Friends and scientists reunite at the Wistar Institute
Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Dr. Jessie Villanueva originally met while doing graduate work at the University of Miami.
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Two Latina scientists and friends, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Dr. Jessie Villanueva, were reunited at Wistar Institute’s recent Women & Science event on April 27.
During the visit, AL DÍA News had the opportunity to sit down with them and learn about their friendship and extensive research.
Since completing their graduate work at the University of Miami and later the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Bottazzi has gone on to develop vaccines, including one for COVID that earned her a Nobel Prize nomination and Dr. Villanueva has done melanoma research at Wistar.
Dr. Bottazzi was born in Italy, but was raised in Honduras.
“I spent all my childhood, all the way even to the point where I graduated from the university, my undergraduate in Honduras. So therefore my roots are very Central American,” she explained to AL DÍA.
She has always had a passion for human biology and studied microbiology at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras.
Dr. Villanueva was born and raised in Peru. She studied biology at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru.
Both studied Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Miami, where they met.
“We should recognize and thank our advisor, Rick Assoian, who is the doctor that we were working with, that his lab had that signature. It was you [Villanueva] from Peru, me from Honduras. There was Monica from Italy, there was [Devi]; she was Polish,” said Bottazzi.
She continued, saying that this multiculturalism made the lab environment scientifically interesting since they all had had different training. She also credits it as the reason that they have all remained friends, citing lab meetings with cultural potluck.
This closeness led to a majority of the people moving with Dr. Assoian when he went to work at the University of Pennsylvania. Bottazzi could only remember one person who couldn’t because of family-related reasons.
After Bottazzi finished her education she was introduced to Dr. Peter Hotez, who was building a team for a new microbiology department he was launching at George Washington University. Bottazzi’s research is focused on neglected and emerging diseases.
She now studies and creates vaccines for neglected tropical diseases with Dr. Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine. Their lab is currently studying 17 diseases that include Chagas disease and Hookworm.
Bottazzi explained that these types of diseases, “go hand in hand with poverty.” People are more likely to contract them if they don’t have access to things like clean water, good infrastructure, or healthcare.
“In fact, many of these neglected diseases occur in poor pockets of populations that live in high income countries. In our case, Hispanic populations, African American populations, homeless populations, populations who live in, for example, the indigenous populations in the [American Indian] reservation,” she continued.
Vaccines are used as immunotherapies to treat these diseases. Their lab currently has a vaccine for Hookworm that is in stage 2 of trials.
Bottazzi considers the COVID vaccine to be her greatest achievement, especially since 100 million doses have been distributed in India and Indonesia.
Villanueva’s research is focused on melanoma. She has worked for the Wistar Institute for the past 15 years.
Her team has started to work on acral melanoma. This is a type of melanoma that is usually found on the hands and feet. Villanueva explained that it is very prevalent in people of color.
“One of the risk factors for melanoma is having fair skin, light hair, light colored eyes. But everybody can develop melanoma…there’s a misconception that those of us who have darker skin are never going to get skin cancer and that’s absolutely wrong,” she said.
She added that everyone needs to take care of their skin and get it checked because there aren’t any therapies for this type of melanoma yet.
Villanueva says that her greatest discovery came from getting a head start on drug resistance for current therapies. Her team began studying drug resistance to these therapies so they would have a solution before patients started to relapse. So far they have found a treatment strategy that combines therapies and makes it effective for people with a certain gene mutation.
Challenges faced and the need for diversity
Villanueva asserted that one of the biggest challenges faced by scientists is funding. She added that people of color get the least funding and that this gap needs to be closed.
During her time at Wistar, Villanueva has found it important to champion an increase in diversity at the institute and in the STEM field overall.
“There’s also tons of studies and recognition that innovation in science requires diversity. Diversity of skills, diversity of thought, diversity of experiences,” she said.
“So the only way that we are going to be addressing important problems that affect different communities around the world is when we bring together people from different backgrounds that are going to have different ideas about different problems and are going to bring [also] different solutions to the table,” she continued.
Advice that both friends give to the next generation of women scientists is to amplify each other's voices.
“I think that’s key,” said Bottazzi “Not only amplify that voice of the women that are interested in STEM — or even STEAM, including the arts — but empower them and make sure that you continuously remind them that they need to tell their stories because there are so many working behind the scenes because they are not prominently highlighted.”