Alejandra Villegas is a PhD candidate at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases at the University of Georgia. She studies malarial parasites in infection and is also involved in several associations within the Graduate Student Association at her school. She shares with us her research which she is very passionate about, her entry into science policy and how she has cultivated her passion in science advocacy.
What is your research about?
Hello! My name is Ale Villegas. I am a 3rd year PhD candidate at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases at the University of Georgia. In the Muralidharan lab, I study the role of a putative glucosyltransferase in egress of malarial parasites from red blood cells. My interest in the inner-workings of parasites was sparked during my first research opportunity at my undergraduate institution, Northeastern Illinois University. There I evaluated developmental malformations on tadpoles as a result of parasitic infection. I always thought the deformities were super cool and weird, and I wanted to know how the parasite was able to cause such damage. That’s exactly what I get to do now!
What science policy projects and/or committees are you involved in?
Outside of the lab, I have taken on roles that allow me to advocate for students, and to learn and develop in the realm of science policy. I currently serve as the President of the Cellular Biology Graduate Student Association, the University of Georgia (UGA) Graduate Student Association (GSA) Cellular Biology Department Representative, and am the new UGA GSA Graduate University Representative-elect. As the GSA department representative, I have had the joy of working with equally passionate students in the Student Advocacy Committee. As a committee, we focus on issues pertaining to graduate student mandatory fees and the university COVID-19 response. I also serve as the Director of External Affairs of the UGA student science policy group (Science Policy, Education, Advocacy, and Research). In this role I have had the opportunity to obtain funding through a Research!America Civic Engagement Microgrant to host a series of roundtable discussions for our students to gain experience engaging with state and community leaders.
What made you interested in science policy?
I have been interested in higher-ed STEM education policy since before I learned exactly what science policy was. During undergrad, a fellow classmate and I were affectionately called rebels by one of our program directors because we regularly questioned program decisions before accepting them and made it known when we disagreed with them. Back then I was not aware that we were simply advocating for ourselves or that we could do this in a more structured and productive way. Besides my involvement within UGA, I have recently had the opportunity, largely due to the pandemic, to learn about science policy and how I can continue to advocate for graduate students in this space. In the last year I completed the Science Policy & Advocacy for STEM Scientists Certificate Program offered through UC Irvine, attended countless science policy and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) webinars and workshops, participated in a Virtual Hill Day with the United Campus Workers of Georgia, and finally submitted my first co-authored policy paper! I am thrilled to have found a community that sees and is passionate about the same graduate education issues.
What do you enjoy doing outside of science policy?
During safer-to-be-around-people times, I loved attending concerts, going dancing, and just being around other humans. I look forward all this, to visiting Chicago to see extended family and friends, and to attending in person conferences when it is safe to do so!
During the pandemic I have had the pleasure of getting to know my new canine companion, Tavi. We have enjoyed many walks, naps, and even a road trip together. He loves the sun, his squeaky toys, and naps.