What do you do?
I direct a research program focused on studying etiology and progression of disease at the molecular level, and on development of therapeutics using natural products. My lab works on translational regulation in cancer, modulation of inflammatory processes, synergism of natural compounds and conventional therapeutics, characterization of potential compounds derived from natural products, and the effects of natural therapies on cancer stem cells. I also direct two collaborative translational research projects. One studies the effect of diet on the intestinal microbiome of healthy Puerto Rican women, and another on the characterization of the inflammatory breast cancer population in Puerto Rico. I also helped create a cancer patient advocacy group called Hispanics Increasing Diversity to Enhance Advocacy in Science (H-IDEAS). I am an active researcher committed to engaging and mentoring underrepresented minority students (high school, undergraduate, graduate and medical) in STEM. Specifically, I encourage a collaborative and learning environment and teach the multiple aspects of biomedical research from theory to practice.
Why did you choose this field?
I am Puerto Rican, my primary education and part of my graduate studies were completed in Puerto Rico and my doctoral education was obtained in the United States studying the effects of high mineral content diets on differential gene expression in swine. I chose this scientific path after not being accepted into veterinary school. It turns out that I really love research, and a as a result, three publications from my doctoral work were published in renowned scientific journals.
After obtaining my doctoral training in the U.S., I came back to Puerto Rico with a desire to serve our underrepresented population to become more competitive with mainland science and academia. During the past years I have received training in many disciplines and have expanded my research and writing skills. After my first postdoctoral fellowship experience in Molecular and Cellular Cognition, I was promoted to become the Associate Director of the Functional Genomics Research core at the University of Puerto Rico, where I developed, designed, and executed experiments for investigators using high throughput technologies such as oligonucleotide gene expression and comparative genomic hybridization microarrays, and qPCR. As a result of this experience, I published my fourth manuscript.
Then, I was recruited by Universidad Central del Caribe-School of Medicine as part of an institutional commitment to expand cancer research. My long-term goal is to foster cancer research in Hispanic women, a population where cancer is considered a health disparity. I feel that in breast cancer research, I have found my true niche in science. I work studying experimental therapeutics for Inflammatory (IBC) and other aggressive breast cancers, and on detecting biomarkers for metastasis on Hispanic women. As a result of my second postdoctoral tenure, we published two additional manuscripts.
I am also involved in community work by presenting seminars in local high schools to inform the younger generations of breast cancer biology, and also I am co-founder of H-IDEAS (Hispanics Increasing Diversity to Enhance Advocacy in Science. H-IDEAS is a group of breast cancer survivors who we train in science policy, grant review, GCP, ethics and clinical trials to increase the voice and participation of Hispanics in review panels and clinical trials.
I am very passionate about teaching research skills to the younger generation, as well as actively participating in the search of therapeutic alternatives for patients with IBC and aggressive cancers.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
There are alternative paths to achieve your scientific goals. Sometimes we are set on one career path and that does not work out. It is important to have alternate plans to be able flow and continue your path. Perseverance and perspective are very important characteristics we need to have as scientists, I wish someone told me this earlier in my career.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I stimulate the participation of minority students in cancer research at the K-12, undergraduate and doctoral and medical school level. During the last ten years, I have mentored more than 25 students, and professionals, and some have gone on to M.S., Ph.D., and M.D. degrees. I have advised six Ph.D. students. Of these one is a postdoctoral fellow at NYU and just received a fellowship for her studies, two are faculty in Academia, one is a Biochemist in the ARMY and the last two are a PhD candidate graduating next year and a first year PhD student. Their success in their career paths increases my will to keep mentoring and advising the future generation. Our research is also helping patients with intractable diseases, which serves as great motivation to continue working towards better quality of life, as well as better and effective therapies.
Best advice for next generation?
Have perseverance, even when things do not work out as expected. Also, be assertive and learn how to not obtain a NO for an answer.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy." - Marie Curie