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Valerie Tornini

Yale School of Medicine

This very story is antithetical to Valerie Tornini’s nature. Science loves crowning its darlings — young hotshots destined to single-handedly reshape their fields. But to Tornini, the idea of a rising star is a false archetype: the kind of science she does is thoroughly collaborative, and no individual researcher is more important than another. When asked about her successes as an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine, she demurs. 

Sure, she studies zebrafish to learn how genes build brains that help organisms (including humans) live and interact with the environment. And yeah, she’s trying to understand how the evolution of key cell types in humans might happen differently in neurodegenerative diseases or neurological disorders. Oh, and she figured out how to become a research scientist while being a first-generation college student without any connections in her field. 

And yet. “No, I don’t think I’m particularly gifted,” she said. “I was just really, really persistent.” Tornini used what she and her friends call the spider web technique: apply to everything, Google everything, look everywhere for connections and mentors, and eventually, you’ll catch something. 

She just landed a big one. Next year, Tornini will start her own lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she said she’ll continue the search for “missing genes that we haven’t found or really explored,” and that might be important in neurological disorders and diseases. And she’ll have a chance to create her dream science environment at a public-serving institution. “That’s one of the best parts of the job, right? You do get to do it your own way,” she said.

— Isabella Cueto