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Luisa Escobar Hoyos Q&A: Balancing Research and Mentorship for Breakthrough Discoveries 

Luisa Escobar-HoyosSTONY BROOK, NY -- Luisa Escobar Hoyos completed her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology in December 2015. Her research focuses on understanding why cancer patients diagnosed with the exact same cancer respond differently to identical treatment. By identifying crucial biological processes of lethal tumors researchers can improve targeted approaches to optimize qualify of life and survival. She currently holds a postdoctoral research fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as well as a part-time faculty appointment in Stony Brook’s Department of Pathology.

How did you come to this particular line of inquiry? How did you come to pursue cancer research?

My role model in life is my mother; a cancer scientist, an enthusiastic professor and mentor, an outstanding mother and driven women. I got inspired to become a cancer scientist after seeing how happy my mom was as a principal investigator, the positive impact she had on her students, how she empowered young scientists in her team while balancing a family-oriented lifestyle. Today, after 10 years of being involved in cancer research, I feel I’m facing two inspiring challenges: contributing to cure pancreatic cancer and to build my family. I feel confident that everything I have learned from my mother will continue to guide me through this journey.

What excites you about your work?

As a graduate student, and now as a research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a research assistant professor at Stony Brook University focused on pancreatic cancer research, I’m excited to be working with multidisciplinary and inter-institutional scientific teams, testing bold hypotheses, integrating patient analyses and animal and cellular models, taking advantage of high-end technology to face the crucial diagnostic and treatment challenges for this lethal disease.

What have you found surprising?

I have found surprising and exciting that my research as a graduate student has served as the foundation for four SBU patents and a license for the use of Keratin 17, the protein I studied, as a marker to improve cancer screening and prognosis.

In addition, we found that the presence of K17 reflects how aggressive a tumor is and provides detailed patient survival information that no other clinicopathologic feature can tell.

Last but not least, this research illuminated a novel pathway that highlights K17 as a potential target for cancer therapy to improve patient treatment and survival.

Challenging?

Though this research, we found a novel and paradigm-shifting pathway in the biology of a group proteins called keratins, in particular K17. Even though keratins were described more than 30 years ago, we found for the first time that K17 goes inside the nucleus of cancer cells, disrupts a key control of cell growth and division, making the tumors grow faster – providing an explanation for how this protein makes tumors more aggressive.

My initial report of these findings was initially rejected for publication by several different scientific journals, potentially reflecting the fact that our findings were unprecedented in the scientific literature, challenging the prevailing concept that these proteins only had roles in providing mechanical support to cells. This time was a challenging moment in my training, but my mentor encouraged me to never give up and, ultimately, this work was accepted by one of the leading journals in the field of cancer research. This challenging experience taught me the importance of persistence and having supportive scientific teams to help you through rough times in your career.

Motivated by my mother’s example – and my personal experience as a mentee – encouraging and guiding students through research keeps me balanced emotionally and professionally.

You recently started concurrent appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as well as a part-time faculty position in the Department of Pathology here at Stony Brook where you will, in part, continue your work as a mentor to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. How do you find balance between your responsibilities as a teacher and mentor and your work as a scholar and researcher?

Part of my motivation to stay in academia and be an independent scientist leading my team is driven by the personal satisfaction I find in mentoring students and post-docs and interacting with my team of research scientists. Motivated by my mother’s example – and my personal experience as a mentee – encouraging and guiding students through research keeps me balanced emotionally and professionally.

I have learned that when working in teams and mentoring it is important to keep a constant communication and clear short- and long- term goals. Since I’m based in New York City, I meet on a weekly basis with my students and research team to cover progress, troubles and outline plans. In addition, we maintain a constant email communication. Since my research projects in both institutions are on different topics of pancreatic cancer, I have found that committing to allocated times for each research project is key to advancing each one of them.

How has teaching changed you – or the way you approach your research?

I come from an academic and teaching environment. Both of my parents are professors and my grandparents were teachers, so teaching comes naturally – or is genetically imprinted in me. My first job was a biology high school teacher and feeling the joy of seeing my students develop their skills and insight through these classes reassured me that teaching had to be closely integrated with my research career. Currently, my teaching is devoted to the students and scientists I mentor and this experience is strongly rewarding, personally and professionally.

How did you settle on Stony Brook for your doctoral research?

Stony Brook University (SBU) was brought to my attention by my Fulbright university placement advisor, who highly recommended it to me based on experiences of other Fulbright scholars. However, the crucial deciding moment was the acceptance letter I received from the program director at that time, Dr. Stella Tsirka. Her letter was personalized, welcoming and tailored to my interests, which made me quickly realize that the program was going to care for me as a person and as a scientist-in-training. When I look back, I could have not asked for a more nurturing program, where in each step of the training, from classes to research, I felt I had a support system to help me to be successful in my PhD program. When I was offered the opportunity following graduation to join SBU as an assistant professor, I did not hesitate for a second. SBU is my academic home. I started here, and I want to pay forward all that the school has done for me. In my new role as faculty, I want to offer students the same environment and welcome I experienced.

How did your program help equip you for success? And what opportunities, both inside and outside your department) have you found most valuable?

Coming as an international student from Colombia, new to the educational system here, I received strong support from the program. First, I was paired with a senior student mentor, Dr. Cindy Leiton, who cared for me each step of the way. Her daily advice was crucial in efficiently navigating the program, especially through the first three years. Second, we had tutoring sessions with senior students for several of the courses that required a lot of homework and had a lot of material to cover. Third, I took advantage of the welcoming environment the program had in every office from faculty, director, chair, and administrators. Finally, the program was very supportive when I decided that the lab I wanted to join was outside of the department. This opportunity allowed me to bridge collaborative efforts between the Departments of Pharmacological Sciences and Pathology, giving me the opportunity to combine basic and translational cancer research with the advice of my mentors Dr. David Talmage and Dr. Kenneth Shroyer, respectively. This multidisciplinary learning experience that was fundamental in defining the focus and application of my research.

The Departments of Pharmacological Sciences and Pathology both have been committed to my development as a scientist. They supported my attendance at multiple training workshops and scientific meetings. In addition, I took full advantage of all the university’s core facilities, which allowed me to integrate multiple technologies and methods in an efficient way into my research.

Moreover, I was lucky to be introduced the Center of Inclusive Education by my student mentor Dr. Cindy Leiton. Here, I was able to also take advantage of their research and writing training courses. In addition, I worked in close collaboration with Dr. Adam DeRosa in the Office of Technology Licensing and Industry Relations and with Kate Kaming in Stony Brook Medicine’s Office of Development. These experiences helped me to build the intellectual property behind my research and communicate my findings in multiple environments for fundraising for SB Cancer Center.

What advice would you offer young scientists and students pursuing graduate study in the pharmacological sciences?

Based on my experience, I highly encourage students pursuing graduate studies in pharmacological sciences and any other field at SBU to take full advantage of the personal, professional and technological resources we have on campus. As scientists-in-training we hesitate to ask for guidance because we are scared of being misjudged. I encourage students to start by actively participating in the existing resources in their programs and talking to senior students and faculty. Don’t wait until there’s a problem or struggle with classes or research to seek out help; on the contrary, start discussing short- and long-term research goals and career plans early, so there’s time to successfully reach for them! Please know, we – professors and students – have a passion to mentor and help; otherwise, we would not be in an academic institution. However, we depend on the students to go the extra mile and reach out.  

 

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