Alea Rodriguez ’23 is a self-described “go-getter,” and that quality is a major reason why she’s on her way to achieving her goal of a career in women’s health and the treatment of infertility.
Since high school, the biology major/chemistry minor from Santa Clarita, California, has been drawn to human embryology, which seeks to help couples who are having difficulty achieving a pregnancy. “Human embryologists perform procedures such as in vitro fertilization or intracytoplasmic sperm injection,” she explained.
Throughout her time at Hollins, Rodriguez’s keen interest in reproductive health has underscored her commitment to advocate for herself both in the classroom and beyond. “If you know what you really want to do, you should definitely figure out a way to make it happen,” she said. “If you don’t put that out there, no one is going to know. Let yourself be seen.”
Rodriguez’s initiative has paid valuable dividends. In her sophomore year, she landed a January Short Term internship at a human embryology lab in California, an opportunity that she continued last summer. For J-term 2022, she shadowed a reproductive endocrinologist. And this spring, she embarked on research in a bovine embryology lab at Virginia Tech.
“I wanted to start planning my senior thesis as soon as possible and I was trying to come up with something on my own,” she recalled. “But then I thought, ‘Let me check with some of the professors at Virginia Tech and see what they do.’ I just cold emailed a bunch of faculty researchers, and Alan Ealy (associate professor of reproductive biology in VT’s department of animal and poultry sciences and the advisor for the bovine embryology lab) responded. He said, ‘I’d like for you to come in and shadow one of our grad students.’ I thought I was just going to watch her. But literally on my first day there, we were talking as she was preparing to do some lab work and suddenly she asked, ‘Do you want to do something? Put on some gloves, let’s go!’”
That “something” involved the extraction of oocytes, or eggs, from cow ovaries that are shipped to the lab from South Carolina. Rodriguez has engaged in that work for the past several weeks. “On the ovaries, you can see dots, which are follicles. Within each follicle is an oocyte, so you have to cut each of those little spots to release the oocytes.”
Rodriguez noted that the ovaries are transported in a cooler and processed immediately upon arrival at the lab to ensure good oocyte quality. “Once each follicle is opened, the ovaries are then swished in an oocyte collection media. Afterward, we filter that solution so that we get the oocytes and other debris that’s in there, and then it’s all transferred onto a search plate. From there, we use a microscope to search for and collect all the eggs. From start to finish, it’s about a 90-minute to two-hour process.”
Observing semen analysis with bull sperm and the subsequent fertilization process in the lab is informing Rodriguez’s senior thesis planning. “Dr. Ealy, (Hollins Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science) Mary Jane Carmichael, and I are looking at this sperm separating device that divides the sperm based on sex. The sperm is then used to fertilize the oocytes we’ve collected. Then, we’ll watch the growth and see if it works. We’re also planning on exploring the role of certain inflammatory cytokines of the Interleukin 6 family (which are important in regulating immune systems) in embryo development. Dr. Ealy’s lab particularly focuses on that, and so to be able to incorporate it into my own work would be nice.”
Rodriguez’s research at Virginia Tech will continue through spring term this year and then resume for the fall and spring terms of the 2022-23 academic year. The title and details of her senior thesis are still in progress, but thanks to her collaboration with Ealy and Carmichael, “I’m able to do what I want, which is great.”
Calling the Dana Science Building her “second home,” Rodriguez praises both the biology and chemistry departments at Hollins. “They’re filled with a lot of great professors, and one of the main things I definitely appreciate about being at Hollins is your close relationship with them. Dr. Carmichael encouraged me to reach out and see what professors are doing at Virginia Tech and other universities. My advisor, (Janet W. Spear Professor of Biology) Morgan Wilson, is absolutely amazing. And every semester I’ve been at Hollins, I’ve taken a class with (Assistant Professor of Chemistry) Son Nguyen, who has been very supportive.”
On the cusp of fulfilling her dream of becoming a human embryologist, Rodriguez is considering what might also lie ahead in her future. Shadowing the reproductive endocrinologist this January, she was impressed with how the physician and the lab embryologists interacted and the bond the physician formed with the patients themselves. “I would love to be an embryologist, but my deep, deep passion, my calling, is telling me to go even further beyond that and pursue reproductive endocrinology. I’m thinking of going to medical school someday.”