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Young Innovator Program Spotlight: Alejandra Zeballos

BY Ananya Sen, Shelby Lawson
Alejandra Zeballos

Alejandra Zeballos / Eleanor Grosch

Alejandra Zeballos works on creating new therapies for neurological disorders. She is developing a platform that will select virus-based vectors that can deliver DNA-based therapy to neural tissues. A graduate student in the Gaj (BSD) lab, Zeballos won second place in the 2022 Young Innovator Program and was awarded $10,000 to develop her project.  
When did you first become interested in science?
AZ: My biology teacher in middle school divided the class and introduced us to the different systems in the human body like the nervous system and the circulatory system. Instead of sticking to one system, I wanted to read about all of them. I wanted to know how everything worked.  
Why did you become interested in neurological disorders?
AZ: My uncle was a chemical engineer and I was very close to him. We had lunch together every day, and I have a lot of fond memories of singing and dancing with him during lunch. He had Alzheimer’s disease and he passed away in 2016. His symptoms helped me understand how the disease works; he helped me find my purpose.  
When did you first start seeing yourself as an inventor?
AZ: I have always wanted to learn new things. I had a book about origami and I challenged myself by making the smallest designs. I also started taking jewelry classes and combined metals and paper to make jewelry, which I sold at fairs.  
What drew you to the University of Illinois?
AZ: I fell in love with the research. I loved that it was a combination of all the things I wanted to do: study neurodegenerative disorders, molecular biology, and therapeutics. I also really liked the environment; it was more collaborative and the people were nicer.  
What do you work on?
AZ: We develop editing therapies for neurodegenerative disorders and their delivery methods. We design DNA-based therapies and, using virus vectors as delivery systems, test them in rodents.  
How has the Young Innovator Program’s funding helped you in the past year?  
AZ: It helped me develop the delivery system and the packaging. My design has improved because I can now take into account the details of the disease and deliver the cargo to the right target cells.  
What do you like most about your lab?  
AZ: I was the first graduate student in my lab and I saw it as an opportunity to learn how everything worked. I also had to set up new protocols. For example, we test the memory in mice. You put them in a pool and see how long it takes them to find the platform. I had to figure out all the logistics and make a lot of the material.  
What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
AZ: I like the feeling of discovering something new because you’re pushing the boundaries of knowledge. I also like mentoring others and learning from them as I teach them. Coming from a diverse background, I think it has always helped me make better decisions. It makes me value other people’s backgrounds too.  
What advice do you have for other inventors?  
Be curious because curiosity sparks learning. If you want to learn, there are so many things you can do, like observing nature. It is so perfect and wise. If you learn about nature, something is going to stick and inspire you to create new things.  
What are your interests outside lab?
AZ: I like making jewelry and I'm setting up my workshop here in Urbana. I also like reading, especially in Spanish because it helps me relax. I'm learning how to play tennis, and the ukulele with my partner Diego. I also have a dog named Mushu, like Mulan’s dragon. 

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