CHEYENNE – After he finished high school, Jelard Aquino had a decision to make.

He was living in Maryland with his parents but wasn’t sure where to go after graduation. He had two sisters living in Wyoming, one who was stationed here as a member of the Air Force who wanted him to join the military alongside her, and another who eagerly wanted him to continue his education.

“I had to make a very big decision with my life,” he said.

He did ROTC in high school and visited with an Army recruiter, but he said he got cold feet and ultimately decided to pursue a degree in physiology, first at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne and then at the University of Wyoming.

Now a senior at UW, Aquino will be heading to Panama in a few short weeks as part of a paid three-month internship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Aquino was born in the Philippines and moved to Maryland with his parents when he was 5 years old. In the Philippines, his family struggled to scrape by. He said he shared a room with his six siblings, and though his parents worked constantly, they rarely had enough money to make ends meet. When the family moved to the U.S., his parents, who did not have college educations, worked minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants or department stores.

He said they wanted more for their children, which is why he has worked so hard in his education.

“I’m very proud to be their son,” he said.

Through his college career, Aquino has developed a passion for scientific research. He got his first taste while still in high school, where he worked with Howard University researchers to create a hypothetical drug that could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease. It was the first time he got to do the hands-on scientific experimentation he has grown so fond of.

“It’s the process of forming a question and being hands on,” he said. “I’m a hands-on learner; the more I deal with stuff, the more I learn.”

His research experience is vast and varied. He has used DNA sequencing technology to analyze abnormalities in zebrafish. He has studied rust fungus in forestry populations, which he said is growing more prevalent as the climate shifts. That research sought a way to stop the rust fungus from killing the plants it formed on by analyzing the fungus’ DNA.

In Panama, Aquino will use advanced DNA sequencing technology to study the variances in tropical butterflies. Butterflies have different wing patterns that help them survive and thrive in particular circumstances. By analyzing their DNA, Aquino hopes to see how these different wing patterns change the butterflies’ DNA.

Aquino is a McNair scholar and an ENBRE research fellow. When he graduates from UW, he hopes to continue his education and pursue a doctorate in bioinformatics, which uses computer programs to analyze DNA and look for causes of disease or other mutations.

He said he believes this internship with the Smithsonian will open doors for his future. He graduates in May and hopes to attend either the Scripps Research Institute or the University of Chicago for graduate school.

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