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IGB Profile: Marya Ornelas

BY Ananya Sen
My favorite quote is from Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.” / Jay Cournoyer

My favorite quote is from Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower, “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.” / Jay Cournoyer

The landscape surrounding the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is unlike anything else in the United States. The flat vistas of cornfields are especially jarring for someone who has grown up in the Bay Area in California. For Marya Ornelas, the move was simply one of many changes she embraced during her research journey.  

Growing up in the suburbs of Oakland, Ornelas was always interested in science. Her interest in biochemistry, however, was piqued during her undergraduate years at Pitzer College. “Since I was a first-generation student, I didn’t know what to expect. In my first year I took classes that had a lab component that mirrored the experience of doing research projects. That’s when I discovered that I enjoyed working in a lab,” Ornelas said.

In her second semester, she joined the lab of Aaron Leconte, an associate professor of chemistry in the Keck Science Department of the Claremont Colleges. “I fell in love with research because he worked hard to make it an enriching experience for his students,” Ornelas said. “He also instilled a lot of important principles about mentorship and learning and it taught me so much about the power of a lab that has proper leadership.”

Inspired by her advisor, Ornelas continued to work in research labs at different universities during her summers. “In the Leconte lab and in Jennifer Prescher’s lab at UC Irvine, I worked on projects that aimed at improving the brightness of the enzyme firefly luciferase, which makes fireflies glow, for its use in biomedical imaging. I realized over time that I was gravitating towards questions about how to make biological systems do what we need and how that can translate to human health,” Ornelas said. 

Ornelas’s search for an interdisciplinary lab led her to the Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program at the University of Illinois. “I was initially hesitant because I had lived in California all my life and I was really nervous to leave. Although the other universities I was deciding between, California Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkeley, were ideal location wise, I didn't feel as excited about the science,” Ornelas said. 

Her decision-making process was also stymied because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited on-site visits. “It was a really hard decision to make, but I had this gut feeling about Illinois,” she said.  Although she was homesick at first, Ornelas has grown to love the Urbana-Champaign community. “I've been really lucky to meet some amazing people that I know I'll be friends with forever. Being in a small town made it easier to connect with people and I will look back very fondly at memories of being with my community here.” 

Although Ornelas came in with an interest in synthetic biology, she soon became fascinated by virology and immunology. Co-advised by Angad Mehta (MMG), an assistant professor of chemistry and Nicholas Wu (IGOH/MMG), an assistant professor of biochemistry, she investigates how antibodies evolve to recognize different molecules on the surface of viruses. 

Going forward, Ornelas is excited about projects that can help change how we combat bacterial and viral infections. “So much changed during graduate school: my interests, goals, and motivations. It was really hard to navigate all of these things and trust that it would work out,” she said. “Fortunately, research is a unique space where you can pursue what you’re interested in; it’s just a matter of asking the right questions and finding the right people.” 

In her spare time, Ornelas is involved in mentoring students through the Chemical Science through Community program. “As a graduate student, it is hard to feel connected to undergraduates outside your lab and this community has helped me meet students who are interested in research,” Ornelas said. “Student groups like this are often overlooked, but they are worthy of our time and our effort because it gives us a chance to pass on the opportunities that were given to us.” 


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