Dr. Dana García is a Leader on the Path to Discovery
When you walk into the office of Texas State biology professor Dr. Dana García, you expect to see scientific illustrations on the walls. And you do, but not all of them are the kind you see in biology textbooks. At least one of them is the colorful creation of García’s daughter, one of her five children.
The artwork, obviously hung with pride by a loving mother—and the baby-changing pad on the counter—hint of García’s dedication to her family. But when you look closer at the drawing’s colored ovals and tail of streamers, you notice that the piece looks a lot like the cells that García studies in pursuit of another love—scientific research.
Retinal Research In 2006, it was this love for research and discovery that earned García, who is the associate dean of research for the College of Science at Texas State, one of only 14 grants given nationwide by Hope for Vision. The organization’s goal is to increase awareness of degenerative retinal diseases such as night blindness and other blinding diseases.
One of Hope for Vision’s main goals is to provide funding for research that examines the underlying causes of inherited eye diseases. The organization awarded García the grant because her research has the potential to lead to the development of drugs that could fight such afflictions.
Indiana University professor Dr. Nancy Mangini, a member of Hope for Vision’s Board of Visionary Scientists, nominated García for the grant. Mangini was familiar with García’s work because of a common research interest.
“Dr. García shared with me information about a new line of research she was pursuing that concerned a novel mechanism or signal that retinal pigment epithelium uses to regulate retinal function,” Mangini says. “The idea was novel.”
García wowed Mangini with her preliminary data and method of research. García uses bluegill fish. Through their tiny eyes, she hopes to see how the cells in different parts of the retina communicate so that they know when it’s light or dark outside.
“Potential findings from this new line of research have direct relevance to understanding mechanisms underlying retinitis pigmentosa, a group of blinding disorders,” Mangini says.
While findings from García’s research, also funded by a National Science Foundation grant, could offer new directions for developing drugs that could prevent the degeneration of cells in the eye specialized for night vision, García says the most immediate, practical impact of her research is the training it provides her students.
One-on-One Teaching García teaches two undergraduate courses—vertebrate physiology and neurobiology—and a variety of graduate courses. She is known for including students at both levels in her research. “Dr. García has been very successful in involving undergraduate students in her work and includes them as co-authors on publications,” Mangini says.
Encouraging discovery is one of García’s favorite teaching tools. “What I like most about my job is working with students to help them become scientists,” García says. “I like being a part of, and leading, the discovery process.”
Katie Saul, who was a student of García’s as an undergraduate and is now one of her graduate students, has benefited from her professor’s focus on research. “Dr. García provides students with the flexibility of designing their own research projects and allowing them to experience being ‘real’ scientists,” she says. “The research I have done for Dr. García has been invaluable to my education. It has broadened my laboratory skills, deepened my understanding of what it means to be a scientist, given me confidence in myself and my abilities, and has also shown me that this is what I want to do ‘when I grow up.’”
Saul first met García when she took vertebrate physiology as a junior. “She encouraged the students to stop by her office for chats, so I did,” Saul says. “Dr. García's greatest strength as a teacher is her amazing ability to really listen to and hear her students. She always takes the time to answer questions thoughtfully.”
For García, the teacher-student relationship is indeed important. “I think I do my best teaching one on one,” she says. “I really enjoy interacting with students.”
Another student who has benefited from her interaction with García is graduate student Patty Collier. After working as a physical therapist for 17 years, Collier returned to school to earn her master’s degree in biology. If it hadn’t been for García, she might not have stayed in the program.
“When I signed up for Dr. García's cell biology graduate seminar course, I almost dropped it after one class,” she says. “I did my undergraduate work almost 20 years ago, and I didn't think I could keep up with my fellow grad students. Dr. García encouraged me to stay in the class. She offered to help me as much as I needed to succeed and followed through by meeting with me several times over the course of the semester to offer me resources and bring me up to speed in the subject.”
García’s support helped Collier gain confidence to seek academic challenges and learning opportunities. “She tries to encourage the next generation of researchers, even when she's teaching undergraduate students,” she says. “I think that's unique and inspirational.”
The proof of García’s inspiration of her students is in the results. Many of them pursue doctoral degrees and become scientists themselves. As for there being any future scientists among Garcia’s own children, only time will tell. “At last reckoning, my kids wanted to be a humanitarian aid worker, an artist, a massage therapist and a priest,” García says. “I don’t have any particular career aspirations for them. I just want them to be holy and happy people.”
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