Tricia Deng is a CEHG graduate student fellow in Dr. Jin Billy Li’s lab in the Genetics Department. She got her undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cell Biology (with emphasis on Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the evolution and function of Adenosine-to-Inosine (A-to-I) RNA editing in Drosophila.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?
I’m a graduate student in Jin Billy Li’s lab in the Genetics Department. I grew up in the South Bay. I went to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cell Biology. After graduating, I came to Stanford through the Structural Biology program. Then, I joined Jin Billy Li’s lab, which studies A-to-I RNA editing, and the Genetics program. I enjoy combining ideas and techniques from different fields of study. I think applying computational methods to biological research will dramatically improve the pace of research and yield exciting discoveries and innovations.
What initially got you interested in genetics and science?
I became interested in scientific research when I interned at an atmospheric chemistry lab at NASA in high school. I was really excited to be part of the research process and loved the idea that research could be used to address major challenges, such as global warming. I wasn’t very interested in biology until I worked on a research project in my senior year of high school and realized that biology research was very different from biology class, which was focused on memorization. In college, I really enjoyed learning about, and conducting, research through various classes and research projects led by some very talented professors and mentors, and this led me to pursue a PhD.
Can you tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve with it?
The information encoded in DNA is used to form the proteins that make up organisms; thus, this information contributes to various characteristics of organisms, including humans. Understanding this process is important for treating diseases, understanding how and why individuals differ, and improving the quality of life.
The process by which genomic information is used to make an organism is very complex. Many important modifications are made to the information before, during, and after transcription and translation. I’m studying one of these modifications, adenosine-to-inosine (A-to-I) RNA editing, which is important for neurological and immune well-being. In A-to-I RNA editing, enzymes in the Adar protein family convert adenosines to inosines at specific sites in RNA transcripts. These A-to-I changes can affect the amino acid sequence of the resulting protein, splicing, and the structure of the RNA. The fraction of adenosines that are converted to inosines at a specific site, or the “editing level”, can vary in different tissues and across developmental stages and times of day. Thus, RNA editing is different from SNPs, which work at the DNA level, and could be used to fine-tune the information encoded genomically.
Although RNA editing occurs at thousands of sites across the genomes of various animals, the functions of nearly all editing events haven’t been studied. Along with a former postdoc in the lab, Rui Zhang, I examined the evolution of A-to-I RNA editing in Drosophila species to identify editing events that are under evolutionary constraint and therefore likely to be functionally important. Then, working with some undergraduate and high school students, I used the Cas9/CRISPR system to make fly mutants without editing at some of these sites, and we’re working with other labs to examine their phenotypes. Finally, to study how particular adenosines might be selected to be edited, we used machine learning to examine how changes to the sequence and secondary RNA structure around editing sites are associated with changes in editing levels.
Overall, I think there are many open areas of research in this field. A better understanding of how RNA editing works and what its functions are – especially the functions of noncoding RNA editing events, which are understudied – will yield important insights into how our DNA information is used to produce phenotypes, and perhaps even give us clues for how complex systems, such as the brain, work.
Were there people to whom you would attribute your academic and professional success?
Before arriving at Stanford, I was fortunate to be mentored by many amazing researchers and teachers. At Stanford, my advisor, my lab mates, and other collaborators have been indispensable. I wouldn’t have been able to do so much without their feedback and the collaborations with many lab members and interns. Also, the support of friends and family – especially, my husband Jinghao – has been essential.
Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?
When I went to my first CEHG meeting, I was amazed at the diversity of research fields and departments there. I think one of CEHG’s strongest points is the ability to connect people from various fields. Many programs and events are focused on specific departments, but CEHG is different because it encourages the flow of ideas and collaborations between these fields.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?
After graduate school, I plan to work in industry on something that will impact the world more directly. My future plans are flexible, but, no matter what I do, I hope to continue to work at the intersection of disciplines.
What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?
I’ve realized that it helps to go to conferences and talk to people outside your field. Getting a PhD is often portrayed as specializing in only one thing, but, in reality, no area of biological research can be truly isolated into one field. Different fields can have different research priorities and approaches. Also, a lot of innovation comes from using new technology or pulling in outside ideas.
Also: Research is really hard, and you’ll likely face many setbacks, but you can do it!
Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?
I enjoy baking, eating, hiking, making apps and websites, and hanging out with my pet bunny, Momo. I also enjoy traveling and, especially, eating delicious food while traveling. My most recent trips were to Iceland (husky sledding on a glacier!) and China (giant mantis shrimps!).