Caltech postdoctoral scholar Estefanía Sánchez-Vásquez has been named as a member of the 2020 class of Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
According to the organization, "The Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences provides support for young scientists from Latin America to receive postdoctoral training in the United States, giving them an opportunity to further their scientific knowledge by promoting exchange and collaboration between investigators in the United States and Latin America."
Sánchez-Vásquez will receive two years of funding to conduct research in the laboratory of Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Bren Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering, where she will study the fate of embryonic cells that have chromosomal abnormalities, and how these cells interact with normal cells during early mammalian development.
"I became interested in this line of research when I found out that the majority of the mammalian embryos have several cells with chromosomal abnormalities—however, these abnormal cells are eliminated during development and the normal cells modify their behavior to be able to generate a viable embryo. I became fascinated with the fact that somehow the embryo can 'sense' chromosomal abnormalities and activate programs that will allow it to give rise to a normal organism," says Sánchez-Vásquez.
Sánchez-Vásquez is from Cajamarca, Peru. Prior to coming to Caltech, she attended the National University of San Martín, Buenos Aires-Argentina for her PhD, where she studied the epigenetic control of microRNAs expression during migration of neural crest cells in developing organisms.
"Cell competition programs are activated when abnormal cells and normal cells are present in the same context, for example competition between normal cells and cells with chromosomal abnormalities during early mammalian embryo development. Cancer cells, however, are able to overcome cell competition with normal cells and form tumors. Understanding the normal mechanisms activated in a non-pathological context like embryo development will give us insight into what kind of mechanisms cancerous cells exploit to trick the normal cells and proliferate pathologically. In the future, I seek to understand the similarities between genetic programs activated during normal cell competition, for example mammalian development, and pathological scenarios, in order to understand complex diseases like cancer," says Sánchez-Vásquez.
"I am so delighted to have Estefania joining us. Understanding the mechanisms behind how the embryos can eliminate unhealthy cells will have a great impact on reproductive and developmental biology. Estefania has wonderful enthusiasm and energy that will make solving this difficult problem possible," says Zernicka-Goetz.
As part of the program, Sánchez-Vásquez will have the option of additional funding from Pew, should she choose to return to Latin America to launch her own research laboratory after completing her postdoctoral fellowship.