Living and breathing science: Becoming a biologist

Alicia Wooten, a young woman with dark hair in a lab coat, smiles up at the camera.

“I always had an interest in how the body protects itself,” says Alicia Wooten, ’11. “The thing I love about immunology is that it is always evolving.”

Wooten, who hails from San Antonio, TX, and graduated from RIT’s College of Science with a B.S. in biomedical sciences in 2011, successfully defended her dissertation at Boston University in early June.

Her research focused on Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia, and how a specific molecule, called cyclic di-AMP, affects the way white blood cells respond to the infection. This fits Wooten’s interests in a specific way.

“Every person, every organ, every disease—immunology works the same, yet different. It’s like a puzzle, trying to fit the pieces together, and I really enjoy that,” says Wooten.

Wooten’s interest in lung-based research was sparked by the loss of her mother to lung cancer while Wooten was attending RIT, and was spurred further by mentors who encouraged her to continue working.

“My research mentor, Dr. Hyla Sweet—without her, I never would have gained experience of what lab life looks like,” says Wooten. “Carla Deibel and Dr. Matt Lynn were also integral to my success at RIT, and their tutoring support really helped me.”

The infrastructure of academic support available to deaf and hard-of-hearing students at RIT/NTID benefited Wooten as she took advantage of RIT’s academic offerings.

“I’ll never forget taking tissue culture and microbiology courses,” she adds. “I still talk about Dr. Thomas Frederick’s microbiology lab to this day. His energy and passion—that is the type of teacher I want to be. I also enjoyed Dr. Sandra Connelly’s general biology course and how she made the information easy and interesting.”

Wooten takes the examples of her RIT professors and NTID support staff and faculty with her as she embarks on the next step of her journey, as a newly-hired tenure-track assistant professor of biology at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

Wooten admits that she only reached this point in her post-college career after some searching. “I ended up taking a gap year to figure things out,” she says. “During that time, I tutored K-12 students. I realized how much I missed doing science and also recognized how much I liked teaching.”

Starting at that realization and ending with a complete dissertation took time and effort, according to Wooten. “My advice is: Set your goals high. I always wanted to do something I was proud of and so I always kept improving myself. I never stopped reaching and I didn’t give up.”

Wooten followed her own advice. “One of my favorite stories that I like to tell people is how I got into graduate school. It actually took three years. During my senior year at RIT, one professor encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I decided to apply to one school and see what happened. I got rejected.”

After some time and more applications, she came to feel that graduate school might not be a good fit for her, but chose not to stop there.

Instead, Wooten enrolled in the University of Rochester’s PREP post-baccalaureate program, which aims to support students from underrepresented groups with recent degrees in biomedical-related fields in developing the skills needed to continue their academic career.

“After all of the feedback and changes [in PREP], I went all out and applied to eight schools. I got interviews at six, and was accepted at all six,” says Wooten.

“If you want something badly enough, keep fighting for it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *