Early Career Leadership Spotlight: Caroline Aragón
We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.
Communication and Outreach Subcommittee
University of Minnesota
I vividly remember the day when my parents came home, called my siblings and me into the living room, and shared that Charlotte had a special genetic condition. At three years old, my little sister was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome, and so began my first encounter with genetics. When my mom showed me the picture of my sister’s mosaic karyotype and explained the differences in her X chromosomes, I found myself filled with questions about how these funny-shaped structures could provide the instructions for something as complex as the human body.
My homeschool education fueled investigation of scientific questions in the form of Friday morning labs at the kitchen table. My mom ordered dried frogs and crumbly worms online for my siblings and me to dissect, and we assembled cells, using Jell-O for cytoplasm and M&Ms for organelles. In high school, I began volunteering at a nearby hospital. Delivering flowers to the children’s unit, passing out MRI forms in the imaging center, and changing bed linens in the emergency room excited my desire to be in the clinic through the encounters I witnessed between staff and patients.
As I began learning taxonomy and running gels in college, I started to understand what science meant, how to formulate an intelligent question, and what tools were used to explore the complexity and intricacy of the answer. The deeply systematic way of conducting research fascinated me, but the compassionate part of me wanted the ability to be present, to engage, and to understand the clinical experience, too. These experiences ultimately led me to pursue graduate training in both model organism research in C. elegans and clinical work in genetic counseling.
My research interests, therefore, span borders between the experiences of people living with genetic disease and the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms responsible for their phenotype. The questions raised in molecular diagnostics about identifying the genetic basis for disease and gene and variant discovery via next generation sequencing motivate me, specifically toward the ultimate goal of improving patient care. For me, the process of scientific discovery will not stop with assays and graphs but reach as far as the woman facing difficult pregnancies. I hope to contribute to the field not only via the back corners of the lab but also the front lines of the clinic through understanding patient experiences and outcomes.
As a trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?
As a genetic counselor who is trained in and passionate about the research processes of inquiry and discovery in genetics, I am especially interested in the work of genetic testing laboratories to facilitate diagnoses for patients. The process of analyzing and interpreting next generation sequencing data through gene curation and variant interpretation, as well as discovery of new disease-causing genes, is an area that appears full of nearly unlimited, unanswered questions. Searching the literature, creatively proposing advancements in analysis and interpretation guidelines, and generating diagnoses for patients to guide their care are particularly exciting career prospects. In this genetic and genomic testing space, I can see how my interpretations and application of key research findings can be practical contributions to patients’ guidance and care.
Another one of my passions involves access to genetic services across diverse populations. As advances in genetic testing technologies and workflows increase the amount of known disease-causing genes, genetic testing will become increasingly relevant for a greater number of individuals and their healthcare. As a result, underserved populations’ need for access to their genetic information, genetic counseling, and relevant research and clinical guidelines will only increase. Through my future career, I hope to meet this need in some capacity, whether this be through using telehealth capacities or expanding financially and physically accessible genetic testing resources.
However, due to my interdisciplinary training, my career interests broadly span the genetics world. I, therefore, find myself excited about a wide variety of potential career options. In the future, I could see myself expanding career-wise to use my medical communication and scientific writing skills in a medical writing or education space. Additionally, the field of bioinformatics has always excited me with its vast opportunities to improve the diagnostic process through sequencing pipelines and to potentially provide answers for patients stuck in a rare disease diagnostic odyssey. Before I found myself venturing down this career road, however, my currently limited computational experience would beg improvement.
In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
Because my overarching career goal is to optimize care for patients living with genetic conditions, my scientific aspirations revolve around improving the application of key research discoveries so that the patients in the genetics community benefit. Everyone wants to know about their DNA and what it can tell them about their ancestry, health, future disease risks, and even the background and future of their pets! Capitalizing on this common curiosity surrounding genetic information is one area where I envision my passion for scientific communication to be particularly useful.
Relatedly, I want to advance and improve the processes of communication and dissemination of research results to the benefit of patients. Often, the complexity of scientific experiments and their results is inaccessible and difficult to understand without advanced training. I hope to advance the accessibility of research studies and their key, clinically relevant findings through scientific communication and education for patients and the general public. Perhaps, this work will involve articles, social media posts, or outreach in my own community. I am always excited when others share new opportunities and inspiration for volunteering and outreach.
Another aspect where I see myself advancing this goal is through molecular diagnostics. I am excited about the immense potential of helping to provide diagnoses through genetic testing and ultimately discovering new disease-causing genes for patients with undiagnosed conditions. My graduate training as a model organism researcher revealed to me the important role of model systems in the gene discovery process. I hope to contribute to the development of connections and collaborations in the future. After all, in order to hone research goals for scientists working to develop disease models and uncover molecular mechanisms, it is important to garner the patient perspective and research priorities from patient community groups.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
One of my central goals as a leader within GSA is to facilitate connections and encouragement amongst scientists. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the seriousness of the difficulties and challenges of experiments, successes, and failures, and to forget to appreciate opportunities to enjoy our scientific community. I hope that our subcommittee, and the ECLP as a whole, can be a place for a breath of fresh air, humor, encouragement, and joy throughout the exciting work each unique scientist brings to the table.
Moreover, through my background in genetic counseling and patient care, I hope to serve as a bridge between the research and clinical worlds. Amidst the nitty gritty, day-to-day work of research, it often becomes easy to lose sight of the reason behind the experimental procedures that we perform in the lab. Personally, my daily motivation is the anecdotal evidence I have heard and witnessed from patients in genetics clinics. I have witnessed how the reclassification of a genetic variant, the discovery of a new disease-causing gene, or the elucidation of a disease mechanism has impacted patients and their family members in terms of preventative and diagnostic care, ultimately changing their lives. As a leader, I hope to facilitate the sharing of patient stories and experiences and encourage the participation of research scientists and ECLP members in patient advocacy and support groups through networking, engagement, and volunteering. It is within these groups that research priorities arise and are organized, driven by the needs of the patients who ultimately benefit from the research findings. Unless we take time to listen to the lived experiences of those with genetic conditions, we risk losing sight of the true target of our research aims.
Additionally, I had my first baby while in graduate school and experienced firsthand the challenges of juggling aspects of family life with career aspirations. I hope to serve as a resource and support for other mothers navigating the challenges of parenthood alongside their research goals. I firmly believe the values of family life should not be incompatible with scientific pursuits and contributions. The insights, skills, and perspectives of these mothers are invaluable yet often underappreciated resources within the scientific community. Down the road, one of my dreams involves starting or contributing to an existing support group or system for women in science who are simultaneously raising children. I am passionate about the development and expansion of accessible career tracks for mothers in the scientific community, including the feasibility of part-time and/or flexible, remote/hybrid, and attainable graduate programs and career opportunities.
Previous leadership experience
- Undergraduate Research Mentor, University of Minnesota, 2020–2022
- Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development Mentorship Program, University of Minnesota, 2021
- NORD Students for Rare, University of Minnesota Chapter, 2021–2022
- Peer Reviewer & Associate Editor, Journal of Emerging Investigators, 2020–2021
- Biology and Chemistry Teaching Assistant, Hillsdale College, 2018–2019
- Biology Tutor, Hillsdale College, 2017–2018