Ph.D. student takes gut-wrenching research to the stage

Natalie Pedicino to represent UC Santa Cruz at Grad Slam Championship on May 3

Watch Natalie Pedicino's Grad Slam talk at the Santa Cruz Kuumbwa Jazz Center on March 2, 2024.
Headshot of Natalie Pedicino
Pedicino is a Ph.D. student in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology.

Our mascot may be sluggish, but UC Santa Cruz was the quickest among our sister UC campuses to present our contestant for this year’s systemwide Grad Slam championship. Natalie Pedicino, a Ph.D. student in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, will bolt up to San Francisco on May 3 to distill her past three years of research into a three-minute lightning talk that will test her stage presence and science-communication skills.

She’s already warmed up, after placing first in the qualifying Grad Slam at UC Santa Cruz on March 2. At that event, Pedicino competed against fast-talking grad students who explained research ranging from connecting to the internet with light, and snakes that use bubbles to breathe underwater, to how Chinese herbal tea challenged colonialism in Malaysia.

Pedicino’s wheelhouse? How astrovirus, one of the many tiny villains behind diarrhea, is so successful at skirting our gut’s cellular safeguards and multiplying to the levels that make us ill. A talk about such a common ailment might seem mundane to those of us who live where clean water is abundant. But Pedicino points out that diarrhea remains the second leading cause of infant deaths worldwide.

Hence the title of her talk, “From Mucus Factory to Virus Factory: A Novel Gut Virus’ Global Impact on Children,” which she will give once again at the corporate headquarters of LinkedIn, the setting for this year’s UC Grad Slam championship. The event will be from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, May 3, and live-streamed for those who seek to watch online.

Originally from the California North Coast town of Arcata, Pedicino works in the lab of assistant professor Valerie Cortez, in the Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology Department. Beyond Cortez being her advisor, Pedicino says the professor is the most supportive and inspiring person she’s met on campus.

“Val recognizes the multifaceted nature of research and life, and I strive to embody the conscious mentorship practices she employs with all students in her lab,” Pedicino said. “She is supportive of a diverse group of individuals, a fierce advocate for her students and our community, and an inspirational scientist.”

Knowing she has a way with words, we sat down with Pedicino to walk through her roots, research, and why she thinks UC Santa Cruz is – as she told Grad Slam organizers – an “incredible science learning environment.”

If you're able to explain your research in three minutes, can you give us your origin story in three or four sentences?

“I’m the oldest of three kids, and my parents are teachers. I went to college at Scripps, an all-women’s school near L.A., where I got involved with research and got inspired to pursue graduate school. As the pandemic started, I pursued my master’s degree through Cal Poly Humboldt, doing my research at the Stanford School of Medicine through the CIRM (California Institute of Regenerative Medicine) Bridges Scholars program, and was able to conduct brain cancer research that allowed me to join the Ph.D. program at UC Santa Cruz.

“Outside of research, I love being involved with the local community, walking dogs, rock climbing and teaching kids how to climb, and exploring the great outdoors.”

Why do you feel that UC Santa Cruz is so well suited for learning science?

“In my time here, I have found that it offers an incredible learning environment that is supportive and collaborative. I have loved getting involved with community-building within our department to promote graduate students. I have also found great opportunities through our collaborative networks to better my teaching skills, learn a diverse skill set of scientific techniques, and create collaborations with other labs. Our community is supportive by nature and promotes communication and transparency.

A two-parter: Can you sum up your research for us, and what impact that discoveries that you hope to make in this line of research might have on people's lives?

“To explain my work, I want to briefly explain the system we study. Our virus of interest, astrovirus, infects 90% of people by the age of 5 and causes diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of infant mortality worldwide. It is relatively understudied because of minimal diagnostic tests available, and its prevalence only being recognized in recent years.

“My advisor discovered that this virus targets a specific region of the small intestine, which is made up of a one-cell-thick layer that protects your body from everything you put into it every day. There is a small subset of cells in that layer that make a super important protective layer of mucus that sits on top of that one-cell layer and she found that astrovirus selectively targets and infects the cells that make that mucus layer. 

“As part of my thesis work, I have built on this research and found that astrovirus seems to be targeting these cells and hijacking them in order to sneak out of the gut undetected and avoid having to explode cells and alert the immune system. This would present an entirely novel form of viral release, not only for gut viruses, but in general. This work has broader implications for potential bioengineering of therapeutics to help individuals who have diseases due to dysregulated intestinal mucus secretion.”

Beyond impact or intellectual curiosity, were there any personal reasons why you chose this line of research?

“This work is particularly important to me for two reasons: In the post-pandemic world, it has been a great opportunity to learn more about virology and immunology, especially about designing a vaccine and the testing required. I think my training as a virologist has been able to build on my passion for science communication in the public health sector.

“Additionally, gut research is of particular personal importance to me because my mom was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune gut disorder. While symptoms of this are manageable, there are so many other forms of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) that affect so many people around the world, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of our understanding of these.”

What's next for you, and ultimately, what are your career aspirations?

“I’m currently finishing up my third year, so will probably obtain my Ph.D. in the next year or two. Teaching and science communication have always been my passion, so I am hoping to pursue a career in teaching at the community-college level—or perhaps a position in science outreach or science journalism. 

“Ultimately, I want to do something where I can connect with people, inspire others to pursue science, and promote better science literacy and critical thinking.”

On May 3, several watch parties will be hosted on campus: in the Graduate Student Commons fireside lounge, in the Kerr Hall lobby, and in the Biomedical Sciences Building, Room 300. Audience members at LinkedIn and on the livestream will have the opportunity to vote for the People’s Choice Award once the presentations conclude.