Biology Student Aims for Vet School

Biology student Nicole Santana uses a hands-on approach to make a difference. While studying to becoming a veterinarian, she also works as a research assistant in anthropology assistant professor John Starbuck’s lab. Santana compares images of mice with Down syndrome to those without. She hopes to find differences in their skulls, something that can then later be applied to humans with Down syndrome.

“I land mark mice that have been genetically modified to have an extra 16 chromosome, similar to the human chromosome 21, to see how effective EGCG has been to these mice,” she said.

EGCG is an antioxidant, extracted from green tea, which helps prevent or stop cell damage. It plays a role in treating mice with Down syndrome, and, if successful, could be used in treating humans as well.

“I am helping to see if EGCG can inhibit Dyrk1a,” Santana said. “Dyrk1a is a gene in the human chromosome that is overexpressed due to the extra chromosome and plays a role in the underdevelopment of the brain. EGCG helps the brain develop as it should, would it not have that extra chromosome.”

Santana’s research is not just about mice. Everything she learns can be applied to human chromosome research and potential treatments for Down syndrome.

“I was drawn to the field because it allows me to help the Down syndrome community,” she said. “It also gives me research experience, as well as animal and medical experience to put on my application for vet school.”

Her desire to help people and animals, combined with her interests in the medical field, stemmed from an early age.

“I have been one of the few lucky people that have known what she wanted to do ever since she was young,” Santana said.

Other than her position as a research assistant, she is part of UCF’s Pre-Veterinarian club. While making her stay at UCF more than just classes and exams, Santana advises other students to do the same by joining clubs, going to events and making connections. Seizing an opportunity, even when afraid, is the first step.

“My motto is that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Even if something bad happens now and you feel like your whole world is falling apart, doors close so that new doors can open. You never know how that bad thing can lead to something great.”

Santana hopes to graduate in 2019 and become a vet, so she can help animals by enforcing their importance. One day, she wants to teach others about what she has learned so people come together to save animals from death and extinction.

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