Dr. Eugenia (Kena) Flores Figueroa is a Research Associate in the Oncological Unit at the Mexican Institute of Social Health. She received her PhD in 2006 in Biomedicine from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Dr. Flores Figueroa has been in the field of hematopoietic microenvironment and mesenchymal stem cells for 19 years. She has been a member of ISEH for 16 years and is currently a member of ISEH's New Investigator Committee.
Dr. Flores Figueroa kindly answered some questions for ISEH:
How did you find your way to the hematology and stem cells scientific field?
My first encounter with the field was almost 20 years ago when I saw a hematopoiesis poster outside of the office of my mentor-to-be, Dr. Hector Mayani. He told me that I was about to get into the most fascinating and best research field. He was not lying! As an undergraduate student in his lab, I had the opportunity to work with “the classic” long-term marrow cultures growing myelodysplastic syndomes (MDS) patient’s cells. We found that the adherent layer was producing inflammatory cytokines, and wanted to elucidate which cells were involved. So, for my master’s thesis, I worked with macrophages and stromal fibroblasts cell cultures and found that MDS stromal fibroblasts were producing increased levels of the cytokines. For my PhD, I asked “why”. In 2005, we found that the stromal fibroblasts, or mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs), harbor chromosomal abnormalities, but were not clonal. When I finished my PhD, my mentor, Dr. Mayani, offered me a position in his group, and then gave me the opportunity to have my own lab. I had been “a stem cell from one single niche” for most of my career, but a few years later, I felt that it was time “to mobilize”. I began doing some short research stays. My first one was in 2010, at the pathology department at Stanford University. I worked with Dr. Dita Gratzinger, a young and bright hematopathologist and researcher. I have to say that my vision of hematopoiesis completely changed when I saw the first human bone marrow biopsy, allowing me to understand the architecture of bone marrow. Last year I had an amazing opportunity to work in Dr. John Dick’s Lab, where I learnt team work, analytical thinking, and truly saw how much they enjoy doing science.
And then how were you introduced to ISEH?
My mentor always looked for funding to bring his students to the meetings, and introduced me to ISEH when I was a graduate student. I started on the “right foot” when I won a travel award, and had my abstract chosen for an oral presentation at my first ISEH meeting. Since then, every ISEH meeting has brought many good experiences.
Who was your most influential senior investigator mentor and how did he or she help you?
Dr. Louise Purton (Associate Director and Lab Head at St. Vincent’s Institute in Australia) is a role model to me. She showed me that you can be a great scientist, a great mom, and a great person all-in-one. She always has 5 minutes to help someone, to respond to an email, and to give advice. I met her at a small conference in San Francisco in 2007. Since then, we always meet at ISEH. We have not worked together on a project (yet), but she has been the one who opened my eyes to networking. She has also helped me with career decisions. Before I met her, all I did at the meetings was “hang around” with my lab members and stand as a soldier in front of my poster. She introduced me to the New Investigators Committee, and always introduces me to other scientists at the meetings.
Of course, it will not be fair if I did not mention my mentor and boss, Dr. Hector Mayani. He has always pushed my career and supported my ideas. He is the reason why I am in this field. In addition, having the opportunity to work in Dr. John Dick’s Lab has been amazing. John is not only a great scientist, but also a great person. He was kind enough to listen to me and believe in the project, he is a great inspiration and a role model.
Describe your lab or work environment:
I have a small sized lab, and I try to work hand on hand with my students.
How are you helping to mentor new investigators at your lab/facility?
I am helping by inspiring them and transmitting my passion for science. I tell them that it is a job that you enjoy, and you are proud of, but it does not come easy, you have to overcome many challenges and failures. So you have to love what you do, or better not do it.
There are a lot of interesting aspects of this scientific field; what do you find the most exciting?
The speed of the discoveries since 2010 (starting with the paper from Nagasawa T), as well as the use of 2 photon microscopes.
What is the most exciting study or project happening at your lab/facility?
I am working on the characterization of the bone marrow architecture in different models.
Given your experience in the field, how have you seen the field change in the last five years?
From osteoblasts to endothelial cells, to reticular cells, and back to osteoblasts – the race to find the stem cell niche is astonishing!
It’s clear that the field is going to continue to evolve at an amazing pace. How do you see it changing over the next five years?
I think there are going to be new models to study hematopoiesis, and more specifically the stem cell niche.
What do you consider the biggest challenge currently facing the hematology and stem cells scientific field and how can it be managed?
Elucidating the hierarchy of MSCs and finding markers to map them. We are now doing cell therapy with MSC, but there are still many basic questions to be answered. I think that there needs to be more encouragement for basic projects.
Does your lab have any big studies or projects planned in the near future?
It's hard to think of any project as big or small as you never know where a project will take you. In terms of collaboration, I am starting some interesting ones that I hope will turn out to be big studies, not only in size but in importance.
Why did you decide to pursue your research career in Mexico?
I did not- or at least not consciously-.. When I was doing my Master's degree, my dream was to do my PhD in the United States. I visited Dr. Hal Broxmeyer’lab in 1999. I will always remember that he was so kind to speak with me and show me around. However, instead of going to his lab, I got married. We still joke about that when I see him at ISEH meetings. He asks, “are you still married?” And I say – yes. "So it was worth it," he tells me. Life is an experiment without controls, we never know what would have happened if we chose a different path, but we do have the power to make the best of our decisions.
What are the challenges and the rewards of working as a researcher in your country?
The number one reward is that you are contributing to grow the stem cell field in your country. The advantage to do science in Mexico is that your salary does not depend on your grants. Your salary comes 100% from your institution (a hospital or university or research center). In my entire career I have never seen a lab "disappear" because they did not get a grant one year, as I have, unfortunately, seen it in other countries. The challenges are the delays on getting your reagents and equipment; it could be months or even a year to get something.
How would you describe the funding climate in Mexico for biomedical research?
One of the good things about Mexico is that it is not going through an economic crisis – it has always been in one, so we are used to working on tight budgets. Overall, I can say that I have never seen a good lab struggle for grants.
What advice do you have for new investigators that are considering to return to Mexico to conduct research?
To never compare your life (personal and scientific) in Mexico to those living in a first world country. It is all about perspective: there is no right or wrong, better or worse – it is just different. It is like a HSC missing osteoblasts in the spleen (unless someone tries the Wolf and Trentin experiments, of course).
What advice do you have (if any) for your government to recruit high level researchers?
To change customs laws, to help reduce the cost and time of import, change tax laws, and to encourage the private sector to invest in research.
What do you find most valuable about ISEH?
Its people and its focus on new investigators.
Why do you attend the ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting?
Because of the great opportunity to network, and to present and discuss my science.
What is your favorite ISEH Annual Scientific Meeting memory?
Watching my mentor, along with my most admired scientists, dance the “chicken dance” at the Tampa ISEH meeting.
What are the duties and rewards of being a member of the New Investigator Committee?
The duties are to help organize webinars and social media, to have a monthly conference call, to organize the committee's activities for the ISEH meetings, and to contribute to Connections.
As for rewards, I have learned how to collaborate, and the necessary tools. I love that our conference calls are straight to the point, always on time, and always have a follow up (now I copy that to my own projects). I have been able to meet such amazing students, postdocs, PIs and ISEH administrative staff. I have the opportunity to write for Connections, and learn from other new investigators (Teresa and Peter) and from the editor, Carolina Abramovich, when they edit my work.
What are your:
Hobbies? Writing and traveling. I also enjoy taking classes on Coursera (www.coursera.org) (I recommend “Scientific Writing and Public Speaking”), and participating in scientific blogs.
Favorite book(s)? Purpose Driven Leadership by Rick Warren.
Favorite movie(s)? I do not have a favorite one, but I love looking for quotes from movies – even children’s movies.
If you could meet one person (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
Steve Jobs. I enjoy watching his interviews and I often use his quotes in my talks. He had great vision. I think that this is one of the best qualities someone can have: to see beyond your eyes and to obtain and create the resources to make it happen. The most recent quote that I used is: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains"