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Featured Student: Dana Lapato

Dana Lapato is a Ph.D. candidate in the Human Genetics program at VCU with a concentration in quantitative analysis. Her interest in the field started with a love of math at young age that continued throughout her primary education. Over time, however, Ms. Lapato began to feel that math was a bit too abstract and gravitated toward genetics as her preferred subject matter. To her, genetics felt like a lovely marriage of math to complex, real-world problems. While her love of biology began in middle school, it wasn’t until high school when Ms. Lapato fell in love with genetics through everyone’s first introduction, Punnet squares. The rest was history “when I figured out that you could mathematically figure out the genotypic probabilities without drawing.

Currently, Ms. Lapato works with Drs. Timothy York and Roxann Roberson-Nay studying epigenetic patterns related to maternal prenatal depression. Specifically, she examines how DNA methylation changes in the mother across pregnancy relate to changes in depressive symptom load over the same time period. Ms. Lapato emphasizes the usefulness of studying epigenetics because of how well it underscores the complexity of the whole human genomic system. “DNA sequences are like sentences in a book. We aren’t changing the sentences [by studying epigenetics] but studying bold or italic words, which can change the meaning.

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” – John Maynard Keynes

It is clear in talking with Ms. Lapato that she has a keen understanding and passion for not just her work, but the field of human genetics as a whole. When asked what advice she would give someone considering going to graduate school to study genetics, she said first, someone who thinks that they are interested in genetics needs to pinpoint what they mean by that because it is a deceptively big field. “Probably the best thing is don’t go straight into graduate school. Work a job and see if it’s what you like and what you thought,” she added.

Finally, outside of work, Ms. Lapato enjoys juijitsu.

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – J.K. Rowling

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