|Dr. Alexandra Simmons Collaborates with Students on Bovine Genetics Research|
At a moment’s notice, Dr. Alexandra Simmons, University of St. Thomas assistant professor of biology, eagerly jumped in the car with two freshman biology students in hot pursuit of dairy cow blood samples.
The June 19 trip to a Prairie View dairy farm was a moment of triumph for the Venezuelan-born professor and her students. They had spent the better part of the spring 2009 semester searching for samples to conduct genetic research on a metabolic disorder called Fatty Liver Disease, which adversely affects the health, milk productivity and reproductive performance of cows.
Simmons, who earned degrees in education, biology, chemistry and human genetics in Venezuela, came to Houston in 2006 to conduct postdoctoral studies at Baylor College of Medicine. She joined the UST community as an adjunct professor in fall of 2008, teaching courses in general biology and genetics. In May, she accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor in the biology department.
Simmons says she finds the greatest joy when she can combine her love of scientific research with her love of teaching. That’s why she didn’t waste any time assembling an undergraduate research team in her first year at UST.
“With postdoctoral research, you are alone for hours in the lab. It started to feel a little lonely,” Simmons said. “I am an educator by nature, so it just motivates me be able to watch my students as they grasp a new concept. It just means the world to me to be able to work closely with a small group of students.”
Simmons’ research, simply known as the “cow project,” is a collaboration with Dr. Carolina Rios Phillips, an ICUSTA scholar from Universidad Santo Tomás in Santiago, Chile. Simmons selected a team of five UST freshman biology students – Louanne Honrado, Jonathan Zalmea, Adriana Pozo and Steven Konstantin - to work with healthy dairy cow blood samples to become competent in basic molecular and genomics such as DNA extraction, DNA sequencing and Gel Electrophoresis. In the future, Dr. Rios will send blood samples from cows with the metabolic disorder, so the group can establish a relationship between the genotype and the incidence of fatty liver disease.
“In the era of genomics, it is of major importance that biology and medical students learn how to apply the techniques that are currently being used in the field of genetic diagnostics,” Simmons said. “We are learning universal techniques, so what we are learning may also be applied to processing human DNA and for most organisms. This research will be good experience for whatever these students wish to pursue in the future.”
Honrado, who is also from Venezuela, said she feels blessed to have the opportunity to work on Simmons’ research team.
“At first, taking on a genetic research project as a freshman was kind of intimidating, because as we had only taken general biology,” Honrado said. “But Dr. Simmons has such faith in us, and she explains everything with clarity and patience. We are learning lab skills that will serve me in my goal to become a doctor, and can’t wait to get back to work in the fall.
UST is a natural fit for Simmons, who has great appreciation for the University’s Catholic foundation and cultural diversity.
“I was educated in Catholic schools, so I liked that St. Thomas was a Catholic University,” Simmons said. “There seems to be an overall greater interest in values and a higher moral standard, and that makes a difference in the ambiance of an educational institution and your choice of employer.”
As a scientist who is also Catholic, Simmons believes the University strikes a good balance between the harmony of faith and science.
“I believe faith and science are complements of two different realms of humanity,” she said. “Studying how life works is a tribute to the creator of life. He provided us with reason and thought. We can use that ability to reason admire and explore the beauty and complexity of life.”