By Leo Barolo
Although for most people the Covid-19 pandemic presented unique challenges and stresses, this was not entirely true for Gage Moreno, a graduate student from the Cellular & Molecular Pathology (CMP) program working in Dave O’Connor’s lab in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Gage is also a trainee with the Computation and Informatics in Biology and Medicine training program, which funds and trains the next generation of scientists with deep and broad expertise in biomedical informatics and data science.
At the onset of the pandemic, Moreno was working on identifying and characterizing novel viruses, when suddenly a novel virus emerged and became the center of everyone’s lives.
This presented a unique opportunity to use his skills in genomics and computation to track the pandemic outbreak in our own state. “If I didn’t capitalize on this opportunity, I’d probably regret it” remembers Moreno, now in his third year of the CMP program. “Having the pandemic was really life-altering for my career because I was able to learn so much in such a short amount of time, while also working really hard in doing so.”
As Moreno prepares for his defense and saying goodbye to UW-Madison, we asked him a couple of questions
Where are you from originally?
I moved around a lot in my early childhood, but from 6th grade onward, I lived in Williamsburg, VA. I say that Williamsburg, VA is where I am from.
What is your research area and goals?
When I started graduate school, I initially was interested in using metagenomic sequencing workflows to identify novel viruses. This work predominantly used Oxford Nanopore Technologies, but we are now exploring using an Illumina NovaSeq to get more reads back from a sample and increasing our chances of finding something. However, from about February 2020 onwards, my work has focused on sequencing SARS-CoV-2 viruses and using phylogenetic tools, predominantly Nextstrain, to track SARS-CoV-2’s spread through space and time in Wisconsin. Now that variants of concern like B.1.1.7 have been introduced into Wisconsin, I have been working with public health [groups] to do targeted sequencing of outbreaks to inform how public health [groups] respond to them. We’re also interested in understanding what factors, whether biological or human behavior, contribute to the success of these variants of concern.
How did your participation in CIBM contribute to your success at UW-Madison?
The funding has been extremely helpful in allowing me to dive into this work. Additionally, the support of the program has been excellent. Whenever I go to seminars, I get to learn how others in very different fields tackle their issues. However, at the end of the day, many of the hurdles that we all face are similar, and I can learn from them and apply it to my own work.
Who is the single person that most influenced your trajectory to where you are today?
I think that my PI, David O’Connor, influenced my trajectory. As an undergraduate student at UW-Madison, I took his class, Path 210, which discusses HIV virology, but also how it affects different populations. I immediately knew that I wanted to do research that was similar to this. When it came time to apply to graduate school, he allowed me to work in his lab to gain experience, and then I eventually joined his lab as a graduate student. I don’t think that I would be where I am today had I not had the opportunity to take his class, or work in his lab.
What advice would you have for a young person interested in graduate school or research?
I was actually not a good undergraduate student. As a high schooler, things came easy to me so I never developed the skills to study appropriately. So when college came I didn’t really know how to study. That being said, I knew that I would be able to work harder than anyone else. So my advice would be to work hard, and never say that you can’t do something because you never want to close a door that could lead to a new opportunity.
After his defense, Gage will travel to Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow to join the lab of Pardis Sabeti, a world expert in viruses and pandemics, where he will continue studying SARS-CoV-2 and asking questions about its evolution and spread. He hopes to eventually return to his interest in methods development in the field of metagenomics.