Next generation genome-sequencing has uncovered thousands upon thousands of genetic mutations, across thousands of individuals suffering from neurological diseases. These mutations may influence human behavior and cause disease states in the brain. For any type of genetic disorder, mutations in an array of genes can affect behavior, yet how these disparate mutations converge on similar behavioral phenotypes remains largely unknown. This is especially true for autism spectrum disorder, a complex neurobehavioral condition that includes impairments in social interaction, developmental language, and communication skills combined with rigid, repetitive behaviors. Agustin Tavares, an undergraduate student at the University of Miami, is passionate about studying the genetic basis of autism to gain greater insight into how genetic mutations can result in behavioral changes. He began conducting research in a research lab with Julia Dallman, PhD., and Robert Kozol, a graduate student in the lab, because he felt inspired to learn more about the neurobehavioral aspects of the disease based on his prior exposure to children with autism.
Tavares grew up in Manhattan, New York for the earlier part of his life, which he found to be an “immensely diverse community, like South Florida.” He remembers the strong presence of a thriving Dominican community in his area, and he gained a lot of cultural competence through his exposure to so much diversity from such an early age. “Coming to Miami was a way for me to continue my exposure to diverse cultures and people,” Tavares says. Throughout much of his adolescence, Tavares remembers developing a keen interest in science through TV shows like the Magic School Bus and Bill Nye. He built upon his passion for science through his parents’ work, who are both physicians that conducted research in New York City.
“My mom did research on dementia at Columbia University and my dad did research on heart disease and depression at New York Presbyterian Hospital. It is a bit funny that I pursued research in neurological conditions just like they did; I was unaware that they even did these research projects until recently. It just shows that I’m their son”
Tavares was not initially very keen about delving into research, but with encouragement and guidance from his parents and teachers, he ultimately developed a deep passion for learning about the sophisticated genetic mechanisms and mutations that underpin disease. Tavares’s experiences with conducting research ignited the flame of curiosity within him at a young age, and this innate curiosity for science remains with him to this day.
In the lab, Tavares works directly with zebrafish, a model organism, to generate zebrafish models of inherited human behavioral disorders to understand how mutations impact neural circuit development and behavior. Tavares’s research project involves conducting genetic engineering in zebrafish by knocking out the SHANK3 gene and analyzing the behavioral effects in comparison to zebrafish that contain a functional copy of SHANK3 (wild type). A missing or defective SHANK3 gene disrupts communication between neurons and is associated with repetitive behaviors, avoidance of social interaction, anxiety, and difficulty with motor coordination. After Tavares and his research mentor Robert Kozol knocked out the SHANK3 gene, they both worked to film the zebrafish throughout each of their developmental cycles to analyze the behavioral differences between zebrafish with an intact copy of the SHANK3 gene and those that lacked the functional copy. This process required filming the fish for several hours each day and subsequently mapping their behavior to uncover observed patterns and variations among the varying fish populations. Tavares stated that patience is key to conducting this type of research; he and his research mentors had to film the fish for several hours each day. He even recounts an instance where the lens was out of focus and they had to start the filming process over.
The central focus of Dr. Dallman’s lab is investigating multiple genetic causes of a single disorder in model organisms like zebrafish to elucidate the shared mechanisms by which different mutations affect behavior. The lab’s long-term goal is to map out the precise neural circuits linked to SHANK3 behavior, from the organismal to the cellular and molecular level. These models could eventually be used translationally to inform treatment strategies for individuals with inherited disorders of the nervous system.
Outside of the lab, Tavares is passionate about pursuing creative writing as an outlet for expression amid his busy research schedule. “I’m so passionate about creative writing that I made it my second major. It could be anything, from fiction to poetry to song lyrics; I just get immersed in the meaning and emotion that can be found behind every word. The process of creating my own writing is what I love the most; my room and computer are filled with countless pages of my ideas, my characters, my fictional worlds that sprung from my mind,” says Tavares. He feels that it is essential for students to establish a balance between their academic interests and their non-academic interests because it is a way for them to learn to express their feelings. “Funnily enough, the aspect of creating new characters and telling their stories makes me a better researcher. I create new characters and stories outside of the lab just like I work to create new knowledge while I’m in the lab”, says Tavares.
Working in a research lab has given Tavares the exposure to genetics research that he feels will serve him well throughout both his undergraduate career and his future profession. Tavares plans to attend graduate school in the future in pursuit of a PhD in Neuroscience, and he strongly believes that his experiences in his current lab are helping him gain the skills he needs to be successful in his field. “Even though I don’t know exactly what I want to research in the future, the foundational skills I’ve learned in the lab like genetic engineering, bioinformatics, PCR, and gel electrophoresis will definitely be useful in what I hope to study as I work towards my PhD.”
Tavares’s advice to other undergraduates who are seeking to pursue research is to not be afraid to seek out research opportunities with professors whose area of study matches their interest. “My first research experience was in a lab studying the genetics of leukemia, and though the topic was interesting, I didn’t feel that the lab was the best fit for me in terms of my research interests. This often happens in research, and I think that other undergrads should be proactive in using resources like the Undergraduate Research Office to find the lab and the principle investigator (PI) that they can get the most wholesome learning experience out of. I am so happy that I found the lab that best suited my interests, and I encourage other students to do the same.”
Tavares strongly encourages students to find a project that they are passionate about pursuing, because he believes that a research experience is only complete when the student is motivated to commit 6-10 hours per week, not to fulfill research requirements for medical school or PhD programs, but to satisfy their innate curiosity about the subject they are studying.
Tavares believes that research is a highly rewarding experience for any student’s undergraduate career, and he encourages students from all disciplines to pursue it to get practical learning experiences beyond the classroom.