The dream of Sierra Bruno coming out of rural Willsboro Central School in upstate New York was to become a doctor. She took that postsecondary aspiration across Lake Champlain to the University of Vermont, where she soon realized it wasn’t going to happen.

It wasn’t for lack of ability. The CFES Scholar was thriving as a biology major in preparation for medical school when she fell in love with another aspect of science: laboratory research. Her undergraduate advisor suggested she join a research lab, which she did under the guidance of Dr. Alicia Ebert, studying eye field migration and development using zebrafish as a model organism.

“I fell absolutely in love with scientific research and really cultivated a desire to learn more about disease progression and enhance knowledge to help discover better treatment avenues,” says Bruno, who goes by Sierra White after marrying a Willsboro classmate.

Around the same time, White wrote a paper on Cystic Fibrosis and became fascinated by lung disease, which had seriously impacted some of her own family members. “It was then that I realized I wanted to further develop a career in scientific research with an emphasis on lung disease development, progression, and treatment,” she says.

White decided to pursue her passion by applying to the Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences (CMB) Ph.D. program at UVM. She was not accepted. She turned to her mentor Dr. Ebert for advice. “She told me I absolutely should not give up and helped me to get a job to advance my experience and try get in the second time around,” says White.

After a year working for a science equipment development company in nearby St. Albans, White re-applied. This time she was not denied. “The most valuable lesson I have learned from my mentors is that hard work, desire, and most importantly perseverance, are keys to achieving your goals, especially in the sciences.”

White continued to use these Essential Skills when she joined the lab of Dr. Vikas Anathy to study allergic asthma, pulmonary fibrosis, and influenza infection. Her dissertation focuses on mechanisms behind pathogenesis of allergic asthma with the goal of finding new targets for better treatment. She defends her thesis in 2021.

“Vikas taught me that in the sciences we must expect failures, but to not ever accept that or give up,” says White, who hunts and fishes to cope with the stress of a doctoral program. “He has stuck with me through a really tough thesis project and helped mold me into a promising scientist.”

White plans to mentor students from Willsboro as a member of the CFES Alumni Network.
“My advice is to not to beat yourself up if you aren’t 100 percent sure what you want to do with your life coming out of high school,” she says. “Choose a major that interests you, but also take classes in other areas to get a feel for what might peak your interest. You can always change your mind, and still develop a successful career.”