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Center On Health Disparities

Maria Teves, Ph.D.

Mara Teves PhD [View Image]

(CoHD)

Dr. Teves, tell us how you began your career in biomedical research.

(T) 

First, I would like to mention that I’m originally from Argentina. Things are a little different there. A long time ago, after high school, I knew I wanted to study a career in the biomedical field. I really loved chemistry and working in a laboratory as well as having contact with patients. Therefore, I decided to apply to a 5-year program at the School of Science where I graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemistry and a Master’s in Clinical Laboratory Science. Next, I worked as a Clinical laboratory specialist for two years and although I did like my job, I realized that I was more interested in the scientific part of my work. Therefore, I went back to school and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biology. I really enjoyed my life as PhD student and my research in the reproductive biology field. Following the career path, after getting the doctorate degree, I applied for a postdoctoral position here at VCU with Dr. Jerome Strauss who was the Dean of the School of Medicine at that time. I worked four year in his lab, where I learned new techniques in molecular cell biology as well as how to generate and work with knockout mouse models. Later, the department promoted me to a junior faculty position and that’s when I started my lab and having my own students. I think Gervyn was not my first undergrad student, but he was the first one coming from the Bridges Program that I had.

(CoHD)

Tell us a little more about your research. So, what are you actually doing in your lab?

(T)

Well, in the lab, we are interested in studying a special gene that is called SPAG17. And I say special because after studying this gene over the last 10 years we realized that the gene has multitasking functions and it is expressed in a variety of tissues which makes this gene interesting and really special. In the beginning, most of the knowledge from this gene was reported in Chlamydomonas. It localizes to the flagella of this algae and then researchers started to study the gene in mammals and they extrapolated what they found in the Chlamydomonas flagella to the flagellum of mammalian sperm. Because of this, it was believed that the gene was only important for flagellar motility. However, when we generated the first Spag17 knockout in the mouse, we found that the gene was even more important than what it was hypothesized. It not only plays a role in the flagella and in the cilia that have the same structure. It also plays a role in other tissues that lack motile cilia. Remarkably, we found that it is involved in embryonic development. 

Nobody expected this finding. This gave us a huge spectrum of what this gene is doing and we’re seeing that the proteins derived from the activation of this gene are multitasking proteins. They are everywhere - they are in multiple cell types, in the primary cilia, Golgi, and decorating microtubules when the cells are dividing during mitosis. We were the first ones showing this, and we struggled because being the first ones showing something that goes against the “dogma” is not easy. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that there was a report of one case of a patient that had a homozygous null mutation in the gene that showed exactly the same phenotype that we were seeing in the Spag17 knockout mouse. Then, people started to believe what we were saying.

(CoHD)

How long was it between when you first found it and when that happened?

(T)

We published our first paper about the Spag17 knockout in 2013 and this mutation was reported in 2018.

(CoHD)

So for 5 years people were questioning you.

(T) 

Yes. Our work was questioned every time we tried to publish a paper about Spag17. Reviewers were like “ummm, are you sure about this?” We were asked to do a lot of additional experiments to make sure what we were saying was correct. Especially when we tried to publish that this gene was important for bone development. This was something completely novel, so they asked for several new experiments. We did it. We published that and people started to recognize the novel functions of this gene. This was a groundbreaking contribution to my field of research.

(CoHD)

That’s very, very cool.

(T) 

And that is when Gervyn  joined the lab. His project was very  important because we were studying the bone defects, but we didn’t know when and where the Spag17 gene expressed during development. Gervyn helped to characterize all the embryos at different stages. It was  hard and time-consuming work. However, he did an awesome job. He presented his original descriptive results at several scientific meetings. From this first characterization, we then moved to the molecular level. What exactly does SPAG17 do in the bone cells? He discovered that the gene is important for the cells to differentiate. And also, for the migration of the cells, and to support mitosis. These three mechanisms are essential during development. In the knockout mouse we’re seeing that the cells do not divide because they have problems during mitosis. Additionally, they don’t differentiate to osteoblasts or chondrocytes. There is a kind of delay in the maturation of these cells. 

(CoHD)

Developmental delay?

(T) 

Yes. He’s actually working on two manuscript to report these findings. He’s going to be the first author in these papers about Spag17 new functions. He is currently working on experiments we need to make the story more compelling.

(CoHD)

So what's the ultimate goal of your research? You’ve discovered the gene but what do you want to come out of it?

(T) 

Well, we did not discover the gene, but we discovered new functions for this gene. We think it’s a gene that's very, very important and it plays multiple functions. And I just told you one part of the story. I think that the more that we learn about it, with our research, the better we will  be in the future.  We can try to understand the molecular makeup of its interactome and how this gene plays a role in multiple tissues, and then to find some curative approaches for some of the diseases we are seeing when this gene is mutated in humans. A new project about this fascinating gene that we are investigating in the lab is the association of Spag17 with scleroderma. Our collaborators from Chicago  have found that patients with scleroderma have a lower expression of this gene. So, they contacted us one day and shared these data. They asked what do we know about this gene and the association with fibrosis. At that time, we didn’t know anything about the association of SPAG17 with fibrosis but it was not a surprise. Every day we are finding new fascinating things about this gene. After the group from Chicago contacted us we started a collaboration with them, and we are investigating our Spag17 knockout. It turns out that the knockout mice develop spontaneous fibrosis in multiple organs phenocopying the scleroderma disease. So this is another disease where the gene might be involved.

In summary, every day we are learning new things about Spag17. There is also information that overexpression of SPAG17 is associated with cancer. We haven’t started any project with cancer yet, but… I think as much as we can learn about the molecular mechanisms we’ll be able to contribute to the cancer field in the future. For the moment, we are interested in investigating its role in male fertility, embryonic development and fibrosis. We are focused on understanding its functions at the molecular levels.

(CoHD)

So we’ll switch gears just a little bit. We’ll move from the research project to the research experience. Looking at the mentees that you have, including Gervyn, what do you wish you knew when you were at their stage?

(T)

Wow, well I had a different type of training so it’s hard to extrapolate. Let me answer what I would like for them to know.  I would like for the students here as undergrads at VCU to really know that at the beginning of their career they can join a lab. They can contact a PI and try to get involved early in a research lab. I really believe in hands on experience. When I learned in my school things were different. Everything was hands on. From day one we had labs for everything. I noticed here that students do have labs but not as much as I would like. Usually, when they join a research lab they really start thinking about the material they see in class - ”Oh, this is what I learned in genetics class - now it makes sense”. “Because now I’m doing PCR, now I understand what PCR is”. These are some of the things I hear them say. What we do in the research labs is in the context of what they are studying. Therefore, once they have hands on in these techniques, the material they study in class starts to click in their heads. I noticed that not all undergrad students start doing research lab rotations from day 1. And I think this is really important. Usually, I get emails from students that are sophomores or seniors but I wish that the senior student had emailed me a long time ago. I wish they had started earlier and not waited so long.

(CoHD) 

So that’s kind of the question in reverse - it is what you had and you wish that they had an experience like yours. Start earlier and don’t wait so long.

(T)

Yes!

(CoHD)

What do you hope to gain from your experience as a mentor and what do you hope that your mentee will gain as an experience from working with you?

(T)

My hope is to be able to really help them to succeed in their career. I think that is really my support - I try to provide them with a place where they can have hands on and also have somebody who they can trust and they can ask a lot of questions - not only scientific questions but personal stuff as well. I can really guide them in their career and with their personal goals as well. That’s what I try to do as a mentor.

I help them to succeed - that’s the main goal. To provide that support when they need it. He (Gervyn) wants to go to medical school. So this lab is perfect, not only because he can do the research hours he will need for his school application and the wide range of techniques he learned here, It is also because my lab is in a medical school. Medical students come to my lab to do research over the summer. Because of this, Gervyn was able to interact with them and ask questions about medical school. Over the last two summers, Gervyn worked in the lab with three M1 students. They talked about MCAT - what to do, what not to do, how to apply for medical school, what is important for a good school application, what do you do as a medical student and I think this type of interaction is good. 

(CoHD)

What is your ideal mentor to mentee relationship in a perfect world?

(T) 

In a perfect world I want them to see I'm here to help them, that's my goal. I’m not a professor with my office door closed. They know they can talk with me.  I want them to realize I’m here for them and I will do whatever is necessary to help them. Sometimes I’ll work over the weekend to make sure they have all the material they need for their applications because on Monday is the deadline. So that is important for me, that they can really see I’m invested and I’m putting all my efforts for them and for their success.

(CoHD)

I have one more question for you. What do you do to relax when you’re away from the lab?

(T)

I paint. I have a nice place at home with all my things. I love that. I also love gardening when it’s not raining. I enjoy being outdoors and playing with my kids.

(CoHD)

That’s good, that sounds really good, it's a good way to relax. Okay, that’s your part - thank you! It’s your turn now, Gervyn.

Gervyn Fajardo

Gervyn Fajardo Franco [View Image]

(CoHD)

So Gervyn, tell us what your responsibilities are in the lab.

(G)

Normally what I do like today is a new experiment and after I go through it and collect the data.

(CoHD)

So you do data collection and what else?

(G)

Gervyn

Experiments.

(CoHD)

Do you work with mice?

(G)

Yes, but now we’re working with cells.

(CoHD)

Cells from the mice?

(G)

Yes.

(CoHD)

So you’re just going deeper and deeper into the details, right?

Gervyn

Yes. 

(CoHD)

What have been some benefits of working with Dr. Teves?

(G)

I remember my first summer my English was so low like when she gave me my first paper I was translating the entire paper to Spanish. And now when I went back and reread that paper from last year from my binder now I got everything down now. I don’t have to translate as much and my English has increased. So I would say my English skills increased from one to an eight maybe.

(CoHD)

How much time in between this?

(G)

I would say two years. 

(CoHD)

That’s fabulous!

What else, how has she helped you becoming a researcher?

(G)

When I don’t get something she explains in Spanish we have that communication in Spanish. So she explained to me everything like I didn’t take cell Bio so she’ll stop and tell me this is what they mean. So I don’t miss anything.

(CoHD)

So having a Spanish-speaking mentor has helped you a lot? So you’ll be able to understand and be able to do the work.

(G)

Yeah, some classes you only have an English speaking teacher so if you don’t get it you just memorize it. Dr.Teves was the perfect fit. Dr.Golding found my mentor. 

(CoHD)

How is the transition for you coming from Bridges to IMSD?

(G)

I mean they were the same path, some people thought it wasn’t really a big change. I think that the transfer between community college and VCU was a big difference. 

(CoHD)

And which community College did you attend before?

(G)

John Tyler.

(CoHD)

So tell us how you’ve grown as a researcher as a result of working with Dr.Teves.

(G)

In the beginning my main goal was to learn about research because it would help me get into medical school. Now I’m thinking I could get a PhD first and then go to medical school later.

(CoHD)

She helped you put into perspective what you wanted to do?

(G)

Yeah.

(CoHD)

Are you familiar with the MD / PhD program?

(G)

Yeah, it’s on my mind but my GPA is not that great. So I think that’s too hard to get into.

(CoHD)

So we’ll switch gears just a little bit. Tell us what you like about Richmond?

(G)

I’m from Richmond so this is home. I like the climate because it’s not really hot during the summer and then during the winter it’s not really cold. I mean it’s cold but not crazy and the people here are really nice. Everybody here says hi to each other.

(CoHD)

How do you like VCU compared to John Tyler?

(G)

It is really nice. It really was a big change because there are a lot of students here and I am just one more person here. But I got involved in the campus ministry and other clubs so I found new friends.

(CoHD)

What do you like to do when you’re away from the lab?

(G)

Normally during the weekend I study, go to the gym and practice for frisbee.

(CoHD)

Have you thought about other types of sports to play?

(G)

I was doing soccer but they’re so good here I wouldn’t make it to the team.

(CoHD)

So ultimate Frisbee practice. How does that work?

(G)

They practice so much I don’t go to all the practices. I go to three practices; they’re really competitive. Last year we went to James Madison. It was my first time.  it was freezing and I stayed one day.

(CoHD)

Well those are all the questions that we have. Is there anything else you wanted to add just in general about being a mentor / mentee or working together?

(T) 

As he said in the beginning, he was kind of shy and he thought he was not good at school (in his science class). Mostly because of his lack of English but being with me in the lab was a good pair because I also speak Spanish. I was able to explain the science in Spanish and then repeating everything in English so he would get used to the words. This turned out very well and his English grew and now I don’t have to explain anything in Spanish. He has learned a lot in two years and I’m so proud of him and he keeps growing and going to different conferences where he is presenting orally the research he is doing in my lab. He’s amazing. He struggled with oral presentations, so we practiced a lot. Now he’s presenting perfectly. Over the years I have been working with Gervyn, I enjoyed interacting with him. He is an excellent person, a smart student and hard working. I am thankful for the opportunity of having been his mentor in both the Bridge program as well as in the IMSD program.

 

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