Alumnus Receives Hanna Gray Fellowship

by | Mar 11, 2021 | Alumni Achievers, Health

Guillaume Urtecho ’14 burst into tears of joy as he received life-changing news last month: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute had just announced the group of 21 researchers awarded the prestigious Hanna Gray fellowship, and Urtecho was among the recipients for his work studying gut microbes in the human body.

The award offers up to $1.4 million in funding over the course of eight years. The community of fellows is composed of young researchers belonging to racial, gender, and other underrepresented groups in the life sciences field.

“To me, personally, it’s huge. This program is all about giving people that have potential the tools and resources they need to enter that next level and be the new face of the next generation of professors and scientists,” said Urtecho, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.

Urtecho has consistently sought supportive communities such as this one all throughout his academic career. “I think it’s so important to be amongst peers that have shared experiences because they can help you make sense of your own experiences from a similar, but still different perspective,” said Urtecho.

As a genetics major at UC Davis, he joined the Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program, a program that connects undergraduates who are underrepresented in science. As he completed his doctorate at UCLA, he joined similar programs: Association for Multi-Ethnic Bioscientists’ Advancement, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and Maximizing Access to Research Careers.

He credits his education and research experience at UC Davis with giving him the tools to succeed in genetics. “When I went into grad school, I felt really confident in my knowledge of genetics and that really propelled my research and helped me do better in classes there. Now, I still do genetics every day and feel very comfortable with it, given the training I had at UC Davis,” said Urtecho.

His current interest in complex populations, such as the thousands of bacteria species in the intestines, can be traced to an evolutionary ecology course he took as an undergraduate. Now, he’s investigating the genetic variations of enzymes that beneficial bacteria use to make the gut more habitable.

Simply put, Urtecho said, the gut is a nasty place to live for bacteria. Acids are breaking down food, many different resources enter and change the environment constantly, and “good” bacteria regularly fight for survival. When we take probiotics for their various health benefits, such as digestion improvement or inflammation prevention, we aim to boost these “good” bacteria in our system. Currently, bacteria introduced by probiotics typically die within 24 hours, before they can make long-lasting improvements to our health.

Through his research, Urtecho hopes to understand the genes that allow these helpful bacteria to survive in the intestines longer. Once the genes involved are better understood, his research could ultimately help to develop superior probiotic treatments that allow for longer bacteria vitalization in the gut. Thanks to funding from the fellowship, Urtecho said he has more freedom to explore the subject.

“I feel a lot better about doing what is going to be the best experiment regardless of cost,” said Urtecho. “Being able to do the best, highest level of science that I can imagine is nice. I am able to throw everything I have at these questions.”