interest as much, but I have found I actually really liked a few labs I rotated in that I initially didn’t think I would. Also, network as much as you can. Our department does a great job with this, as we hold two seminars a week that are open for anyone to attend. This is a great way to expand your knowledge in biology, but also to develop a relationship with people who you might never have met otherwise. Networking is the biggest key to getting a future dream job or figuring out where you want your career to go after graduate school, so being at a school like University of Rochester where there are ample opportunities to network is huge.  

What was it that originally sparked your interest in biology?

I have always been an animal lover, so originally I was interested in biology because I wanted to become an equine veterinarian. I did the pre-med track at my undergrad and even had a minor in equine studies. I shadowed a handful of vets in high school and in undergrad. I even watched a surgery one year on a horse that belonged to the riding program at my undergrad. However, in my junior year I decided life as a veterinarian was not for me and was a bit confused as to what I wanted to do. I knew I still wanted to pursue something in the field of biology, but I did not know all my options. Thankfully, a biology professor recommended I try researching with him and after two semesters I knew that was what I wanted to do with my degree. Dr. Moshe Khurgel was the professor who encouraged me to apply to PhD programs, specifically at University of Rochester, and it was research with him that kept me interested in biology. 

How do you think our biology department stands out in comparison to other universities?

I think one thing our biology department does that really stands out in comparison to other universities is all the social events our department organizes. Since COVID, our department has started to bring back some of the socials that used to occur pre-COVID. These include TGIFs once a month, the biology department retreat in the fall, and a holiday party in December. All these events are organized by faculty and staff and are always very enjoyable! Plus, it allows you to interact with people you don’t normally see on a daily basis. On the student side of things, we have a few events we put on, some of which are students-only and some of which faculty will even attend. For example, occasionally we will organize something called Bad Grads, where one or two students will give some sort of presentation on pretty much anything science, and usually it’s a bit out there. We use this event to practice giving talks in front of an audience, but in a very laid-back way. We also have a committee that organizes an annual first-year student party. All these social events, plus a few others, really make this department stand out because even though we put an emphasis on science, we enjoy socializing and really coming together as a community.

How do you unwind when you’re not in the lab?

I unwind by going out to visit and ride my horse, Jazz. I have had her for 11 years now, and she has traveled with me from my home in Maryland, to Virginia where I studied biology at Bridgewater College, all the way up here to New York while I pursue my doctorate in biology at University of Rochester. I always look forward to seeing her and taking some time to relax from a busy day in lab. I also really like to go out to dinners and try different restaurants with friends inside and outside the department. There are so many different types of restaurants around here and I honestly have not found one I dislike. A nice dinner and drink goes a long way after a long week in lab!