Sunday, December 16, 2018

Meet a Roadrunner: Lorena Roa de la Cruz is trailblazing in male reproductive health

Meet a Roadrunner: Lorena Roa de la Cruz is trailblazing in male reproductive health

Roa de la Cruz's research focuses on spermatogenesis, a speciality field in men's reproductive health.

(Sept. 27, 2018) -- Lorena Roa de la Cruz left her homeland of Mexico in 2014 to pursue her master’s degree in Europe. She was then admitted to the UTSA Cell and Molecular Biology Ph.D. program in 2017 and landed an opportunity to work in Professor Brian Hermann’s lab, one of the few laboratories in the world that studies spermatogonial stem cells using cutting-edge techniques such as single-cell RNA-sequencing.

She has twice secured a fellowship that for many is considered the holy grail, from Conacyt, to support her studies. She has also received accolades from the Lalor Foundation and has received funding from the Larry Ewing Memorial Trainee Travel Fund.

In 2014, she was selected to be one of six presenters at the Trainee Research Competition at the annual convention Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR). And she’s just 27 years old.

We sat down with Roa de la Cruz recently to learn more about her work.

You won the Conacyt scholarship, one of the most prestigious awards in Mexico and the equivalent of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship here in the U.S. This award is highly competitive and you’ve managed to receive it twice. What does it mean to you?

This scholarship has been such an honor and a privilege to me. This means that now I can continue with my research without worrying about funding until the end of my degree, an opportunity that unfortunately not everyone has.

Your research focuses on men’s reproductive health, a specialty field called spermatogenesis—the process of sperm production in the testicles. Why did you choose this area of science?

When I was searching for programs, I came across UTSA’s Ph.D. program in Cell and Molecular Biology. While looking at the faculty research profiles, I found Dr. Brian Hermann’s work fascinating and immediately immersed myself in this topic. It’s incredible how human male reproductive biology works and yet although it is so important for making babies, it is very understudied. There is still a lot to learn and I want to be able to help better understand male infertility with my research. I’m also interested in discovering male contraceptive methods. Both of these things are very applicable to issues in today’s society.

Recently, you were one of six Ph.D. students and post-doctoral trainees selected to participate in the Trainee Research Competition at the Society for the Study of Reproduction 51st Annual Meeting. What did your findings uncover and how did it feel to be presenting to a room filled with researchers who have decades of experience in the field?

It was a one of a kind experience! I felt honored to share my research with my peers and to meet and talk about my findings to world renowned scientists that have been role models for me. I presented my results from an experiment that allowed me to identify specific genetic markers to serve as easy tools to identify which of the cells that make sperm are present in the testicle. This could be a new way to diagnose infertility in men.

Who inspires you to keep on pursuing a path in the sciences?

Many people! People are the pillars that keep me going. First and foremost, my family, who have been with me from the very beginning; my mom, dad and brother have always supported for me. If I’m here right now, it is all because of them. Also, my boyfriend, who I met in a laboratory back in México and is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Biology, and of course my advisor Dr. Brian Hermann and the Graduate Advisor of Record Dr. John McCarrey. Back home, my mentors, Dra. Verónica Vallejo and Dr. Jose Daniel Lozada, were the first ones to motivate me to follow this path.

How do you define success?

I believe success is not a title, or an award, or a prize. Success for me is being able to bring new knowledge to the field that increases our understanding of how the human biology works, and teach that information to the incoming generations of scientists.

You are a woman, a millennial scientist and already getting recognition from experts in the field. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer?

I honestly don’t see myself as a trailblazer. I am following in the steps of many outstanding female researchers. However, I do hope that my personal story serves as a motivation to new generations to continue in the science pathway, to not get discouraged and to reach out for advice from role models and mentors, as I did many times.

You work in research, where there is a lot of trial and error. How does that help you build confidence?

My advisor always reminds me that the word research starts with “re” which means “again” and it comes before “search.” Sometimes experiments work on the first try, sometimes after many attempts and sometimes they never work. It’s up to the researcher to take these experiences and use them for their growth, to trust themselves and trust  their skills. Confidence will come when an experiment works out, or not, and you know why and how to fix it.

If you could give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would you say?

I would tell myself not to pay attention to negative comments, no matter who they come from. Focus on the things that matter: family, friends and, of course, science.

- Milady Nazir


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