Jonny Leano

Hometown: Maui, Hawaii

Undergraduate: University of Washington, Seattle

Growing up in Maui, Hawaii there weren’t many opportunities for Jonny Leano to get exposure to research or learn about science as a career.  That’s why when his high school teacher suggested it, he jumped at the chance to participate in University of Washington’s GenOM Project, an outreach program that aims to get underrepresented minority students interested in genomics and life sciences research.   Between junior and senior year of high school, Jonny traveled far away from home to spend the summer in Seattle.  Jonny worked in Gabriele Varani’s lab where he learned to use NMR to look at protein-nucleic acid interactions.  He says it was “a very exciting new experience.  Growing up in Hawaii I was isolated.  This was an opportunity to do something new, something I didn’t even know I was interested in.”  In fact, he liked it so much he decided to attend University of Washington for college and to continue working in the Varani lab.  To spend 4 years working in a lab as an undergraduate is a unique, in-depth experience that Jonny felt taught him some valuable lessons.  “I really learned a lot about what it means to be a scientist, how to problem solve.  That made the transition to graduate school easier for me.”

When he got to UNC in 2009, Jonny joined Kevin Slep’s lab and the Biochemistry & Biophysics PhD program.  His project focuses on the microtubule-associated protein CLASP and its role in regulating microtubule dynamics.  Microtubules play a central role in chromosome segregation during mitosis and also in cellular movement.  Disruption of microtubule function has serious implications for cellular function and for human health, especially cancer for which microtubule disrupting agents are a common form of treatment.  Cells without CLASP have defects in cell division and homozygous Drosophila mutants of CLASP die during embryonic development.  Jonny is using a combination of x-ray crystallography, biochemistry and cellular analysis to better understand how CLASP binds to microtubules.    In 2011 Jonny was awarded a prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to support this research.  The NSF GRF program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.

Jonny’s mentor, Kevin Slep agrees that he is an exceptional student.  “Jonny exhibits a fearless approach to science. He gets very enthusiastic about his project and often I see him testing new hypotheses he develops, simply driven by enthusiasm for his project. He also pushes his project extremely hard, putting in the off hours, and odd hours needed to advance it.”  This is especially true when you consider that even though he is still studying structural biology, Jonny’s project is a pretty significant departure from what he did in undergraduate.  “It’s a lot more molecular.  The learning curve was kind of steep – especially reading papers in a totally new field.  That was a big challenge.” He credits the paper based courses he took during first and second year with teaching him how to break down a paper and understand it regardless of the field.    He also credits his neighboring labs with teaching him some of the techniques he uses regularly, like immunofluorescence and western blotting.  “That’s something I really like about UNC – it’s so collaborative.”

Jonny also has a passion for teaching and has made the most of the outreach and mentoring opportunities available to UNC graduate students.  He has mentored two undergraduates in the lab.  He said the extremely patient and understanding approach of the first person that supervised him when he was a high school student in the GenOM program has really stuck with him.  “He made me feel like I was contributing even when I knew very little.  I try to be like that when I am working with a student.  One of my favorite tricks is to try and link what they are learning in their classes to what they are doing in lab.  It really helps them make a connection and understand everything better.”  Also, every year since he’s been at UNC he has taken part in North Carolina DNA Day, a program that matches high schools across North Carolina with a DNA Day Ambassador.  The ambassadors visit the school on DNA Day (April 21, the anniversary of the completion of the human genome sequence) to teach a lesson about DNA or molecular biology and then answer questions about what it is like to be a scientist.  For Jonny, reaching out to high school students is very important because it’s a way to give back. He says “many students are not gaining exposure to science, and therefore, do not view science as a viable or important career. To address this problem, I believe that more graduate students should be committed to relaying scientific experiences and knowledge to younger students so that they understand and appreciate the importance of science in their education and lives. These efforts may inspire students to join research programs and pursue a scientific career just as those efforts did for me.”