5 Questions with Graduate Student Daniel Chavarria

December 17, 2019
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Daniel Chavarria, a graduate student working with Drs. Aaron Baker and Andrew Dunn, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Before applying to UT Austin’s Biomedical Engineering Department, Chavarria did research through the BME CUReS Cancer REU, a ten-week research experience sponsored by the National Science Foundation for undergraduate student. In this program non-UT Austin students are partnered with graduate student and faculty mentors to conduct cancer research projects.

Daniel Chavarria

Daniel Chavarria, a graduate student working with Drs. Aaron Baker and Andrew Dunn, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Before applying to UT Austin’s Biomedical Engineering Department, Chavarria did research through the BME CUReS Cancer REU, a ten-week research experience sponsored by the National Science Foundation for undergraduate student. In this program non-UT Austin students are partnered with graduate student and faculty mentors to conduct cancer research projects.

What prompted you to choose biomedical engineering?

I originally came to UTEP thinking I would go to medical school. After volunteering at clinics, I saw that being a physician wasn’t what I thought it would be. I got into the Building Scholars Research Program, which is a National Institutes of Health-funded program that pushes minorities to go into undergraduate research and eventually pursue either a master’s or doctorate degree. Through that program I did research in a neuroscience lab and later a biomedical engineering lab.

What type of work did you do during the REU?

During my time here at the REU, I worked with Dr. Aaron Baker who does cell biomechanics. My project was looking at breast cancer cells and how they behave under strain. When breast cancer cells are stretched, they become more resistant to chemotherapy. One aspect that made it such a good experience was working with my graduate student Adrianne Spencer (Ph.D. 2018). She was an amazing mentor and structured the project really well so I knew what the goals were for each week. The work piqued my interest in biomedical engineering.

What work are you doing now?

I’m working with both Dr. Baker and Dr. Dunn looking into the effects of diabetes in the blood brain barrier, the vascular system that’s part of the nervous system. In diabetic patients, the blood brain barrier is compromised. We don’t know if the blood brain barrier has been compromised because a patient has developed neurological diseases, or if a compromised blood brain barrier led to neurological diseases. Dr. Baker has invented an in vitro system that mimics the blood brain barrier, which we’re able to study at the cellular level and then image in both healthy and diabetic mice models.

Why did you choose UT Austin?

Primarily because I had a good experience with my REU. I liked Dr. Baker’s management style and found the research to be interesting. I came from a cellular and molecular biology background, which translated well with the Baker lab’s work, which works with cells but from an engineering perspective. I really like the city of Austin, too.

What advice do you have for students interested in graduate school or in doing an REU?

If you believe work hard and have structure to reach your goals, you can. This relates to coming from a different field than biomedical engineering. I had some graduate schools turn me down because I was coming from a biology background, even though I had experience working in a biomedical engineering lab and had taken engineering classes. But that’s why I really liked UT Austin. I felt welcomed from the first day here.