There are two things that have defined me through my entire life; never being afraid to try something new and being an optimist. Much of that fearlessness comes from my upbringing. My father brought us to the U.S. from Cuba, where he had been a political prisoner. We moved to New Jersey, learned to speak English and eventually were granted political asylum, putting me on the path to citizenship. This was a gift that I do not take for granted, because in our current times those privileges are being challenged.
Senior year in college I earned the American Chemical Society Student Award. At the award ceremony I heard the famous medicinal chemist Leo Sternbach talk about his discovery of benzodiazepines, a class of medicines that transformed the lives of people suffering from anxiety and depression. At that moment I knew I wanted to earn a PhD and be a medicinal chemist.
For my PhD thesis project at SUNY Stony Brook I used organic synthesis, computational chemistry and crystallography in equal parts. I continued my work as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The Scripps Research Institute. Up until that point I had the naïve notion that exciting science only took place in academia, but at Scripps I was exposed to the biotech and pharmaceutical world, where the medicines being created could help people in a shorter time frame. I wanted my work to have that impact and I realized that the techniques I had honed over the years were the perfect foundation of structure-based drug design, a field that uses knowledge of 3D protein structures to create drugs that specifically target a given disease, with the goal of minimizing side effects.
My first job was as employee number one at Kinetix Pharmaceuticals, a company founded by Dr. Nick Lydon who pioneered the development of a new type of anti-cancer drugs targeting a class of proteins called kinases, whose function can go awry and drive cancer growth. At Kinetix we applied structure-based drug design and wrote some of the earliest articles on the design of kinase inhibitors. There are now over 30 approved kinase inhibitor drugs today that treat a variety of cancers and other conditions.
In 2005, I joined CHDI, a nonprofit research foundation exclusively dedicated to developing therapies for Huntington’s disease (HD). Shortly after I took my job as Director of Medicinal Chemistry, I watched a video of a little girl with juvenile HD, who couldn’t blow out her birthday candles because HD made her shake uncontrollably. As a mother this affected me deeply. Wanting to find medicines that can help people suffering from HD has been my goal and defined my career since that day.
Here’s where my optimism comes in again. I believe that what I do today will soon benefit the lives of people with HD. I find my work incredibly fulfilling, even though my life as an HD scientist and mother of three school-age children has had its share of challenges. I’ve had to rely on my support system of family, nannies, and friends. But I have also learned to live life mindful of where I am and what I am doing at that moment. Just as important as our scientific questions are the ones that ask, “What is most important right now? Today? This week?” Being a mother has never been in conflict with being a scientist for me, though I don’t take for granted the mother-scientist who came before me. On the contrary, it’s a central part of who I am, and I feel stronger as a scientist for being able to tackle the needs of a family and the needs of my work.
At this stage in my career it is important to me to set the stage for women in STEM so they know that it is possible to be a scientist with a family. When you’re from a traditional culture, women are inhibited by the role models they see. I have a family, I am an active volunteer in my children’s schools, and I am an active participant in my field of research. I want to contribute to changing the picture of role models our young women see.
I have been fortunate to have had good mentors in my life. We need to continue to support young women in STEM. Someday, they could grow to become a medicinal chemist, working on a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. But they won’t have to work on HD, because those medicines are coming soon!