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Pereira's Pathway to DNA Repair

An invitation to work in the research lab changed the trajectory of Catalina Pereira's life

August 21, 2020

Ask Catalina Pereira ’13 to explain her PhD thesis and she will likely describe two classrooms pairing up for a field trip: One class has well-behaved children that pair up perfectly; the other has rowdy kids that resist pairing and form uneven groupings.

These kids represent chromosomes that need to pair up to exchange genetic material. In the chaotic classroom, stragglers represent extra chromosomes that lead to genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome.

Catalina Pereira '13 recently received her PhD in molecular biology from Cornell
Catalina Pereira '13 recently received her PhD in molecular biology from Cornell

“I’m looking at the process of the kids coming together and lining up properly,” explains Pereira, who was recently awarded her PhD in molecular biology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

As a PhD candidate, Pereira researched DNA damage-repair proteins that play a role in DNA repair. The proteins — like the unruly students’ teacher — help silence parts of the chromosome that aren’t pairing properly. Pereira also found that these proteins are involved in repairing breaks in chromosomes’ double strands, an essential process for proper chromosome pairing.

Pereira’s interest in biology began as a child when her cousin was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that can affect several areas of the body. She enrolled at MSMU with the goal of becoming a pediatrician, but a course taught by Luiza Nogaj, PhD, had her second-guessing her career aspirations.

“My first year, I took regular courses in chemistry and biology, but it wasn’t until I got to molecular biology that I was blown away by protein interactions and how they can cause cancer,” Pereira says.

One summer, she accepted an invitation from Nogaj to work on a project in the lab and immediately fell in love with research. “Catalina did a lot of groundwork for many of the projects we have in the lab right now,” says Nogaj. “She mastered the techniques very quickly and in the last few months was training new students to do them. Her hard work in my lab resulted in two publications.”

When Pereira told Nogaj that she was considering a master’s degree instead of medical school, her professor encouraged her to aim higher and pursue a PhD. “Dr. Nogaj really challenged me and prepared me for graduate school,” says Pereira. “All the professors at the Mount have been amazing. They’re really caring, and they want people to succeed.”

For her post-doctoral work, Pereira plans to research how DNA repair proteins are involved in fertility. “About 10% of women are infertile,” she says. “Having a deeper understanding of the proteins and repair mechanisms can help us to properly treat defects when we see them.”