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Naira Rezende: A Principal Investigator in Training

A month ago, after 22-year-old Naira Rezende received her bachelor's degree in biology from Hunter College of the City University of New York, she walked away an eager and accomplished young scientist, with an exceptionally open mind. "There is so much to do in science," she says, excited about starting graduate school at Cornell University this month. "I'm open to everything that they have at the university."

After winning a prestigious Gilliam Graduate Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), an award for talented minority and disadvantaged students, Rezende can study almost anything she wants in Cornell's biochemistry and molecular and cell biology graduate program. Her work in protein research at Hunter and her grandmother's recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer sparked an interest in cancer biology and immunology, but Rezende is eager to sample other fields.

Gilliam scholars were chosen from a group of minority and disadvantaged students who participated in HHMI's Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. EXROP provides undergraduates nationwide summer research experiences in the labs of HHMI investigators and professors. Rezende was one of 84 EXROP students eligible for a Gilliam Graduate Fellowship.

As a child growing up in Brazil, Rezende always enjoyed biology; and her desire to learn about living things was stimulated further by her high school science classes. She looked forward to giving oral presentations and interacting with other students. As she neared graduation, she decided that living in the United States would bring her educational opportunities that she wouldn't have in Brazil. Her mother was already living in Long Island, New York, so after finishing high school she moved to New York.

Rezende enrolled in Hunter College as a biology major and realized even more that she enjoyed interacting with other students. She decided she wanted to run her own lab one day and teach at a university. "Why not be a [science] professor," Rezende wondered. "Why not teach for a living?"

Bitten by the Research Bug

While at Hunter, Rezende joined Peter Lipke's lab and received 3 years of research training as a fellow in the National Institutes of Health's Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program. Lipke, who specializes in the structure and function of cell surface markers in yeasts, says Rezende was as independent as a typical late-term Ph.D. student. As far as he was concerned, Lipke noted, Rezende is already well on her way to heading her own lab.

"She's a resource for people in the lab," Lipke explains. "Someone has a problem that's related to her [work], they go ask her. Ask her or tell her to do an experiment, it gets done."

Each research project Rezende took part in solidified her love for science. In one project, she studied a-agglutinin, a cell surface protein that mediates cell interaction and mating for Saccharomyces cerevisiae--baker's yeast. The protein is important because it is similar in structure to cell surface proteins in several pathogenic fungi.

In another study, Rezende helped functionally characterize the specific fragments of the cell surface protein, Als5p, that allows the pathogenic fungus, Candida albicans, to bind to its host. This binding causes common fungal infections in the gastrointestinal tracts of women; her discoveries may lead to better treatments for these infections.

MBRS encourages its fellows to join different labs for the summer, so Rezende worked with Tania Baker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003. She spent the following summer with David Schatz at Yale University as an HHMI EXROP participant. Working in these labs helped her better understand the life of a scientist. Training alongside Baker, who has children and a dynamic career, Rezende saw a model of the woman she could one day become. In Schatz's lab, she learned the importance of publishing and relying on scientific papers as resources.

Opportunities to Grow

Rezende's research accomplishments are made more special by knowing the obstacles she had to overcome. As an undergraduate, she juggled three part-time jobs and struggled to master a new language; she only had 6 months of English lessons before starting college. Although she had difficulty expressing herself at times, her mind and skills were sharp. She knew she could do the work, but some people mistook her language difficulties as a sign of a low scholastic achiever. "I have a strong accent, but it was terrible in the beginning," she recalls. "They didn't think I was going to do what I was going to do, that I'd be good enough."

But Rezende didn't let such negative thinking distract her. In her freshman year, she volunteered as a dishwasher in Lipke's lab. He remembers Rezende as an eager student. Between batches of dishes, Lipke says, "she'd approach people in the lab and say, 'What are you doing? Can I help? How do you use that?' " Rezende's initiative led Lipke to recommend her for MBRS.

MBRS, in turn, became a safe haven. Because of the mentoring and peer support it provides, "being in the MBRS program really helped me feel like I fit in, like I can do [research]," she says.

As Rezende embarks on a new chapter in her life--graduate school--she looks forward to making more contributions to science. Meanwhile, she advises students interested in doing scientific research in academia to "try to get as much lab experience as you possibly can. That's the best way of doing it." Particularly for minorities who feel alone, "it may be a little scary and intimidating in the beginning, but get to know people [in the lab]. It may not be so bad."

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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