Courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez
Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez, a Neuroscientist at the University of California Los Angeles, is awarded the 2014 Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship
In December of 2014, the National Institute of Health (NIH) released the stipend for the year 2015 for Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral fellows. The new salaries for postdoctoral researchers are still under the average salary compared to the salaries of professionals who only hold a bachelor’s degree. For instance, the new annual salary will be $42,840 compared to $42,000 from last year. It is also worthy of note that it takes on average five to seven years to complete a Ph.D., and if a student wishes to continue in academia and have their own laboratory, they must pursue a postdoctoral research training for four to five years as postdoctoral fellows in a research institution. Despite of the number of years of intensive training, the salary does not reflect the numerous contributions of research that scientists make. A possible reason can be the lack of interest, awareness, and emphasis that society holds against science. As a society, we always forget that scientist are developers of new treatments, cures, and have found the molecular mechanisms for diseases such as Alzheimer. Although it will take years for this problem to be resolved, there is an alternative approach that gives postdoctoral fellows a more suitable lifestyle through private funding. Private associations, which have been founded by entrepreneurs- people with interest in investing to find cures for diseases – have been creating postdoctoral fellowships.
One of the most recognized postdoctoral fellowships is the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship. This fellowship provides support in basic biomedical research to postdoctoral fellows for a period of three years. Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez, a postdoctoral fellow from the Howard Hughes Medical institute (HHMI) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was awarded this prestigious fellowship. Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez currently works at the department of Biological Chemistry with distinguished HHMI professor Lawrence Zipursky. She focuses in understanding cell circuitry processes during neurodevelopment using the retina as a model system.
Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez comes from a family of hardworking Mexican immigrants who moved to the United States to work as farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley (1). Since she was young, she worked alongside her family, “[and] realized at a very young age that education was the only means for a better life.” Her enthusiasm, dedication and perseverance, enabled her to overcome several obstacles for the whole purpose of pursuing a college degree. Nevertheless, her family’s views were very traditional and believed women needed to marry and have children right after high school. After seeing how her older sister followed this path and struggled to raise her children at age 17 without an education, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez chose to go against the norm and attend college. She had limited knowledge of college applications and admissions’ process. The high school she attended did not have the proper resources to assist its students. Yet, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez’ determination propelled her to request a college application via mail and filled it out without help from anyone.
Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez’ ambition reflected into being accepted at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). As Dr. Zuniga shares, “I had never visited the school and had no idea where it was located, but I knew this was the place I needed to go.” She recalls that “it was difficult for her parents to see me move away from home, as this was a foreign experience for them.” It was also a difficult and uncertain time for Elizabeth, as she had no support from anyone and questioned if she would indeed be able to succeed. Her fears soon vanished when she relocated to Berkeley and at the same time, she also developed a deep interest in science. She discovered programs such as the Hispanic Engineering Society (HES) and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). Both organizations aimed at helping students succeed in the science field. Through HES and SACNAS, she met her mentors who would support her throughout her career as well as nurture her aptitude in science. With the mentorship and support of these people, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez became the first person in her family to graduate college with a degree in Bioengineering.
After completing her undergraduate education at UC Berkeley, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez set her sights in pursuing a Ph.D. However, she felt that she first needed more research experience and gain experience before applying for a rigorous graduate program. She then embarked to pursue a master’s degree in biology at the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona). This is when she became interested in understating the function and development of the brain. She shares, “I became interested in neuroscience when my younger brother, David was born with Down syndrome. I wondered how the brain develops and why children such as David were born with severe learning disabilities.” While in the master’s program, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez studied neuronal trafficking, and investigated how axons and dendrites acquire distinct morphologies during their development. She was awarded a Sally Cassanova pre-doctoral fellowship for her dedication and accomplishments, which allowed her work in the Laboratory of Professor Craig C. Garner at Stanford University. In Stanford, she researched a novel therapeutic method to treat cognitive impairments in the mouse model for Down’s syndrome. The behavioral experiments that Elizabeth performed along with collaborators were published in 2007 in the journal of Nature Neuroscience (Fernandez et al., 2007)
Her experience, dedication, and hard work allowed her to be accepted into the Neuroscience Ph.D. Program at the University of Southern California. She continued researching neuronal development and continued learning the latest methods in the field alongside Professor Gage D. Crump. Her research permitted to investigate the signaling pathways involved in craniofacial development. She also discovered a new role of Jagged-Notch signaling (2). This revelation provided insights into the molecular mechanism behind craniofacial defects found in patients with Alagille syndrome, who also have mutations in the Jagged ligand and Notch receptor. In addition, she characterized the interactions of Notch with other known pathways such as Bmp and Endothelin signaling in forming distinct components of the face. Her work resulted in two first-author publications and a second-author publication in the journal of Development.
Throughout her career, Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez has rarely worked with women, much less Latinas. Part of what inspires her to continue in Neuroscience is to be an inspiration to others and demonstrate that it is possible for Hispanic women to be research scientists. For students who wish to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Dr. Zuniga-Sanchez advises them to never give up. The field is very challenging with many obstacles and chances for failure. She was not accepted into a PhD program the first time she applied, but did not give up and found a way to become a stronger applicant. All of the successful scientists she has collaborated with have also encountered disappointment and difficulties in their career yet they persevered.
Without exception, Dr. Elizabeth Zuniga-Sanchez is role model for women in science. The next step in her career is to become a full-time professor at a research institution working in the field of neurodevelopment.