News Room

Interview with Ariel Z. Cyrus

By Josh Denlinger, Publications Intern

Ariel Cyrus

We sat down with Ariel Cyrus, an alumnus of COAS’s Department of Biology to talk about his experiences at IPFW. Cyrus graduated with an associate’s degree in chemistry and bachelor’s in biology in December 2011 and a master’s degree in biology in 2013. He is currently at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is working on a Ph.D. in genetics. Cyrus is a non-traditional student who has faced several challenges, but he has overcome them all in order to achieve his goals. His IPFW career included many extracurricular academic accomplishments, such as travelling to Costa Rica to study two species of snails and, as a graduate student, publishing four academic papers—as first author on three.

Tell us your story. Who are you? How did you decide to come to IPFW and major in biology?

After I graduated from high school in El Paso, Texas, I wanted to go to college, but I couldn’t support myself and be a student. Instead I sporadically took classes while teaching English as a second language in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Eventually, I moved to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where I was a restaurant general manager until I was called to active duty in the US Army.

I was injured while in the Army and spent some time recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. When I was released from active duty, I was still not well enough to live on my own, so I temporarily stayed with my parents in Fort Wayne. After my recovery, and because I am a disabled veteran, the Department of Veteran Affairs Chapter 31 program helped me finally realize my goal of going to school full time. In 2011, I graduated [from IPFW] with distinction with both an associate degree in chemistry and a bachelor’s degree in biology. I continued, with the VA’s support, and finished my master’s degree in 2013. After that I taught for Brown Mackie College and for IPFW as a visiting lecturer until fall 2014, when I entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Describe some experiences at IPFW that stood out for you.

I liked the range of extracurricular opportunities offered at IPFW. Perhaps the most memorable was being an AmbassaDON during the 2009–10 year. This program taught me a variety of skills such as leadership and networking which have proven invaluable to me as a grad student.

I also enjoyed taking part in IPFW’s tutoring program as a supplemental instructor for the Center for Academic Support and Achievement. In addition to helping many fellow students get through General Chemistry 115, tutoring helped strengthen my own chemistry background.

Were you involved in research?

Yes. Dr. Winfried Peters (biology) initially offered me a place on a project studying the marine gastropod Olivella semistriata (a Central American snail) because he had seen my artwork in a lab he taught in. By the time I went to Costa Rica for the first time though, I was involved in actual research, not just the illustrative work.

O. semistriata is a species of small snail that is found along the beaches of the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to at least Panama. This species of snail is quite different from local snails because it has to adapt to a hostile environment (for snails), which is made more difficult because they are blind. We also studied the predator species Agaronia propatula, which is another species of snail. A. propatula differs from O. semistriata because it is a carnivorous species that strikes its prey quickly.

While obtaining data about O. semistriata during my first visit to Costa Rica, I made some observations about A. propatula. I observed that the species was able to hunt based on vibrations alone [this clip shows it hunting a pencil] and that it ate more than just O. semistriata, sometimes even resorting to cannibalism. Those observations led to a first-author paper and ultimately became the focus of my master’s thesis.

What are your current projects?

I started working on my Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in fall 2014. My interest is in neurogenetics, and I am currently working on modeling human neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s using transgenic zebrafish.

To generate mutant lines of fish to study, I am using a new technique known as the CRISPR/Cas9 system to generate target mutations. With the CRISPR/Cas9 system, we are able to target a specific gene or genes and then use CRISPR to disrupt them. This system was developed from a natural immune system found in many bacteria. This technique is only a few years old but already has become the dominant gene editing technique for many geneticists, and I am grateful for the opportunity to use it in my research.

How has IPFW (or the biology department specifically) helped you achieve your goals?

I owe a large part of my success to the strong foundation given to me by IPFW’s biology department. All the professors were very knowledgeable and eager to share their knowledge. This did not change as I made the transition from undergraduate to graduate student to lecturer. I especially owe a great deal to Dr. Peters, who offered me a golden opportunity to do real research. Ultimately, my acceptance into UW-Madison’s very competitive genetics program could be attributed to the research I did while at IPFW.

I also have to mention the chemistry department. When I first started my bachelor’s degree in biology, the program also granted an associate degree in chemistry. I have come to appreciate that experience. I feel it has given me an advantage over other graduate students, most of whom do not have as strong a chemistry background.

What are your future plans?

After obtaining my Ph.D., I intend to continue research as a postdoc, then eventually become a principle investigator at a university. My focus is on neurodegenerative disorders and what can be done to help provide treatment or at least improve the quality of life for people stricken with these illnesses.