Trainee Spotlight: Stephen Vella

Stephen Vella is a Ph.D. trainee in Silvia Moreno‘s laboratory. He is originally from Indiana where he received his B.S. in microbiology at Indiana University. In his first year at UGA, he was awarded an Excellence in Graduate Recruitment Award and a Provost’s Scholars of Excellence Award Fellowship. He has also been awarded an Outstanding Poster Presentation at the Molecular Parasitology Meeting in 2016. And in 2017, he was awarded a T32 fellowship from CTEGD.

Why did you choose UGA?

Originally UGA was recommended to me by my old boss. My old PI had said that UGA has a long-standing reputation for being a good school to study for a Ph.D. I interviewed here in February of 2014 and was greeted very warmly and hospitably.  Additionally, I wanted to experience how life was like living in a different part of the United States, so I chose UGA.

What is your project/research focus and why did you choose this research focus?

Ca2+ is a universal signaling molecule across all of life, yet little is known about how this important molecule regulates lytic cycle progression of the intracellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii. This question is the primary focus of our lab. In particular, my project focuses on how Ca2+ signaling regulates motility of the parasite. Motility is essential for egress from a host cell, the need to traverse biological barriers to find new host cells and invasion into a novel host. I am studying two aspects of this process: the role of host cell Ca2+ involved in parasite egress and how Ca2+ oscillations are decoded into different types of parasite motility.

What are your career goals?

I am still in the process of trying to determine the best career path for me! I strongly believe that I will do a postdoc, but I am leaning towards doing more industry or non-profit related research. Who knows, what the future will bring for me.

What do you hope to do for your capstone experience? 

I would like to do some more clinical related research in the field. I think it is easy to get tunnel vision into life within a lab. We forget that these are parasites that we are studying and affect millions of people’s lives. We can see a picture or two in a seminar, but that is not the same as seeing the consequences of the disease firsthand. I think that experience would aid me in whatever future endeavors in my life.

What is your favorite thing about UGA and/or Athens?

I have lived in a college town for quite some time now, and Athens has a sense of familiarity to it. It has the very youthful and diverse vibe that you can only experience in a college town. For the center, I really feel like we are a family. You hear stories of other research centers that are caught up in competition between each other and don’t want to work together. I don’t feel that here. We are all working together to better ourselves collectively.

And advice for a student interested in this field?

Don’t be afraid to try something new and make friends with your neighbors! When you have a problem or might need a resource from another lab it is best to be on good terms with them. Also, whatever background you come will only aid you as you develop in the field. Too often people downplay their previous background experience as a hindrance to being successful in parasitology. Whatever background you come from will only benefit you, as a diverse influx of ideas is fundamental for science.