Graduate student researcher from Mexico leaves her mark as a mentor and role model

A woman should not have to choose between becoming a mother and becoming a scientist. However, many women struggle with finding the right balance between their career and personal goals. After completing her Master’s degree in Biochemistry at the Biotechnology Institute of Universidad Nacional Autonoma De Mexico (UNAM), Maria Cristina Miranda Vergara hesitated at the prospect of pursuing a PhD. Could she have a full-time academic position and a family?

After a few years of teaching and two undergraduate degrees, Maria Cristina made the decision not to choose between academic and personal success. She joined Dr. Laurie Littlepage’s lab at the University of Notre Dame. Today, Maria Cristina—now Dr. Vergara, having recently defended her thesis—is ready to return to Mexico as a professor.

Maria Cristina’s Journey

As a child, Maria Cristina was fortunate to have very strong female role models. One of her grandmothers was a chemist. The other was a business woman. Her mother was a chemical engineer. These women inspired Maria Cristina to pursue a career in the field where she enjoys success today.

Maria Cristina’s research training began when she was a Biology undergraduate at the Universidad de las Americas Puebla (UDLAP, University of the Americas) in Mexico. To complete her Bachelor’s degree, Maria Cristina defended a thesis on the effect of a mutation on the transport properties of a membrane transporter. This experience helped her learn key biochemical analytical tools.

Maria Cristina then pursued a Master’s Degree in biochemical sciences at the Biotechnology Institute of UNAM. There she was able to propose and work on a quantitative proteomics approach to understanding metal tolerance in plants. She then applied to the University of Notre Dame, a university which, in Maria Cristina’s words, “provided excellent resources for me to develop my skills as a cancer researcher, a teacher, and a female leader in STEM.”

Life at Notre Dame

“Notre Dame has been the best fit for me as a cancer researcher because at my advisor’s lab, the Littlepage’s Lab, I have had all the tools I needed to advance my research on the role of matrix metalloproteinase 3 (MMP3) in the context of the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer progression,” Maria Cristina says. “As part of the interdisciplinary Harper Cancer Research Institute, our lab interacts with experts in other fields such as immunology. My interdisciplinary experiences complemented my findings by helping me to implement experiments out of the expertise of my laboratory.”

Notre Dame has also shaped Maria Cristina’s education by supporting her to present her research results at national and international conferences, including the prestigious Gordon Conference. Working as a teaching assistant at Notre Dame also allowed Maria Cristina to strengthen her teaching skills. “Teaching is close to my heart, since I used to teach at UPAEP University,” she says, “I plan to continue doing so.” Maria Cristina received a commendation letter after her teaching assignment in the spring semester of 2016.

In addition to her work as a teaching assistant, Maria Cristina has served as the treasurer of the Science Policy Initiative, a student-run group that trains scientists to effect policy change. Maria Cristina also successfully landed NIH-funded fellowships and other outstanding awards such as the Chemistry, Biochemistry, and Biology Interface Program Fellowship and the Exceptional Patient Advocacy Award 2018.

Maria Cristina’s Research

At Notre Dame, Maria Cristina investigated the requirements for stromal MMP3 during breast cancer. MMPs are zinc-dependent endopeptidases that regulate the tissue microenvironment. MMP3 regulates both breast development and cancer progression and localizes to both mammary epithelial and stromal cells in normal and tumor mouse mammary tissues. Epithelial MMP3 overexpression promotes mammary tumor development. However, the functions of stromal and epithelial MMP3 have not been distinguished. Alongside her advisor and collaborators, Maria Cristina performed a series of experiments and showed that stromal MMP3 has both protective and tumor promoting roles during breast cancer and highlights the context-specific functions of MMP3 during breast cancer.

Her research findings then led her to conduct a three-month research internship in the laboratory of Dr. Ulrich auf dem Keller at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Dr. Auf dem Keller is one of a small number of researchers in the world who have developed and combined quantitative proteomics techniques such as iTRAQ with degradomics techniques like TAILS to characterize metalloproteinases further. The goal for Maria Cristina’s internship was to identify and compare in vivo substrates of MMP3 by TMT-TAILS (Terminal amine isotopic labeling of substrates) degradomics. Maria Cristina also collaborated with Dr. Roosmarijn Vandenbroucke (Ghent University, VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research) and Dr. Dr. Rocio Baños from UPAEP University (Puebla, Mexico) to enhance the impact of her research at Notre Dame.

Altogether Maria Cristina’s research experience and findings make her a top student in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Notre Dame.

Accomplishments, Mentorship, and her motivation

While completing her PhD, Maria Cristina was not only a teaching assistant, graduate student, and a leader in professional organizations, but she was also a mentor to 2 master’s students and 1 undergraduate who were highly involved in her research project. Maria Cristina also won a complex list of significant achievements such as Exceptional Trainee Award – Mentor 2020 Harper Cancer Research Institute, University of Notre Dame Young Investigator Award 2020, Exceptional Patient Advocacy Award 2018 to name a few. We could go on and on about Maria Cristina’s excellence as a student here at Notre Dame. Maria Cristina, a PhD holder at Notre Dame wears many roles such as mother, wife, mentor, mentee, sister, daughter, and friend. Using these titles, Maria Cristina would like to become a role model for female students that strive to have a balanced life as a scientist. She wants to show that a female student can follow non-traditional career paths and still become successful.

"By providing Mexican women with female role models and mentoring opportunities I will contribute to a positive chain reaction of women pursuing better education opportunities for their daughters,” she says. “One woman at a time, Mexico will be transformed into a more democratic, more egalitarian country.”