Institution: University of California, Merced
Graduate Program: Ph.D., Quantitative and Systems Biology
Education: B.Sc. Biology, Northern Caribbean University (Jamaica)
Mentor: Dr. Michael Cleary, UC Merced; Dr. David Ardell, UC Merced
Rhondene Wint recalls learning computer science without a computer in her home as a high school student in Jamaica. “I got my own computer at around age 21 with money from a summer job,” she says.
Nevertheless, throughout her undergraduate studies in biological sciences at Northern Caribbean University, she managed to excel, graduating magna cum laude in biological sciences.
“Back home, if you do great in sciences in high school they say, ‘become a doctor or a nurse,’ but after undergrad, I learned that there’s a field that combines computer science with biology,” Wint says. She had already been coding “for leisure” and decided to take a C++ introductory course as the only noncomputer science major in the class. No surprise, she made the highest grade, which convinced her to combine her interests in coding and biology.
She has been intrigued by the possibilities of computing for years. “Even in high school I became fascinated when I learned that all those nice graphics we see on the computer screen are really just zeroes and ones,” she remarks. Now a Ph.D. student at University of California, Merced, Wint says her personal challenges have influenced her research interests. “Since I’ve known myself, I’ve spoken with a stutter,” she says. “Once I learned about the neurological basis of my speech impediment, I became fascinated by how the brain works.”
In January, she was first author of “Kingdom-wide Analysis of Fungal Transcriptomes and tRNAs Reveals Conserved Patterns of Adaptive Evolution,” with co-authors Asaf Salamov and Igor V. Grigoriev, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution. “This is my first paper, so at the outset I was intimidated by research writing like a lot of Ph.D. students are,” she explains. “It seemed rather obscure and painful, but now I appreciate writing as an iterative and creative process.” She adds that “writing helps you think in an organized and linear fashion.”
Wint has focused on transfer RNA (tRNA), a small RNA molecule that participates in protein synthesis, because she says tRNA research has been understudied in brain development.
In her Ph.D. research, Wint combines wet lab experimentation with computational methods. She points out that her current research investigates the genetic basis of neurogenesis. “Specifically, I use functional genomics and bioinformatic approaches to better understand how transfer RNA genes contribute to neural cell diversity,” she say.
Wint has presented her work at international conferences including the 27th tRNA Conference in Strasbourg, France, in 2018. Among her achievements, she considers being accepted into the Ph.D. program at UC Merced most significant. “As a first-generation student from a working-class background, such an accomplishment is unheard of not only in my family but also in my community,” she says.
Dr. Michael Cleary, UC Merced associate professor of molecular and cell biology, says Wint keeps her community in mind as she pursues her scientific goals. “Rhondene is very serious about training people that come from communities where careers in academia might seem unobtainable; her personal journey serves as an inspirational example,” Cleary wrote in his recommendation of Wint as a Diverse Rising Graduate Scholar.
“I’m hoping that my work uncovers how tRNAs contribute to normal brain development [and] I hope that may inspire future therapeutics as well as more attention to these types of genes,” she says. “There has been a lot of attention on DNA but tRNAs are proving to be a key player as well.