JAN 06, 2023 6:00 AM PST

Plant Mitochondrial Genetics & DNA Repair | Moira Rodriguez, PhD Student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln | Grad Student Highlights

Moira working in the hood at Sanford Research. (Credit: Sanford Research)

Moira Rodriguez is a 3rd-year Biological Sciences PhD student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) studying plant mitochondrial genetics, with a focus on DNA repair. This comes after earning her Bachelor of Science in Biology at the University of Jamestown in 2020 and growing up in a small town of 398 people called Chokio, Minnesota.

“My first exposure to plant genetics research was my summer job in high school, detasseling corn for a company called AgReliant Genetics,” she says. “While I was simply doing manual labor, it got me thinking about plant breeding, as well as experimental design. University of Jamestown is an undergraduate only university, so the biology department is more geared towards students aiming for medical, dental, and optometry school. Therefore, I did not get first-hand research exposure during my time there.”

Rodriguez credits one of her professors, Dr. Jensen, for suggesting the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), which she says is one of the biggest reasons she’s in graduate school right now.

“When I heard about this program, I knew it would be perfect since I wasn’t interested in any of the pre-professional degrees, or teaching,” she says. “That semester I applied to around eight different programs across the country and got accepted for one in Dr. Jeff Mower’s lab here at UNL. That was the first time I had ever even been in a research lab, and I had a lot of learning to do. I really enjoyed my summer there, and I felt my lab confidence grow tremendously throughout the 10-week program. On my last day, Dr. Mower brought me to lunch, and we talked about graduate school and that conversation gave me confidence to know I could do it. The research we did that summer was on fern genetics, so up until this point I had only ever been exposed to plant research.”

Rodriguez did another REU internship the following summer at Sanford Research in Sioux Falls, this time with a focus on biomedical research studying the genetics of small-cell lung cancer. She says this was when she decided to pursue a path in plant science. She highly recommends the REU program for undergraduates who are debating about going to graduate school.

Rodriguez gives praise to her parents, her husband, her best friend, and Dr. Jensen, as inspirations for pursuing her current career path.

Moira and her husband doing a science experiment at their wedding. (Credit: Gina Lee Photography)

Moira and her best friend, Emily, at the University of Jamestown. (Credit: Moira Rodriguez)

Rodriguez says she ultimately chose graduate school since she felt she wasn’t done with her education after earning her bachelor’s degree, while also noting the lack of research jobs available with only an undergraduate degree, as well, and felt graduate school was the logical next step.

“I was drawn to apply to this program due to the summer I spent in it as an REU student,” Rodriguez explains. “I also already knew that I enjoyed living in Lincoln, so it was an easy decision to apply. I love the lab that I am in: we have a great advisor, Dr. Alan Christensen, who fosters a great environment to work in. The most fulfilling part of graduate school for me so far is mentoring undergraduates in the lab. It is so cool to see these extremely bright students gain an interest and confidence in lab work and it is very rewarding to be a part in that for them.”

Rodriguez says one big challenge for graduate students is the lack of job outlooks and career prep, noting that Biology PhD graduates have a higher chance of being unemployed than earning a full-time job, citing a 2013 article in The Atlantic. She says this as both a scary and disheartening fact, while also saying that paying fees twice a year is another issue graduate students face, as well.

As for her own career outlook after getting her PhD, Rodriguez sees herself working in the industry with a focus on agricultural genetic research and development.

“In 5-10 years, I hope to be contributing to the plant research community, in a way that makes the future more hopeful in light of climate change and the rising human population to feed,” she says. “But anything to do with both plants & genetics will make me happy!”

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

About This Series: This interview series is focused on the graduate student experience across all STEM fields that allows them to get their research, or corresponding graduate coursework, out in front of a large global audience and share their experiences in graduate school. Our goal is to inspire the next generation of STEM students to pursue graduate studies for a myriad of disciplines, and we hope you enjoy reading these amazing stories! If you'd like to be featured in this series, feel free to send an email to laurence.tognetti@labroots.com, Subject Line: Grad Student Highlights Interest!

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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