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Andrea Hernandez earns NIDCR supplement, forges her own way forward

May 10, 2023 By: Emily Rech/MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School

Andrea Hernandez earns NIDCR supplement, forges her own way forward

Andrea Hernandez—a PhD student in the Immunology program—joined the lab of Simon Young, DDS, MD, PhD, because her interest in translational work led her to a passion in improving cancer immunotherapy strategies using biomaterials, a concept Young has been working on throughout his career. Soon after committing to the Young lab, Andrea was encouraged to apply for a National Institute of Dental Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research. As a Latina woman who was the first in her family to pursue higher education, Hernandez possesses a tenacity that made her the perfect applicant for the award. Hernandez won the supplement, and is using the funding to explore other types of immunomodulators to include into the SynerGel biomaterial platform Young and his colleagues have developed.

The development of SynerGel came out of a need to target immunosuppressive cells which may limit the success of head and neck cancer immunotherapy. Since receiving the NIDCR diversity supplement, Hernandez is able to add on to the research being conducted with SynerGel, and is expanding the scope of the biomaterial to include cytokines.

“I am now able to load cytokines into SynerGel and see if those cytokines have the potential for anti-tumor activity in our head and neck cancer models. I’m hoping that we are able to find a combination treatment that can be used with our biomaterial to treat head and neck cancer.”

Hernandez’ successes at the GSBS have been a long time in the making. She was first introduced to the idea of becoming a scientist in high school, where she was part of the first graduating class of students in the Girls STEM Initiative at Rice University’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB). The program allowed first-generation female high school students to explore what a career in STEM would look like. Through this program, Hernandez was able to live on Rice University’s campus for a week every summer, talk to graduate students, take part in lab activities, and fully immerse herself in the world of science and research. “The IBB Girls STEM Initiative helped me see that a career in science was possible.” After graduating from the program, she earned her bachelor’s degree, worked as a research technician at Rice University, and accepted an offer from the Graduate School to attend the PhD program.

Hernandez was drawn to the GSBS because of the resources, experienced faculty, and connections in cancer research. The collaborative nature of the program also greatly appealed to her. As it stands, SynerGel is a collective project that has key personnel at  MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School, UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry, and Rice University. Hernandez knew there would be less limitations to her research at the GSBS, and she could be part of a discovery that combined innovative minds throughout the Texas Medical Center.

When speaking about guidance she would give to those wishing to pursue a PhD in the biomedical sciences, Hernandez’ first piece of advice was to study what you are passionate about, even if you are being told otherwise.

“One, I’m a woman, and two, I’m a Latina, so I was always questioned when I told someone I wanted to go into science. I had better grades in English than I did in Math and Science, so people would suggest I do something different, but I persisted in research.”

She knew she wanted a career as a scientist, so she continued to vouch for herself.

Hernandez believes that having a support system is important in graduate school, and suggests surrounding yourself with people who genuinely want to see you succeed. She found a community in The Academy, a GSBS initiative geared towards providing high-level and effective training to individuals from historically underrepresented backgrounds who pursue graduate degrees in the biomedical sciences. 

“Being a part of The Academy connected me to people who are going through the same transitions that I am going through. We got to meet each other before Orientation, so we were able to look for a familiar face when things got a little overwhelming.”

Hernandez also receives encouragement from Young, who has made it one of his goals as a PI to be a valuable mentor to his lab students. “I had a lot of people looking out for me early in my career, and I want to train future researchers to go out and be successful in the world. That is the best part of the Educational Process.”

To learn more about SynerGel and the research being conducted, visit the Young Lab website.

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