Fellows Feature: Monica Sanchez

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Monica Sanchez is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Petrov lab (2017-now). She received her Ph.D in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington. She is interested in studying the effect of genetic background differences on general mechanisms of evolvability and aims to understand how genetic and environmental interactions affect adaptation and complex traits.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally? 

I am originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I attended the University of New Mexico. I studied biology and chemistry, and initially performed research in a biomedical engineering lab, where I designed low-cost diagnostic devices. As I took more advanced biology courses, I quickly became interested in genetics and joined a research program that allowed me to work in a yeast lab where I discovered the power of genomics. I became very interested in functional genomics, and I eventually joined a molecular and cellular biology PhD program at the University of Washington in the Department of Genome Sciences.

While at UW, I joined a lab that combines experimental evolution with genomic analysis to study the structure and function of genetic networks in yeast. I was very interested in understanding how different species of yeast adapt to a variety of different conditions and I am pursuing similar questions in evolutionary biology in my current postdoc position. I hope to understand adaptation in the context of ecology in order to gain a deeper understanding of general evolutionary processes.

Why did you become a scientist? What first attracted you to genetics and science?

I grew up in New Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley, where I would spend a lot of my childhood exploring the Bosque trails with my father.  I cherished the escape from the city in the wooded areas and I loved identifying new creatures during our visits. It was obvious to me that I wanted to grow up to become a scientist in order to discover new species and learn how they interact with their environment. Although I wasn’t exactly sure how to obtain such a profession, I always knew that I loved learning new things about biology and I would try my hardest to make that dream a reality.

Can you tell us about your current research and what you hope to achieve with it? What kind of responses have you gotten to your research/findings?

As a postdoctoral fellow in the Petrov lab, I am focused on two questions that specifically focus on the importance of genetic background on adaptation, using yeast as a model. In the first, I focus on the difference in the nature of adaptive mutations in haploids and diploids in terms of their molecular basis, distribution of fitness effects, and the distribution of dominance. I am also specifically interested in whether, as predicted, adaptive mutations in diploids are often not just partially dominant but also overdominant.

In the second, I attempt to test whether genetic background has any predictive effect on the ability of lineages to evolve over the long-term in a way that cannot be fully predicted from the patterns of adaptation over the short term.  To accomplish this, I incorporated a diverse set of barcode sequences to track natural isolates of yeast to test mutational spectrums in each natural isolate as well as in mixed communities. This strategy will allow me test how different compositions of competitors influence adaptive trajectories. The overall goal of this project is to determine generalizable rules of adaptation, which is important for understanding adaptive events involved in many human diseases such as cancer and pathogenic diseases.

The next steps in the process of discovery for my project would be to incorporate different elements from natural environments. For example, we can test more complex mixture of microbial species, different carbon sources, or the effects of spatial distributions on their adaptive potential, providing insight into their evolutionary history.

What is the coolest thing about your work?

The coolest aspect about my work is that it incorporates an element of what is actually seen in nature. Most microbes don’t grow in isolation, and if we study them as single cultures, we may be missing important evolutionary forces that are shaped when complex microbial communities are formed.

Were there people (or one person) in particular to whom you would attribute your professional success?

As an undergraduate, I participated in a research program directed by Dr. Maggi Werner-Washburne, who has made a tremendous impact on my success as a scientist. The mentorship and support I received from her was essential for me to navigate through graduate school applications, and a key part of why I decided to apply to graduate school. Dr. Werner-Washburne is inspiring and her mentoring resonated with me, allowing me to realize my own potential.

Furthermore, she urged me to perform research through a summer program with Dr. Jay Shendure at the University of Washington, where I discovered my passion for genomics. This experience influenced my decision to attend UW for graduate school, where I applied genomic approaches to evolutionary questions with Dr. Maitreya Dunham, who is an extremely supportive role model for women in science as well.

What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you? 

I would advise grad students or postdocs to think hard and think early about where they see themselves in the future. It’s easy to get caught in the routine of everyday life and time goes by really fast. I think it is important to make sure to plan out the necessary steps needed to achieve your ultimate goal, regardless of what that end goal is.

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?

I see myself continuing to perform research in evolutionary biology with a team of researchers. I am open to the possibility of leading my own independent research group, hopefully in an academic institution. At this point I know that I love performing research in the basic sciences and I am open to the possibility of doing research regardless of the type of institution that I end up performing it in.

Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?

I think CEHG plays an integral role in fostering interactions with many influential faculty members in the CEHG fields across Stanford campus. It also provides the opportunity to expand my network of potential collaborators by meeting other CEHG fellows that span a variety of different disciplines. Specifically, the Evolgenome seminar series is an ideal opportunity to present and engage with other members of the program through meaningful discussions with speakers and faculty members about their research.

Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science? 

My escape is music. I love seeing live shows, finding new artists and talking and sharing and experiencing music with friends. I tried to play music but I think I am much better at appreciating it!

I also like to hike and unplug from technology for a while, and I enjoy being in the moment, surrounded by nature. It’s a time for me to think and my mind resets in a way that I don’t get on a daily basis. I also enjoy snowboarding, running, and cooking.

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