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Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology Blog

Leonora Martinez Nunez

Sunday, December 05, 2021

I am Leonora, I grew up in Xalapa, México. I studied Biology in my hometown and then moved to Baja California to obtain my Master and Doctorate in Microbiology and Fungal Cell Biology. Four years ago I moved to the United States, away from my country and my family, to work in Mary Munson’s Lab as a Postdoc.

There are two things I wanted to be growing up, a scientist and an artist. I went first to study Biology to become a scientist, but I’ve always been interested in digital art and illustration. I consider myself a scientific illustrator, even though I don’t have formal training as a digital artist, I’m really passionate about it. I think the best part of doing scientific illustration is the opportunity of learning about a broader spectrum of science and the collaborative energy in it. I also enjoy meditating --very important for my day; I like listening to audiobooks or podcast about unexplained mysteries and magical realism and cooking for a crowd.

What set you on your current trajectory?

I grew up in the 90s. The HIV-AIDS pandemic was always on the news. I remember thinking I had to study biology or something, so I could understand this “thing” better, and find a cure. I was very naive about how these discoveries are made. I always knew I wanted to study something that would allow me to understand cells in general. Currently I don’t work on HIV, and as my journey in science developed and some opportunities presented, my interest in certain areas of science kept evolving.

Were there any setbacks to your trajectory?

I think rejection is a big one. A few PIs here and there have rejected my applications through life, as a scientist, and as a scientific illustrator. People I looked up to, telling me I don’t have the right experience, or the right credentials, or I’m not the right fit. Rejection can be daunting, but it sets the tone for new opportunities. It encourages you to remain open to any new doors and experiences that are as good, or better than your original plan.

What is your current research focus?

I’m in the field of membrane trafficking, specifically I work with Exocytosis and the Exocyst Complex. A highly conserved eight-subunit protein complex essential for cell development across organisms. Initially I started purifying Exocyst complexes from morphogenetically diverse organisms, with the main goal to identify similarities and differences across them in terms of structure and assembly. Right now, I’m dabbling into another project in the lab, where we aim to understand how phosphorylation regulates the interactions of the Exocyst with other proteins during exocytosis.

How would you describe your research?

It’s a challenging field. I realize everyday there are things I don’t know, and I need to learn about. There are questions in the field that have no answer yet. It is still unknown how and when all the factors assemble together and cooperate, so there are plenty of open questions there.

How does it apply to the broader world?

The exocyst complex is known to be involved in many essential processes in the cell. Mutations in the complex have been implicated in many human diseases. However, when you work in basic science, it’s hard to answer this question. As of now, we want to understand these cellular processes better. To produce knowledge about it, so in the future, scientists have all the information to design specific therapies down the road.

What led you to your current field?

Mostly the people and the opportunities that they presented. My former PI in Mexico had a project with the Exocyst complex in a filamentous fungus. Thanks to her, I meet Mary Munson, who also gave me a chance to continue my training here, in the field of Biochemistry and Structural biology.

What’s one thing you would like to achieve with your research?

I’m happy with just producing knowledge that can be transformed and shared with the community. Honestly, my goal is just to learn and contribute to the understanding of biological systems.

What are some of the lessons you learned along the way that you would like to share with trainees who recently joined the BMB department?

Academia is becoming more and more competitive, for some positions nothing seems enough. I want to say that rejection has help me to redirect my attention to new opportunities and experiences. To keep looking. Do not let people tell you, what you should or can do, no matter how old you are, there is always a chance to pivot your career into an alternative that you’d love and suits you better.

Any advice you wished you had gotten when you first started as a scientist?

I wish someone would’ve told me that I could combine science with my other skills, and that I can actually make a career out of it. In science, dealing with frustration, failed experiments and rejection can take a toll on you, so building up resilience is important, and cultivating other talents and hobbies you love outside of the lab.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How can this department help you get there?

I will be fully doing scientific illustration, perhaps dabbling in animation. Using the scientific knowledge I have, the skills I harnessed as a scientist in combination with my artistic abilities. I’m planning to have my own studio, or to work in a scientific institution in charge of the science visualization endeavors. I think the department has helped me a lot allowing me to gain experience in the field of structural biology. Also -self promoting here- if anyone needs help in creating scientific visuals, I’m always happy to collaborate.

One thing you would say to your younger self?

To take care of your mental health, meditate, and go to therapy. That success is subjective, you’ll value health, mental peace, and freedom more than anything by the time you are 37.