Chemistry Graduate Student Axel Vera describes his research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.
Originally from San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, Axel Vera has been at MIT for one year, where he is a member of the Raines lab.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) adaptive immune systems use sequence-specific RNA-guided endonucleases to defend bacteria against infection by phages and other mobile genetic elements. In response, phages encode anti-CRISPR proteins to inhibit and defend themselves from CRISPR-Cas systems. Class 2 CRISPR-Cas systems have been harnessed for nucleic acid editing in human cells, and increasing their specificity is critical for treating genetic disorders. In turn, anti-CRISPRs show promise in regulating and enhancing nucleic acid editing specificity, but in general must be efficiently delivered into the cell nucleus at relatively high concentrations. To solve this problem, Axel is currently engineering anti-CRISPR variants for substoichiometric inhibition of CRISPR-Cas systems at MIT and the Broad Institute.
As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Axel shares the silliest fear he has, the things he hopes children will ask him about when he’s older, the videos that never fail to make him laugh, and more!
- How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
I decided to do the work that I do because I absolutely love CRISPR-Cas systems and the possibility of using them as human therapeutics.
- When you are old, what do you think children will ask you to tell stories about?
I hope I get to tell my children the story of how once my friends Sreekanth, Santosh, Donghyun, and I used chemical biology and CRISPR-Cas systems to cure a disease. I also hope I can tell them the story of how I helped create MSRP Chemistry. As an undergraduate, I participated in a summer research program that heavily discouraged me from applying to top ranking graduate schools, significantly hindering my graduate school application process. For this reason, I am determined to create MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) Chemistry: a program where the many kind and supportive professors from MIT’s Department of Chemistry encourage talented undergraduate students from ALL universities to pursue graduate studies at MIT. For this, however, I need the support of the MIT and Broad Institute community. If you are interested in helping me create MSRP Chemistry, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Even if we cannot get MSRP Chemistry 2021 funded, we can make MSRP Chemistry 2021 happen as a remote research experience where volunteer MIT Chemistry graduate students, postdocs, and faculty serve as mentors for 10-20 volunteer undergraduate researchers from all over the world. We can then use the success of MSRP Chemistry 2021 to establish a fully funded program.
- What movie, picture, or video always makes you laugh no matter how often you watch it?
I always laugh when I watch YouTube Pizza Reviews.
- What’s the most interesting documentary you’ve ever watched?
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance and Miss Americana. I am fascinated with how the Medici used their power to promote Science and Art. I am also fascinated by successful people, and I think Taylor Swift is the best at what she does.
- What bit of trivia do you know that is very interesting but also very useless?
While reading my favorite book Organic Chemistry Second Edition by David R. Klein, I learned that thiols are the reason why skunk spray stinks so much. Facts like these made me love this book so much that I had to email David Klein. Coincidentally, when I started working at the Broad Institute my friend Sophia told me she also emailed David Klein to tell him how much she loved his book. That day, I realized the Broad Institute was the place for me.
- What movie universe would be the worst to live out your life in?
The worst movie universe to live out your life would be the Marvel Universe because it totally sucks when you are just trying to live a normal life and then a purple alien decides to destroy half of the people on Earth.
- What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
Performing magic tricks and my different experiences handling hecklers.
- What would your perfect bar look like?
My perfect bar would have all different types of purified water brands. I am a huge fan of tasting and ranking different water brands. In fact, the first professor I ever approached to conduct undergraduate research at University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus developed different methods to purify water. However, he could not find space for me to join his lab, despite me telling him how passionate I was about tasting different water brands. I guess having the ability to rate water is not as impressive as I thought (LOL). Luckily for me, I ended up joining the fantastic Guadalupe lab through the MARC program and got to work with amazing mentors such as Professor Guadalupe, Professor Quesada, and Professor Michalski.
- What movie or book do you know the most quotes from?
The quote “Garbage in. Garbage out!” in Quantitative Chemical Analysis Seventh Edition by Daniel C. Harris completely changed the way I approached analytical chemistry and research in general. Because of this quote, I always aim to have the very best research equipment and take all the time in the world when doing my experiments to make sure I collect the best possible data.
- What movie title best describes your life?
The Prestige. I became a magician and spent a lot of time and money on learning how to perform magic tricks because of this film.
- What inconsequential super power would you like to have?
Being able to control my body temperature.
- What food do you crave most often?
An Original North End Recipe 16’’ Pizza from Regina Pizzeria – North End which EVERYBODY KNOWS is a 9.1.
- What did you believe for way too long as a child?
That I would become a very strong professional wrestler.
- What’s the most amazing place in nature you’ve been?
El Yunque National Forest.
- What’s the best thing about the place you grew up?
Puerto Rico has the perfect food and climate.
- What is something that is popular now that annoys you?
COVID-19. Luckily, we have got SHERLOCK and CRISPR-Cas13.
- What is your guilty pleasure?
Triple Chocolate Chunk cookies from Insomnia Cookies and watching YouTube videos.
- What is the silliest fear you have?
Cleaving my own DNA or RNA while working with CRISPR-Cas systems.
- What song always puts you in a good mood?
Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles. I have spent so much time trying to play this song like George, but sadly I am not even close.
- If you could make a holiday, what would it be like? What traditions would it have? What would people eat on your holiday?
No need to create a holiday when I can have fun playing Plena and Bomba drums or the Cuatro during Christmas in Puerto Rico.
Many thanks to Axel for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!