“I am originally from Colombia. I did my BS and MS in microbiology at Los Andes University in Bogotá. I decided to come to the U.S. to gain additional research experience, so I went to Dartmouth College to work as a research associate at the medical school. I joined MIT in 2011 and became part of the Jacquin Niles Laboratory at the Department of Biological Engineering to complete my PhD in microbiology. My thesis work focused on the development of genome-engineering and functional gene regulation tools to study the parasite that causes the most severe form of human malaria. This parasite is extremely challenging to manipulate, and that is the reason why there aren’t effective drugs and vaccines for malaria. I developed CRISPR-based genome editing technologies to identify essential genes in this organism. These paved the way for researchers in the malaria field to perform biological experiments and tackle deeper questions about the biology of the disease.
Starting a family while still finishing my PhD was definitely challenging, but at the same time inspirational. My husband and I always wanted to have kids, but we are both scientists and were unsure about the best time to do it. About a week after my final thesis committee meeting, I found out I was pregnant. I was very scared at the beginning because of the stressful time ahead; I still had to finish experiments, write a thesis, and have a public defense. I had a difficult first trimester. But as I started to process the idea of having a baby, I began to understand the true meaning of life and how my priorities were about to change. Being pregnant while finishing my thesis helped me to have a better perspective on life: My PhD thesis was not my entire world anymore; I was responsible for another human being, and that came with many responsibilities. I had to be productive, accomplish all my goals, and also take care of myself. With all the challenges ahead I needed to find a good balance, and for that, I had the incredible support of my husband. We worked as a team to ensure I had a healthy pregnancy.
I defended my thesis when I was six months pregnant. Everything went really well, and after the defense I kept doing experiments right until the end, a day before I went into labor. My little girl was my principal inspiration, she gave me the strength I needed. Clara was born Feb. 14 — a Valentine’s baby! — and she is very happy and healthy. While still in my womb, Clara was with me while I did experiments and wrote and defended the thesis. Jokingly, my husband and I said that she should also earn a degree. Visualizing her wearing a baby regalia and being with me during the graduation ceremonies was an image that motivated me to continue. It soon became my dream to walk with her during Commencement, both of us wearing regalia. I initially asked at the MIT COOP if they had graduation gowns for babies, but they didn’t. So I mentioned the idea to my mother-in-law, and she made it possible! Back at home in Colombia, she talked to her tailor to see if she could make MIT regalia for Clara. We sent her a picture, and the tailor created a handmade replica of the regalia very similar to the adult version. My mother-in-law sent the outfit with my dad and my brother, who came from Colombia to attend Commencement, which meant the world to me.
The hooding ceremony and Commencement were very memorable. It felt like a dream come true and at the same time gave me some closure. In addition to my brother and dad, my husband — who also graduated with a PhD in microbiology from MIT, three years ago — was present with our daughter. Attending both ceremonies was also a way to honor my mom’s wishes. She passed away unexpectedly two years ago at the age of 59, and she always had the dream of seeing me on stage receiving my diploma. She also dreamed of being a grandmother, and I know she was present in spirit during the ceremony, watching me graduate. I am very grateful to the MIT Microbiology Graduate Program and the entire MIT community. This place has been very supportive and welcoming, and I cannot think of a better place to have started a family.”
—Alejandra Falla PhD ’18, postdoc in the Department of Biological Engineering
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