I grew up in the Italian Market section of Philadelphia in the 80’s and 90’s. I can still remember holding my grandmother’s hand as she picked produce from the fruit stands and waiting in line for meat and cheeses at Claudio’s and Di Bruno’s.
Although my formative years were spent in a large city, I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family that valued education and the natural world. My mother and father, despite their lack of higher education, sacrificed so that my brother and I could attend the best schools and made sure we were involved in a host of extracurricular activities.
Both of my grandfathers impacted my future greatly. My maternal grandfather would discuss with me about physics, astronomy, and history regularly, even at a young age. My paternal grandfather was an avid naturalist and would take my brother and I on adventures in the natural world – from camping on the Appalachian trail to hiking the Grand Canyon. The effects of these relationships were lasting on me as I ultimately decided to pursue a career in science.
However, the road to my Ph.D. candidacy was not an easy one. I attended Pennsylvania State University first as a computer science major before switching to criminal justice after struggling in my coursework. I graduated in 2005 with my B.S. My grades weren’t the best and I regretted pursuing my degree in the sciences. After graduation, I obtained a position working in the security and surveillance field at Parx Casino in Bensalem, PA until late 2008. A chance meeting between my paternal grandmother and a friend at a funeral changed my life forever.
My grandmother’s friend was the wife of the head of security at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) in Philadelphia at the time in 2008. After a conversation with my grandmother about my degree program at Penn State, her friend told her to have me contact her husband for a potential position in the University’s Department of Public Safety and Security as there was a vacancy. I was hired in December of 2008 and learned that I could take courses at Saint Joseph’s for no cost.
I took advantage of this wonderful program and go back to school. I originally thought about going back for my MBA but a chance meeting with a biology graduate student changed my mind. The student convinced me that, at heart, I was a scientist and should pursue something I am passionate about. I am very glad I listened!
I enrolled in undergraduate courses that were prerequisites for a masters in biology the very next day. For the next three years I took courses in biology, chemistry, and physics all while working full-time as a Security Officer at the university. I excelled in my course work and started an undergraduate research project under the advisorship of John Braverman, S.J., Ph.D. and Clint Springer, Ph.D., working on the quantitative genetics of flowering time under ambient and elevated levels of CO2 in Arabidopsis thaliana.
After completing undergraduate classes I enrolled for, and was accepted to, the masters program in biology at SJU. Over the next two years, I took courses, taught science outreach in Philadelphia’s public school system as a GEOKIDS LINKS – GK-12 Teaching Fellow, and conducted two more independent research projects under the guidance of Dr. Braverman. The first involved determining the local genetic variation of an newly-introduced invasive fruit fly, Drosophila suzukii. The second, my master’s thesis work, explored temporal shifts in allele frequencies in local populations of another fruit fly, Drosophila simulans.
I graduated in 2014, after successfully defending my thesis, with a masters in biology from SJU while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. I also published my first scientific paper and received a number of awards and accolades including the SJU Biology Graduate Student Award and membership to Alpha Epsilon Lambda – The Graduate Students Honor Society.
I decided to pursue a Ph.D. after my masters and searched around the U.S. for a laboratory that I could grow in as an independent researcher. After applying to a number of schools, I had a number of choices but ultimately decided to join the lab of Gregory Ragland, Ph.D. at Kansas State University (KSU) with a co-advisement with Theodore Morgan, Ph.D. also at KSU working with my now-favorite research subjects – Drosophila!
My first two years at KSU were busy ones, taking classes and collecting massive amounts of data for my first two dissertation chapters. Luckily, I was able to recruit an army of undergraduates to assist me. I formulated a research project that aimed at investigating potential genetic decoupling for thermal hardiness between larvae and adults of the model species, Drosophila melanogaster.
I became fascinated with the evolution and maintenance of complex life cycles in the natural world and wanted to explore the level of genetic constraint between life stages in holometabolous insects. In other words, is evolution able to act on each distinct stage independently? My first chapter’s findings provide substantial evidence that the thermal hardiness phenotypes or larvae and adults, within isogenic lines of the Drosophila Genetic Reference Panel (DGRP), are distinct. Moreover, the underlying genetics for stage-specific cold stress responses are largely independent (Freda et al. 2017).
My second chapter of my dissertation broadened the scope of chapter one in order to determine if changes in rearing environment leads to differences in the cross-stage correlations of thermal hardiness. Additionally, this chapter aims at investigating if a similar lack of correlation between stage also occurs in extreme heat. The findings of this chapter show that regardless of rearing temperature, hardiness, both cold and heat, are decoupled across metamorphosis. Moreover, larvae are more heat hardy while adults are more cold hardy. This is evidence of niche adaptation across development as larvae are exposed to extreme heat during the summer months while feeding in rotten fruits and vegetables while adults are exposed to extreme cold as they overwinter.
Currently, I am working on publishing the final chapter in this body of work which investigates differences in RNA expression between stages and phenotypic extremes in Drosophila melanogaster. Specifically, the questions I aim to answer are: 1.) do cold hardy larvae and cold hardy adults achieve hardiness in similar or different ways? And 2.) what gene expression patterns separate cold hardy from cold susceptible larvae and adults?
My passions are not limited to science. I am an avid reader of fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, and have been working on a novel for the last 6-7 years with hopes of publishing some time after I complete my Ph.D. program. I collaborate with an fantastically talented artist, Jesus Gomez, who is creating illustrations for the novel. Visit my creative writing page for more information. I also involve myself in table top RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and love photography. Check out my photography page to see some of my favorites. For exercise and stress reduction, I enjoy running, hiking, and biking. I am also known to dabble in some video games from time to time.
In 2019, I moved back to the Philadelphia area and decided to make a significant shift in my research interests. Over the last years of my Ph.D., I became very much interested in genomic medicine and investigating complex traits involved in human disease. Because of this, I accepted a position in the lab of Jason, Moore, Ph.D. at the Perelman School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania exploring the genetics and genomics of addiction and mental health disorders. As opioid abuse is continuing to rise both nationally and internationally, I have decided to dedicate my time and energy in exploring how diseases like Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) and related mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can be combating using genomic science.
If you found my website and experience interesting, please contact me using the links below!