“I almost didn’t even come to the interview at Iowa,” Stephanie Silva-Del Toro laughs. Nearing the end of her two-year, post-baccalaureate program at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Ms. Silva-Del Toro felt like she had it figured out. “I had everything already set up” to continue working in the lab in which she had grown comfortable. But at the encouragement of an infectious disease resident working with her at Mayo, who also happened to be a graduate of Iowa’s MD/PhD program, she agreed to at least visit. “So I came ready to say no, but then I met Dr. (Lee-Ann) Allen, and there was a whole lab studying the cells I wanted to study.” Her plans to stay at Mayo were quickly replaced with plans to move and join the University of Iowa’s Inflammation Program.
In high school in her small hometown on the southwest tip of Puerto Rico, Ms. Silva-Del Toro was torn between studying art or science. She participated in a summer program shadowing a cardiovascular surgeon, even getting to participate in an open-heart surgery. (“I only handed the surgeon tools,” she quickly clarified.) That exposure, and the recognition that she had the curiosity (and stomach) for the work, helped her make the decision to pursue science.
During her undergraduate years, Ms. Silva-Del Toro became a member of the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) organization, an organization that funds minority students interested in post-graduate degrees in the sciences. As a MARC Scholar, Ms. Silva-Del Toro was invited to participate in two separate summer-long programs, one in Seattle and the other at Mayo. “When you go to these places, like at Iowa, the resources of these labs are enormous. I knew if I wanted to go into science, I couldn’t stay on the island.” To better prepare herself for PhD program applications, she applied and was accepted to a two-year, post-bac program at Mayo.
Ms. Silva-Del Toro worked on two different research projects at Mayo. The first was pure virology, the search for a shared behavior in protein trafficking between HIV and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). “My boss wanted me to design a trapping system so that if something got inside the nucleus, it wouldn’t be able to get back out. If the protein was in the nucleus, I was going to be able to detect it.” (Building that system, she points out, was a skill that continues to serve her well in her current work.) And, although her trapping system successfully blocked an export pathway in FIV, HIV turned out not to behave similarly. When the principal investigator (PI) for that project left the institution, Ms. Silva-Del Toro began work on a new project with bacteria and immunology. Patients were appearing resistant to an antimicrobial agent, which should not have been possible. “They gave me about 30 isolates and asked me to figure out why.” Her work resulted in a publication.
Despite this success and her affection for Mayo, as soon as she took that Iowa grad’s advice and came to visit Iowa, there was no choice left. “I love the environment here. How relaxed people are. I don’t need to make an appointment two weeks in advance to meet with my PI, and that makes all the difference.” And, as she says, she gets to work on what she is most interested in. Dr. Allen’s lab recently published an article in the Journal of Immunology showing that Helicobacter pylori is capable of co-opting immune system components and of nuclear hypersegmentation to prolong its life. “My thesis project will be to expand more on that,” Ms. Silva-Del Toro says, “why the nucleus acquires that shape. And we’re going to see if our neutrophils, infected with H. pylori, are able to modulate T-cell response.”
Those who work with Ms. Silva-Del Toro appreciate her deep commitment to and curiosity for research, as well as her enthusiasm and charisma. Dr. Allen, Professor of Internal Medicine and Microbiology, says, “Although she is only in her second year of graduate school, she has already made important discoveries and has shown that she can be a patient and effective mentor.” Rachel Brown, a summer intern in the Allen Lab, attests to that. “Stephanie’s creativity, integrity, and tenacity shine through her actions and generous heart. Being around her is a joy and consistently inspires you to be a better person.” Lab colleague Laura Whitmore is grateful for her optimism and her willingness “to learn new techniques and pitch in on projects, even volunteering for the inconvenient time points.”
This is the end of Ms. Silva-Del Toro’s second year as a Graduate Fellow in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program in Immunology. And, while that consumes the majority of her time, she still manages to bake and paint. She also enjoys caring for her dog, Jelly Bean, and her guinea pigs, Molly and Penny. She also thinks back fondly to a trip she and her boyfriend took to Alaska just before they moved to Iowa City. It can be hard to imagine a place farther away from Puerto Rico than Alaska, but there is nothing Ms. Silva-Del Toro seems unprepared to explore.