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By: Sally Ann Flecker
Xochina El Hilali is ridiculous. I mean that in a good way. In fact, I'm stealing a page from her playbook. I've heard her use the word "ridiculous" to describe a favorite piece of music, a scientist she heard speak, and the amount of money she was awarded when selected as a United Negro College Fund/Merck Undergraduate Science Research Scholar.
Like many ridiculously smart and talented people, El Hilali stands on the shoulders of giants-starting with her maternal grandfather, Cambell Gonzalez, who recently died at the age of 92. El Hilali's family doesn't just remember him fondly. He remains an iconic figure. And for good reason. He was the first in everything, says El Hilali's mother, Anita Gonzalez. He bought a house for his mother when he was 16 with the money that he made by shining shoes, she says, starting to tick off a list. He was one of the first black commissioned officers in the World War II army; he was the first black engineer for RCA; he was a financial planner. He influenced everyone in the family to strive for excellence.
"He's the kind of person," says his granddaughter, "that if you'd get a 97 on a test, and you'd say, 'Grandpa, Grandpa, I'm so excited. I got an A.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about the other three points?' Then, you'd come back with a 99, and you'd say, 'Look. I got more points than last time.' He'd ask, 'Well, what about that one point?' So that's been an influence in all of our lives. We couldn't just excel. We had to be the best."
For El Hilali, her grandfather was the person she could always talk to about science. She remembers when she was only 12 years old having a not-very-typical preteen discussion with him. The topic was acceleration. "I refused to believe that when you were in a circle, it was accelerating the whole time, even if it was at a constant speed," she says. "He spent so much time describing how it was and why that made sense; and, physically, he had to prove it." The intellectual discussions continued as she grew up, with her grandfather often describing science theory that was more complex than what she was learning in school. "With him, it was like an open science discussion," she says, "which was nice." Two years ago, when she was visiting him, he was trying to solve the Schrîdinger equation from quantum mechanics, which describes how the quantum state of a physical system changes in time. "I did the simple version in class," says El Hilali. "But only because I had to. He did it in his free time."
Of course, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. El Hilali's mother remembers coming home after work one afternoon to find her daughter sitting in the living room with her stepfather and a whiteboard. El Hilali was about 13 at the time. "They're sitting there writing what looked like circles and lines, circles and lines, circles and lines," says Gonzalez. "And they'd obviously been at it for an hour at least. And she was completely fascinated. I said, 'What are you guys doing?' And he said, 'I'm teaching Xochina binary code.' There was a whiteboard lying on the floor with zeroes and ones, zeroes and ones. And she said, 'Mom, this is so cool!'"
This was around the same time when El Hilali became interested in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. "I came home one day and said, 'What are you doing, Xochie?' And she said, 'I'm making cranes. I'm going to make a thousand of them.' A thousand cranes? She said, 'They say that's what you should do. So she made 1,000 cranes. It took her months, and she decorated her entire room with cranes hanging from strings-a thousand cranes on her ceiling."
When El Hilali becomes engaged in something that really interests her, she spends hours and hours doing it, Gonzalez says. "During one vacation, she had a sketch pad. I asked her, 'What are you doing?' A lot of these stories start with 'Xochie, what are you doing?' She says, 'I'm doing hands.' And I look, and she's done 16 pages of hands as a study of how the hand looks, over and over. Not so much that she's seeking perfection, I guess. She's just trying to keep exploring the ways that it can work."
Which might explain why El Hilali still finds herself excited in a lab course whenever she does an experiment and the color of the solution changes-even when she expected it to happen. "I feel like I'm always surprised. Or intrigued," she says. "Even when I'm doing something that's kind of annoying to do-like running my thousandth sample on the HPLC [high pressure liquid chromatography]. I just like things that have reasons behind them. Like if there's an effect, I want to know the cause pretty much."
It's a rainy fall afternoon. El Hilali, looking college chic in skinny jeans and pink and brown marbleized rain boots, is in the RNA chemical biology lab of her professor, Subha Das, deep in the maze of hallways that thread through the Mellon Institute. There's a concept called click chemistry used for accelerating molecular synthesis for projects such as drug discovery and the development of new materials. Doctoral chemistry student Eduardo Paredes has developed a way to make click chemistry work with RNA, which is normally very fragile. Using this approach, he's discovered a way to do rapid ligations, or the joining of two, in this case, RNA strands. Now he's trying to figure out if the chemical click ligation produces RNA that can function in biological contexts and to extend its practical applications. This also happens to be the fall semester senior research project of El Hilali. "Originally, ligations are done by enzymes, and the conditions have to be optimized for each strand of RNA that you're using, and then for the enzymes," rattles off El Hilali.
Her goal for today is producing a DNA fragment through restriction-using an enzyme to cut the DNA plasmid she has, which is in the shape of a circle, and make it linear. It's just one of the steps in what will be the larger process of producing a long strand of RNA that has been reverse transcribed into its complementary DNA.(Continued …)