BioSci Alumni Interview Series
B.S. Biological Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage, 2011
Katrina Viloria and friends at the spring 2011 UAA Commencement Ceremony
Moving from the Philippines to Alaska when she was thirteen years old, Katrina Viloria could always be considered somewhat of a jet setter meant to explore. Her family came to Alaska after her mother had landed a position as a nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Coming to Alaska at a young age, the experience and excitement of diving into a new and different culture was a thrill and at times a little strange, "It's funny because my first day in middle school at Romig, it was Spirit Week and that is something that we didn't do in the Philippines. I came to school and it was crazy hair day. I remember thinking, 'these Americans are crazy!' but then I realized it was completely normal!" Katrina said laughing. Katrina stayed in Alaska throughout high school and her undergraduate degree, but the surprises of new environments and the thrill of discovery stuck with Katrina and set the stage for her future European travels.
Katrina Viloria and friends at Kingston University
After receiving her B.S. in Biological Sciences at UAA in the spring of 2011, Katrina was soon off jet setting to a world-full of new experiences at Kingston University in southwest London where she received her M.Sc. in Biotechnology. Katrina said of moving overseas for her Masters, "Honestly, I really wanted to travel after my undergrad and wanted to get that international experience. I wanted to travel abroad to interact and learn from a diverse group of scientists. The beauty of being a researcher is that it is very transferable, you can go almost anywhere. I wanted to go to London and Kingston University has one of the best Biotechnology programs, so that's how I got here."
At Kingston University, Katrina works with Dr. Natasha Hill and Dr. Lucy Jones of the Diabetes and Cardiovascular Research Group (DCRG). Katrina's research with DCRG started during her Masters and has continued into her Ph.D. Her dissertation project is entitled, 'Investigating matricellular protein function in a 3D environment to induce islet regeneration,' and aims to see if the SPARC family of matricellular proteins can be used to promote islet expansion in a 3D culture system. Katrina explained her research saying, "I'm studying this protein called SPARC which is a matricellular protein, and it regulates interactions between matrices, cells and growth factors. Most of the studies that are out there study it in a 2D platform, where cells are grown on a plastic without the presence of collagen. In my project, I'm studying the cellular protein in 3D where the cells are embedded in a collagen tissue matrix, and study how we can use these proteins to regenerate beta cell islets."
Katrina is in her second of three years of doctoral study at Kingston, and credits much of her success to her work with her mentors, "When I was trying to decide what to do for my Ph.D., a lot of the time I heard people saying that your Ph.D. is about your mentor and your relationship with your mentor. The project and University are important, but I decided to stay because of my supervisors." Katrina mused that the independent framework of the program peppered with the incredible guidance from her mentors has fostered her growth as a research professional.
Beyond the mentor-pupil relationship, Katrina has blossomed in her research environment as well. The DCRG lab brings together researchers from across disciplines with expertise in everything from 'basic cell and molecular biology' to 'patient monitoring using the latest mobile health technology'. The interdisciplinary group keeps researchers connected and at the cutting-edge of their own fields as well as others fields. Katrina has thoroughly appreciated the collaboration saying, "It's been really enjoyable working in an integrated lab. I not only work with the diabetes group but I also work closely with the pharmacy group and the cancer group. We all work closely together in the lab, and it's a way to learn firsthand from other Ph.D. students who might be an expert in one technique and you are not. We get a chance to help each other out and learn from each other."
Katrina Viloria, Graduation Ceremony at Kingston University
With the success she has had in her field at Kingston University, it is no wonder that Katrina's interest in diabetes research began far outside of the classroom and at a much younger age. Her father suffers from type 2 diabetes and growing up she saw the effects of the disease firsthand, prompting her to look into research opportunities during her senior year of high school. Katrina found the NIH- funded Della Keats/U-Doc program offered at UAA and met Dr. Ian van Tets, and that was when her passion and interests began to come together. "I started off getting to know Dr. van Tets through the U-Doc program, it was a STEP-UP program and it offered a paid summer internship where you got to shadow health professionals at UAA. He was the Director and I got to do a summer research project with him, and I would say that is what first stirred my love for research."
Not too long after the summer program, she was enrolled as a freshman at UAA and taking courses with Dr. van Tets. During her sophomore year, Katrina was given another opportunity to work with the esteemed professor in a collaborative research project between the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Psychology. "We studied moderate drinking of alcohol and if it had any implications on the development of type 2 diabetes. We collaborated with the Psychology Department and collected the urine samples of the rats that they were studying. I later got to present my project at a STEP-UP conference in Maryland." It was during that conference that Katrina also got her first taste of presenting data in front of large audiences. "It was fun because there were a lot of undergrads from different Universities, but it was also good to be exposed to how real scientists would criticize or critique our work and get a real-world view of how it is within the research world." Now Katrina presents her research to much larger audiences and is herself a real scientist with one research publications under her belt and a budding career of the horizon. She still credits her early interest in research to UAA and her studies with Dr. van Tets, "I really loved my experience there—there were so many opportunities to get involved and so many opportunities to have experience in research. My relationships with supervisors, particularly Dr. Ian van Tets, is what inspired me to go into research work. It was a very special experience."
Katrina Viloria at the STEP UP Conference in Maryland, 2008
So with her hugely successful time at Kingston University, are there plans for after her graduation? Katrina's spirit of adventure certainly hasn't left her, and the option of taking on new horizons again has certainly crossed her mind—after all, 'the beauty of being a researcher is that it is very transferable.' The diversity of Kingston and all the worldly experiences it has to offer has shaped her into the professional she is today, but Alaska helped plant the seed—either way, her home is in research, and no matter where it takes her, she will relish in the experience. "I would like to stay in research whether it will be in industry or academic. The doors are pretty much open whether I stay here or go back to the states. I guess I'll go wherever the best research job is! Either way it would be a win-win situation because if I move back, its home and if I stay here, I get to travel some more." We are confident that wherever the best research job is, they will be getting one of the finest researchers UAA and Kingston University have to offer.
Katrina Viloria visiting the Big Ben clocktower in London