By Heather Lynch
I’ll begin with a secret: I never imagined myself as a researcher. Like many young women, I had dreams of being surrounded by horses and becoming a veterinarian. Life had other plans for me, and at one point in my undergraduate career, I found myself feeling rather despondent and directionless — the only career option I had ever considered suddenly out of the question. That semester, I happened to sign up for an upper-division cell biology course. This one small decision, made as an afterthought, would end up changing my life.
The teacher of this course, Veronica Jimenez, assistant professor of biological science, announced in class one day that she was looking for undergraduate research assistants. I told myself that I might as well give it a try, considering I had no better idea as to where my future should lead. After a series of interviews, she agreed to let me join her lab working with the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease in animals and humans.
Chagas is endemic to Latin America, but the disease — along with the parasite and its insect vector — are here in the United States, affecting somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people. Only very recently, one single drug has been granted fast-track FDA approval, but it will only be used to treat children. The disease receives very little attention for several reasons, one of which is it being prevalent in immigrants who travel to our country from endemic regions and are not likely have access to medical care, so the available numbers on how many Chagas victims are present in the U.S. are not entirely accurate.
Chagas is the leading cause of cardiomyopathies in the world, affecting approximately 6 million people worldwide and resulting in 7,000 deaths annually from heart disease or stroke. Assistant professor Jimenez’s research aims to identify new drug targets to eradicate the parasite without harming the human host.
My role in the lab began with routine maintenance work, but now I am continuing my education as a graduate student with assistant professor Jimenez as my thesis adviser. Throughout my three years in this lab, I have learned countless lessons, but perhaps the most important is how to persevere through failure. When you perform an experiment in the lab, you usually have some idea of what results to expect. Often, something happens that may force you to completely re-evaluate…