Tell us about your research project and why it is important to you.
I am doing my Ph.D. in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. In our laboratory, we focus on investigating intestinal diseases that mainly affect minors in developing countries. We are particularly focused on studying Cryptosporidiosis, which is an infection caused by the Cryptosporidium parasite, which is acquired by consuming contaminated water and/or food. This disease causes life-threatening chronic diarrhea and is responsible for approximately 10% of diarrheal deaths worldwide. The problem with Cryptosporidiosis is that, currently, there is no 100% effective medicine to cure it, so I am interested in identifying new natural compounds that can be used to treat infected people. Specifically, I study those compounds that regulate the inflammatory response of the immune system. This project motivates me because the results could contribute to the development of a more accessible and effective treatment, which would have a beneficial impact in countries like Mexico.
Have you presented or published your research anywhere? Tell us about the experience.
I am currently in the experimental stage of my project; however, we have generated preliminary results that have allowed us to submit an article that is under review. I presented these results at the McLaughlin Colloquium on Infection and Immunity, an event sponsored by UTMB in the summer of 2021. This experience made me nervous because it was the first time I had to do a formal presentation in a language other than Spanish. My advisor, however, was very supportive and I practiced my presentation with him many times. I also practiced it with my friends from Mexico. Everything worked out in the end; it was just a matter of trusting my abilities to speak in another language and preparing myself well in advance.
What would you say is something interesting about your area of study that most people do not know?
Most people think that diarrheal illnesses are caused only by viral or bacterial infections; however, they do not know that parasites such as Cryptosporidium can also cause this type of diseases. These parasites are resistant to antibiotics, so it is necessary to develop specific drugs to combat them.
Tell us about your academic or professional collaborations with Mexico.
Currently, our laboratory is collaborating with researchers from the Department of Molecular Biology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. My contribution to this project was the computational design of molecules that inhibit the expression of essential genes within intestinal parasites. This collaboration is very important for the development of new drugs focused on infectious diseases.
What drew you to Texas and UTMB?
The first time I traveled to the United States was in the summer of 2017. I went to The University of Texas at San Antonio to do my undergraduate professional internship. I really liked the atmosphere of the university and Texas. Because it was Mexican territory at some point, and because it is so close to the border, I never felt out of place. These feelings made me want to return to Texas, but with the intention of finding another institution that was closer to my interests. I decided on The University of Texas Medical Branch, since it specializes in medical research. It also has facilities that cover the four levels of biosafety that exist, so you always have available the necessary tools to work on your project.
What have been some good things you did not expect about Texas or UTMB?
When I moved to the United States, I was very afraid of confronting instances of racism for being Latina. However, I have never been discriminated against inside or outside the university. I have made friends with people from Mexico, the United States, and from other countries. I was surprised by how friendly the people in Galveston are. I had the impression that Americans are very dry people, but the people of Galveston are quite the opposite.
What have been the biggest challenges of studying at UTMB and living in the United States?
Taking classes in another language was definitely very hard. Previously, I had seen all the concepts in Spanish, but when I started studying them in English I didn't really understand them. Also, when I started to prepare for exams it was difficult to flip the switch in my head to study in English and not in Spanish. Understanding the content also took a lot of work, since my undergraduate studies were not exactly in the field I am studying now.
As for living in the United States, I have had to adapt to the fact that Americans are not as "warm and cuddly" as Mexicans. However, my supervisor is Mexican, and I have several Mexican friends, which has made me feel more comfortable.
How has the support of ConTex and Conacyt impacted you?
My dream of pursuing a Ph.D. abroad would not have been possible without the support of ConTex and Conacyt. Thanks to both institutions, I can fully concentrate on my studies without worrying about how I will pay for them.
What kind of work do you hope to do in the future? How do you hope your research will benefit people in the United States and Mexico?
It’s difficult for me to predict my professional future, but I would like to be part of a project that benefits both nations. I would like to do postdoctoral research in an area similar to the one I’m in now (infectious diseases), or even in a different field, since I have many research interests.
What advice would you give to other Mexican students considering studying in Texas?
I would encourage them to apply to a UT System institution so they can apply for the Conacyt-ConTex scholarship. The process is long and laborious; however, thanks to this scholarship it is possible for me and the other fellows to access quality education and cutting-edge technology that allows us to carry out our research.