Cecilia Conaco: The business of molecular biology

By Aurora Diaz-Wilson

SINGLES AT WORK – Molecular biologists study the things that happen inside the cell.

Armed with a PhD in molecular and cellular biology from Stony Brook University and a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of California in Sta. Barbara, Cecilia Conaco is a scientist. Our 5’2” bachelorette’s desire to expand her knowledge led to her interest in studying marine sponges.

Her application for funding to conduct her research was successful and it came with the recognition that Cecilia, 34, is an outstanding female scientist. As she reflects on the tears she shed when she left Sta. Barbara two months ago, Cecilia admits that these past few months have been a whirlwind of an adventure that she continues to enjoy.

What we do for others: The more we understand how our cells work, the more we can apply this information to disease treatment. Sponge is used for antibiotics, cancer therapies, but they have not yet studied what genes are responsible for making the natural products we get from the sponge. They cannot get enough of the compound because the sponge makes little and it is difficult to synthesize chemically. If we know, then it will help us to use the particular gene to create the substance in different settings.

How I got started: Ever since I was younger, the classes I enjoyed most were those with experiments. You get to do new things. The name of the company I am affiliated with is the UP Marine Science Institute. I am faculty. My next step is to set up my own lab in UP and be an independent investigator with my own students; have equipment and get more funds. I like being with young, enthusiastic students. I hope they call me Cecilia. That is how we do it in the US. It kind of makes us friends. A memorable place for me is Yellowstone National Park. The colors of the pools are so vivid and beautiful.

My proudest moment was when I joined the summer mentorship program in UCSTA in Sta. Barbara. When the high school students I worked with for one and a half months presented their paper, it seemed that they understood the whole process.

Advice is easy to follow from my PhD adviser, who was always telling me to just keep my head down and work. Focus on what I am doing and not be concerned with other things happening in the lab. Good advice I have given is keep working and be critical of your results.

What makes me happy is when my experiments work. Most of the time they don’t work. There are days when we are trying to grow cells and they just don’t grow … and finally you get a batch and the cells grow.

I get inspired to explore new ideas when I get into discussions with my friends who are scientists and listen to other scientists give their talks. The last meal that truly impressed me was when I was doing my PhD in Stony Brook. We would go to this Malaysian restaurant and have the nasi lemak, a rice dish that is so good with salted fish.

One fear of mine is failing my students. Not being able to mentor them properly. Best quality about me… very critical of my work. I always think of what could be wrong with it; same with the people who show me their data. I always think of what could be wrong with it.

A trait that I have been working to address is being more self-confident. I want to be able to present my work and talk with people about it.

After being a scientist, I realized there is always something else that I do not know about. A recent setback I had was having papers rejected. When you submit to a journal for publication, it is very sad when it comes back. After you get rejected, you just redo it and eventually it gets published. I have had a few published.

A while ago I was browsing for scientific papers on PubMed. My talents include baking. It’s kind of like lab work except you can eat the results. Best gift I have given recently… I made a cake with a DNA design for my friend’s birthday.

Best gift I received are my diamond and silver earrings that I wear all the time. The book I am reading now is George Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a science fiction about the politics in this fantasy place. I remember an embarrassing moment at work when I defrosted the freezer. I wanted to clean out the ice from the shelf and it caused a flood in the lab.

The last time I cried was when I came home and left Sta. Barbara in June 2012. In my fridge you will always find coffee. I can’t function in the morning without a cup of my favorite coffee from Sumatra.