Q&A with Maria Castaneda, a PhD candidate putting cancer in its place

June 14, 2016

You might recognize Maria Castaneda. Back in July 2015, she was part of the lab group, led by chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor Dr. Jiyong Lee, that was awarded a grant by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to continue their research on breast cancer stem cells. This time, however, it’s Maria who is making the news. Maria is one of only 2,000 students this year to be awarded the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship.

What does being awarded this fellowship mean for you and your studies?

This fellowship is a culmination of all my hard work and a credit to both my undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Syed Hussaini from the University of Tulsa, and my current graduate research mentor, Dr. Jiyong Lee from the University of Texas at Dallas. I am beyond grateful for this opportunity and will do my best to be worthy of this. I am the first in my family to attend college, let alone graduate school, I have had to work 3 jobs as an undergraduate and do research, and manage to somehow still maintain a decent GPA. So this fellowship is a type of acknowledgment of all that work I have done. This fellowship will also allow me to be able to focus more on my research rather than having to TA in order to support myself financially. It also opens many doors and opportunities to a network of top researchers in my field. I am beyond grateful for this opportunity and I am sure this fellowship will help me further my studies even more without many of the strains other graduate researchers will face.

How did you decide on a research focus involving cancer and its treatment?

I have always been interested in the STEM fields; even in elementary school I gravitated towards chemistry and biology. However, it was not until my senior year of high school that I really made the decision. My senior year of high school, right before applications were due, my grandfather got increasingly sick. No one was able to diagnose him. Mostly, because he lived in a rural village in Mexico with the only doctor visiting about once a month. Right before Christmas vacation we got a call that his condition had worsened and that we should be prepared. We immediately traveled to Mexico and took him to the best doctors in the region. They all had the same conclusion, pancreatic cancer. There was absolutely nothing to do, his cancer had metastasized and [he] had maybe 6 months left. I stayed by his side his last days. I remember feeling that there was no hope and I never want someone to feel that way again. My grandfather passed away less than a month after diagnosis. That moment will always stay with me. I chose to focus on cancer, specifically cancer metastasis, so that one day I can help someone, even if it is just a few more days. Even just learning more about how cancer metastasis works and is triggered can lead doctors and other researchers out there to better treatments.

How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

As I entered graduate school, I had a set mind as to the professors I considered for research.  After joining Dr. Jiyong Lee’s lab, I could not be happier with the lab members I have and the research opportunities Dr. Lee has provided. My current research focuses on cancer metastasis and the development of future cancer therapeutics to target metastasis.  This project has me really excited for further studies into cancer metastasis and how its progression is triggered. This project has definitely opened my eyes as to new possibilities when it comes to cancer therapeutics and just alone the techniques that I have learned in Dr. Lee’s lab have thought me new methods and new directions for drug targeting. I have a background in organic synthesis from my work as an undergraduate and now combined with my new knowledge on drug targeting, as well as in vivo and in-vitro assays, I am able to see a project from beginning to end. I am incredibly excited to continue my career as an independent researcher.

What’s next?

What the NSF graduate research fellowship really did for me was to open my eyes as to the importance of STEM education in schools and the encouragement of minority participation in the STEM fields.  I have always been passionate about this, but recently this has become a forefront in my career. I have been a member of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) as well as SACNAS, SHPE, and the list goes on. These are all organizations interested in increasing the participation of minority groups in the STEM fields, and this is what is next for me. I am devoted to helping the next generation of researchers, specifically minority groups. I am working on completing my Ph.D. in Chemistry here at the University of Texas at Dallas and hope to continue to a postdoc position in Medicinal Chemistry with an emphasis on cancer biology and cancer therapeutics, somewhere like MD Anderson Cancer Center would be great. But overall my goal is to obtain a tenured position at a prestigious university to continue my research. I hope that one day not only will I be a professor, but that I could also obtain a position such as Department Chair in order to be more involved in STEM education. I want to join a university and have a position that will allow me to instigate programs aimed at minority student participation in the STEM fields, such as continuing the LSAMP program, or other similar programs.


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