On May 3, Alana Ogata represented UCI at the UC Grad Slam Finals at LinkedIn HQ in San Francisco. She ultimately didn’t capture the systemwide title, but she delivered an insightful and engaging presentation in support of her research. Alana, who is earning her Ph.D. in Chemistry, is currently developing biocensors for point-of-care cancer diagnostics in order to make cancer testing accessible to all.
What excites you most about your research, and what it means for the future of cancer diagnosis and treatment?
I have always loved solving problems; math problems, puzzles, how to assemble an Ikea desk! I love figuring out how to get to an end product. What excites me most is that now my research is working towards a product that can help so many people. I am solving a huge problem that has affected my friends, family, and strangers I meet day to day: cancer. I truly believe that our work here can change the face of cancer diagnostics, especially with collaboration with other great minds fighting for the same cause. The earlier you catch cancer the more curable it is, but today the only way to get tested is to go to the doctor, and many people do not have the time or money to go. Instead we rarely get tested until there is a painful symptom, which is usually related to late stage cancer, and by then even our most advanced treatments may not be effective. We are working on a sensor that will allow people to do routine cancer testing, so that we can get an early diagnosis every time and cancer treatments can reach their full potential. There are two surefire ways to beat cancer: effective treatments and early detection. We are working hard to get early detection available to everyone.
Why did you choose UCI for your Ph.D. in chemistry?
Overall, it’s really because everyone at UCI was nice. Which I think sometimes is an underrated way of choosing a graduate school. Many people focus on name or a specific PI or specific research department, which are all valid considerations that I also analyzed. But I was choosing between two other amazing UC schools, and to me, all the research was great. In the end, UCI just made me feel the most welcomed. My acceptance “letter” came in the form of a phone call from Shane Ardo. When I visited UCI, Shane gave such a friendly greeting to us prospective students, every PI took the time to explain their science to me, I specifically remember Reg Penner stopping and asking “ do you understand any of this?” and I felt comfortable enough to say no, and he just backed up and started explaining the basic concepts. I could tell that this was a positive environment to grow as a scientist. I also saw that collaboration was welcomed and that everyone was willing to help one another out. I am a huge advocate for collaboration in all fields, and UCI has been an excellent environment for that. I definitely do not regret my decision.
What’s the key to making “mind-bending” research accessible to the public?
This is a tough question! There is a huge disconnect between the academia and the public. As scientists, we need to regain the trust of the public. To do that we need to believe that everyone can be a citizen scientist. Although we have expertise in the sciences we are not above anyone. Anyone can make a contribution to science and to innovation, and I think part of our goal should be to communicate that. And then, if we can explain science in an understandable way to people AND reinforce the idea that any body can help by being a citizen scientist, people may feel more intrigued by science and want to be a part of it and want to understand it more. Part of my passion for collaboration is also collaboration between the sciences and non-sciences, and part of why I want to practice my speaking skills is to reach this goal of communicating science to all people and then encouraging them to be involved too.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of academia?
I love going to the beach, hiking and biking, or hanging out at a winery with friends. Being active keeps my mind clear and I’m big into fitness. I think personal health is so important. If I don’t take proper care of my body in terms of diet and fitness, i don’t think I can perform my best to attain my goals. I also love cooking (I am vegan), so if I have time to dive into a cool new recipe that is just heaven to me. Finally, I love being around friends. So I will do my best to stay in touch with friends and meet up with them for any type of activity. I really treasure the people in my life and want to keep those relationships strong.
Q&A by Laura Rico/UCI