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Always Questioning

Ilaria Rebay ’83

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“Being a scientist is all about being curious,” says Ilaria Rebay ’83, a professor in the University of Chicago’s cancer research department. “I’m asking questions and doing experiments that have never been done before.”

Ilaria runs a research lab that studies fruit flies, analyzing how genes work together on a cellular level to coordinate the development of animal tissues and organs. “Before you can understand what goes wrong in disease, you need to understand the normal progression,” she explains. If cancer is “normal developmental programs running amok,” then “stem cells have the potential to give instructions to change that.” Remarkably, these mechanisms are the same in a fruit fly as they are in a human. Because of this evolutionary conservation, manipulating genes in the fruit fly is often the fastest path toward understanding human biology and health. Plus, there are no ethical constraints to working on insects—“I sleep quite well knowing I have slaughtered flies,” she admits.

Ilaria’s lab recently made an exciting discovery when a student noticed that several days after light-sensing photoreceptor neurons in the fly eye were born, they lost their characteristics and reverted to a different type of cell. This was extremely surprising, Ilaria says, because “once a neuron is born,” its fate is thought to be stable. The discovery led to two papers and a successful grant application. “It was a wonderful case of a talented scientist noticing the unexpected and following her instincts,” Ilaria said of her student. “Going out on a limb after a crazy idea is very fun and occasionally very rewarding—one in 20 times you may stumble onto something big.” The potential applications for this discovery are promising. Ilaria explains, “Our research will help us figure out how to instruct healthy retinal cells to repopulate cell types damaged by disease.”

In her lab, Ilaria mentors six to 10 post-doctorates, undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom she has taught in her genetics and developmental biology classes. One of her signature courses is a high-level introduction to biology for undergraduate students who have scored a 5 on AP science or math tests. Students work with primary materials instead of textbooks, and spend a lot of time in the lab.

When she was a Spence student, Ilaria says she also enjoyed math and science courses, and fondly remembers taking many classes with math teachers Yolanda Sherman and Rosemary Peeler. She also had an affinity for computer science and enjoyed working on independent projects with Christopher York. In college at Columbia University, she majored in math but “stuffed my schedule with biology, chemistry and physics,” and then decided “on a whim” to go straight to graduate school at Yale, studying biology. She completed post-doctorate studies at Berkeley, got a job as an assistant professor at MIT and then moved to the University of Chicago, where she has been for the past 10 years. “My brain is never bored,” she proclaims, “and that’s the best thing about my job.”

Read more Alumnae Stories in the Alumnae Spotlights section of our website.