“As a Latin American scientist in the United States, I have to say that little by little you create your status and right now people know who I am.”
She is María Elena Bottazzi, co-director of the National School of Tropical Medicine of the Baylor College of Medicine of Houston and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development of the Children’s Hospital of Texas, in the United States.
She is also a teacher of pediatrics, molecular virology and microbiology Baylor College of Medicine, Distinguished Professor of Biology at Baylor University, and Adjunct Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University, Texas.
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She combines her work with being editor in chief of the specialized magazine Current Tropical Medicine Reports.
How did a Latina woman get there in one of the most competitive fields, the scientist, in the United States?
“My father, who is Honduran, was a diplomat and they sent him to Italy. I was born there, in Genoa,” Bottazzi tells BBC Mundo. “Then we returned to Honduras, when I was 8 years old and I grew up there.”
“I studied microbiology and clinical chemistry at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.”
Investigation of diagnostic methods
At Bottazzi University, he realized that the clinical laboratory career followed by microbiologists in Honduras, dedicated, for example, to making blood tests for medical diagnosis, was not his thing.
“I liked it better develop the techniques used to make diagnoses or to create medications and just one of my advisers in Honduras, who was a professor who had studied in Switzerland and Chicago, also had that investigative capacity. “
Bottazzi’s teacher, who would be the first of several mentors to help her advance her career, had created a technique to screen for epilepsy cases linked to cysticercosis, the disease caused by cysticercus parasites.
And this inspired her to pursue the field of diagnostic methods research.
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“There I decided that I really liked that area of research on the molecular side and I came to the University of Florida to get my doctorate, because in Honduras one studies rather applied science with field studies and I wanted to have the molecular capacity with more advanced techniques that we did not have in Honduras at the time, “says Bottazzi.
At the University of Florida in Gainesville, he earned a doctorate in molecular immunology and experimental pathology, followed by postdocs in cell biology at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania.
The creation of alliances
The researcher’s stay in Pennsylvania – an area that has historically been the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies – marked a milestone in her professional development.
There he realized the importance of creating alliances in the public and private sectors for the development of biotech products.
“I was very interested in the concept of managerial management of programs and projects“Bottazzi says.
“So I entered a master’s program in management, doing it as hobby in the nights. And all my professors were CEOs of pharmaceutical companies. ”
“So I began to understand how product and technology development programs are handled.”
It was when he met who would be a key mentor in your career, Peter Hotez, who was then a professor at George Washington University, one of the main promoters of neglected tropical disease control and a leading global health researcher.
“When I met Peter Hotez by chance, he had just been awarded a grant from the Gates Foundation and was moving to Washington D.C. to create a consortium to develop vaccines for tropical diseases,” the researcher tells BBC Mundo.
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Bottazzi had already seen the effects of tropical infections on the Honduran population, where 66% of the population lives in poverty.
In the Central American country the 50% of preschool children They never achieve economic productivity because they suffer, for example, from intestinal parasite infections that not only reduce their growth capacity but also their cognitive and intellectual development.
Thus, Bottazzi and Hotez began working on the development of vaccines for neglected tropical diseases.
Today, both researchers head the Vaccine Development Center at Texas Children’s Hospital.
In this they have developed among other projects: the first vaccine against the infection of the intestinal parasite hookworm, the first vaccine against schistosomiasis, the first vaccine against Chagas disease, and vaccines against coronavirus infections, including those of SARS and MERS diseases.
“For 20 years we have been working to develop these vaccines that are not of interest to pharmaceutical companies,” says Bottazzi.
“There is no great incentive, because they are vaccines that eventually have to be subsidized by governments or by organizations like GAVI or Unicef with distribution programs for people who cannot afford them. “
And the work they are faced with is not only research in the laboratory, but also research of national and international alliances and non-profit consortia for the development and distribution of these inoculations in the most needy populations.
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Is a job “frustrating“, says the researcher, “because there is no financial support or support from government entities that grant funds for research.”
Bottazzi and his team are currently seeking funding to continue research into a vaccine they created in 2016 against the coronavirus that caused the SARS epidemic in 2002.
And they’re also working on developing a new vaccine against the pandemic of covid-19 It has already infected more than two million people from people around the world.
“Good luck with my mentors”
“As a woman, it is true, sometimes we have difficulties. There are certain meetings that invite us and prefer that Dr. Hotez be the one to make the presentation, because it is the man,” the researcher tells BBC Mundo.
“And sometimes it is difficult to say that, after all, I am the one who has done the work and why I am not the one presenting it. But well, I think that right now we are seeing many changes and the women are getting firmer. “
But the scientist stresses that she has been “very lucky” with the mentors she has encountered throughout her career.
“Because all my mentors have not only been mentors, they have also been my promoters, mentors who really push you,” says Bottazzi.
“Like Peter (Hotez) who sees an opportunity and immediately gives it to me instead of saying ‘I’m going to take this.'”
“Personally, I am not married, I have no children. But I opted for this because I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to (my career). Maybe I did not give much importance to my personal life but that was a decision of my own,” she reflects.
“What I did decide to do is always keep my contact with Honduras,” says the researcher, “balance that I am Honduran, I am Italian, I work in the United States and remove that perception that because I am ‘gringa’ or I am in the United States, I do not my country matters. “