Ph.D. Candidate Alfredo Vidal Ceballos Creates Microscopic Images to Increase Awareness of Diseases Like Alzheimer’s

Alfredo Vidal Ceballos

Alfredo Vidal Ceballos, a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, works in Professor Shana Elbaum-Garfinkle’s lab at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, where he researches the role that material properties, such as viscosity and surface tension, play in regulating biomolecular liquids in the brain.

Vidal Ceballos is also a Creative GC: Art Science Connect Research Fellow. The fellowship supports his project to create compelling microscopic images that increase understanding of what a disease like Alzheimer’s actually does to the brain. He recently spoke to The Graduate Center about his work and his academic career at CUNY, which began in 2012 when he moved from Mexico to enroll at Hunter College.

The Graduate Center: What are you currently working on in the Elbaum-Garfinkle lab?

Vidal Ceballos: I work with a protein called FMRP that’s involved in Fragile X syndrome. Fragile X syndrome is a genetic disorder that can lead to learning disabilities and its considered part of the autism spectrum. The lack of this protein in the brain results in poor neuronal development, leading to the disease. I’m trying to understand the relationship between this protein and its RNA binding partners.

The protein can phase separate to create liquid compartments that are part of a greater neuronal granule, which transports RNA in the neuron. I’m focusing on how different RNA molecules influence the material properties of these liquids.

GC: How are you using art to communicate your research?

Vidal Ceballos: First, I thought of these liquids as paint. They both behave as materials with distinct physical properties, like viscosity or surface tension. These properties can be modified depending on what molecules are in their environment, and this could be a way of manipulating these liquids. I was thinking of comparing my slide to a canvas and by modifying the environment, we could obtain a desired image under the microscope, like an artist would do with a paintbrush.

My lab studies the relationship between protein liquid compartments and neuronal diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The process of protein phase separation into liquid compartments is a recently discovered characteristic that has changed how we think about and study these diseases. In our images we show both this novel feature of proteins and depict a new perspective on how to study the disease. I want to bring awareness to these recently discovered concepts in our field as well as neurodegenerative diseases.

Red and green bubbles on a black background

Red droplets: Microscopy image of labelled FMRP C-terminal domain with RNA
Green droplets: Microscopy image of labelled Laf-1 RGG domain


GC: What do you see as the connections between art and science? And why are these connections important — within research, society, culture, or in any other way?

Vidal Ceballos: Personally, I think art and science are both highly creative processes. You use creativity to tackle a particular research question in science, for example. And just as in science, art requires training, technique, and practice to obtain a desired outcome, whether it’s painting, dance, or theater. 

Additionally, I believe art and science both have the capacity to create emotions and inspire people to think deeply about a subject. I feel we have been conditioned to see these subjects as polar opposites, when they are deeply connected. I think art can help scientists better engage the public.

GC: How did your experience as a MARC scholar at Hunter help prepare you for graduate school?

Vidal Ceballos: It was very helpful. Otherwise, I feel like I wouldn’t have had the tools to even apply to grad school. My mentors gave me a lot of insight and support, in addition to training in Dr. Akira Kawamura’s lab in the Chemistry Department. This experience convinced me that a career in research was for me. The program made it possible for me to attend conferences focused to minorities in research, where I was able to present my work. They also helped me organize my grad school applications. It’s was a supportive environment where my fellow peers and I helped each other during the difficulties of college.

I’m the first in my family to pursue graduate education. I moved to New York to start college. I grew up in Mexico, in the town of Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora. After five years at Hunter — I took an extra year because I changed my major — I graduated and started at The Graduate Center, and at the ASRC in 2018.

GC: Has working at the ASRC helped you with your research?

Vidal Ceballos: I enjoy working at the ASRC because there’s a lot of collaboration between floors. I can ask for feedback and help from people from outside of my field of research, and I get different perspectives into my project. To investigate some of the physical properties of my droplets, for example, I can use the facilities in the nanoscience floor. I also can discuss my ideas with professors and facility directors at science cafés and events (in person or virtual). It’s very nurturing. I’ve learned exponentially since I’ve joined here.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: MAR 4, 2021

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