Maria Cristina Miranda Vergara is a third year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, who works everyday in research to positively impact the lives of breast cancer patients. She stands for leadership in science through education and service.
Maria Christina studies the interaction of tumor cells with the tumor microenvironment, defined as the multiple cell types and extracellular molecules that surround cancer cells, and how a particular protein called MMP3 (matrix metalloproteinase 3) is part of those interactions. In breast cancer it is common to find increased levels of MMP3 and reports say that this protein helps cancer cells become more invasive. Maria Cristina wants to understand the different roles of MMP3 at multiple stages of normal mammary gland development and breast cancer progression. Her results will potentially have diagnostic and treatment value in breast cancer disease management.
In the Summer of 2017, she was awarded the Leiva Fellowship in Precision Medicine by the Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics Division at Notre Dame to advance her research.
Since July 2017 she has been a fellow of the Chemistry-Biochemistry-Biology Interface Program at ND as well. She is also a member of the student-run Science Policy Initiative and was part of their Executive Board in 2016-2017. The Initiative encourages students to use their scientific expertise for policy change and helps them understand how policy affects science making. As part of the group, students also appreciate the importance to communicate science to society.
Recently Maria Cristina was accepted as part of the Social Responsibility of Researchers (SRR) 2017 Cohort. As part of her SRR project she will develop an education program for the employers of “Una Nueva Esperanza” a non-profit organization that hosts children and their families from rural areas that come to Puebla city in Mexico to have their chemotherapy treatments. The education program will be based on a survey conducted by an ND undergraduate student Julianna Vidales and directed by Dr. Rocio Banos-Lara a Professor at “Una Nueva Esperanza” that evaluated the employer’s knowledge on cancer with an emphasis on pediatric cancer. The program will include risk factors for cancer development, cancer symptoms, definitions of key terms, differences between pediatric and adult cancer, types of pediatric cancer and cancer treatment.
This project benefits from the ongoing collaboration between UPAEP University in Puebla, Mexico and Harper Cancer Research Institute at Notre Dame. UPAEP has a Center of Oncological Research with the non-profit organization.
She will also try to find the expression profile of small nucleolar (snoRNAs) in Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) as an early diagnostic tool of the disease to decrease the disparity in young patient survival between developing and developed countries. The problem in developing countries such as Mexico is that ALL patients are diagnosed late and therefore their treatment is also delayed. The idea is to shorten the gap between diagnosis and treatment by developing a molecular diagnostic tool.
The future progression of the project will be to collaborate with engineers that could turn it into an in-field diagnostic test that can be run in rural areas of Mexico to improve the diagnostic rates and reduce mortality of the patients who have ALL.
The primary beneficiaries of the project will be the patients of “Una Nueva Esperanza” referred by public hospitals such as the Children’s Hospital in Puebla. Leadership in science is woven into both her background and future plans as a scientist.
She led the team that founded the Biotechnology Engineering program at UPAEP University in Puebla City, Mexico, and became the director of the program in 2010 successfully graduating the first generation in 2014. In 2015 she celebrated the 25th anniversary of Environmental Engineering. She received the Award to directive talent three times while being the Director of Biotechnology and Environmental Engineering from 2010 to 2015. Maria Cristina enjoyed teaching at UPAEP and mentoring her students and she has had the opportunity of being a teaching assistant at Notre Dame as well.
Maria Cristina strongly believes that becoming a well-rounded scientist includes becoming a socially responsible researcher.