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Yuna Ayala, Ph.D.

Yuna AyalaTell us about your current career position.
I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Saint Louis University. My group studies how RNA binding proteins control gene expression through the regulation of RNA processing. We investigate the mechanisms of protein-RNA interactions and the cellular dynamics of these complexes in vitro and in cells. Our goal is to understand their normal function and their role in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia. 

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
During the early stages of my postdoctoral career, I realized that I wanted to become an independent investigator to continue my research on topics that I was passionate about. In addition, I always felt a great deal of accomplishment mentoring young scientists, and guiding them towards scientific research or carrying out their PhD or postdoctoral studies. Two years ago, my husband and I accepted the offer to become faculty members at Saint Louis University. Even though it meant relocating our family from Italy to the United States, it was a great opportunity for me to start my independent research career. The decision was not easy, but through hard work and help from our families and our department, we were able to start our new lives. I applied to different funding agencies as a new investigator and obtained a training award to establish my research career. This achievement has been key to reaching my current position and training in the field of neurobiology.

How did you first become interested in science?
I grew up in Bolivia surrounded by people who were less fortunate than me. It motivated me to work towards improving the lives of others. I understood that medicine played a critical role in helping people live full and productive lives. At the same time, I have always been very curious about the details of how things work and I’m fascinated by nature. Beginning as an undergraduate in the United States, I had the opportunity to experience scientific research firsthand. As a student, I worked at the Washington University School of Medicine characterizing thrombin, a crucial coagulation enzyme, to understand its function at the molecular level. Being part of the academic research world sparked my interest in biomedical science, particularly in basic science. I valued its potential to understand human disease and pave the way for developing new therapies to help patients.

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
During times of failure, what has helped me continue is the faith that my family always has in me. Another important source of strength has been to remember all the things I have achieved, many of which seemed very difficult at the time. Even if it seemed paradoxical then, I kept in mind how fortunate I have been and that it would be a waste if I stopped trying. It was important to remember that people who achieve their goals usually do so after many failures and succeed through great perseverance and hard work. So, by myself and with the help of others, I tried to critically evaluate my mistakes and find the doors left open along my path. 

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
My advice is to identify something that interests you greatly, determine your career goals, and become informed of the path(s) that lead to this objective. Once you have focused on the trajectory, seek out mentors at every step of the way to help you achieve your aims. During your studies and professional career, you should also try to find sponsors who will help open doors, encourage you to take on new challenges, and introduce you to networks that will be essential in the future.

What are your hobbies?
I take every opportunity to dance, cook and draw.

What was the last book you read?
1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann, and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
My role models are members of my family, peers, mentors, and some people who I have never personally met. The people that inspire me are drawn by strong passion in their lives, a sense of responsibility, and great perseverance. Many of my role models are women focusing on their professional careers, while balancing their roles as mothers, sisters, and daughters. I greatly admire people who have achieved important milestones and have contributed greatly to society without losing their integrity and continuing to be aware and sensitive to the reality that is common to the majority of people. The examples set by my role models are present during my daily life as I try to be creative, manage my personal and professional responsibilities, and when I face new and difficult situations.

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
I think about the long-term goals I put forward, and then I carefully recall the smaller steps needed to achieve the larger aims. The most dangerous thing for me is to become overwhelmed by the big picture and be unable to focus. As a group leader, I feel great responsibility toward my collaborators. I want to do my best to guide them in being independent thinkers and productive scientists. I also make an effort to keep up with new findings outside and inside my field because they serve as inspiration for my own work and act as reminders of the beauty and importance of scientific research. Most of all, I think of my young children whose lives greatly depend on my work. I try to be a good example to them so that in the future, they may find something they love to do and dedicate their lives to.

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