10 Questions with Diana Montes-Grajales
Diana Montes-Grajales, 28, from Colombia is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center of Genomics Sciences CCG-UNAM (Mexico).
She works in the fields of drug design, evaluation of environmental pollutants and ecological genomics. Currently, she is involved in three main projects: The identification of molecules from the rhizosphere with potential for medical or agrochemical applications; the in silico drug repurposing for dengue and chikungunya treatment; and the evaluation of endocrine disruptors and emerging pollutants targeting breast cancer proteins.
Diana is a participant of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Diana and get inspired:
- What inspired you to pursue a career in science / chemistry?
Curiosity and scientific vocation. When I was a kid I had a very inspiring professor of sciences, Ariel Acosta, he taught me the basis of biology and chemistry as a discovery process in the lab, in which you test and interpret the results by yourself with the guide of previously learned knowledge. This was more than 15 years ago in a public school in Colombia, I did not have access to computers by that time and my text books were not as advanced to have the explanations of all the experiments we made in the lab. This definitely sparked my curiosity and force me to think like a scientist by the age of ten. During my lifetime, I had have to decide between science and making more money or stability so many times, but the answer is always the same: I am a scientist.
- Who are your role models?
I admire more scientists and artists than I can list here. There is a broad range of people that have done amazing things to help us to live better and to interpret our world. However, I do not have role models because every person is unique, and I think having role models could be in a way frustrating. In addition, the matter of science is the novelty, and if you want to do something that has not been done before, probably imitation is not a good choice. So all what I do is try to learn from others and my own experiences, put more effort in what I do and work hard to improve my skills.
- How did you get to where you are in your career path?
My interest in science began in my childhood, inspired by the biology class of my school. I enjoyed so much to start thinking in the capability of small things to make a notable difference in the biological systems, such as how the properties of the cell membranes are influenced by its chemical composition, and how all the food chain is mainly supported by the photosynthesis reaction of plants and algae, which ultimately lead us to survive.
My inclination for science increased during the high-school, with the spectacular experiments in the chemistry laboratory. So many thoughts about the nature and behavior of matter. The replacement of the metal by other in the reaction of iron and copper sulfate, the formation of a visible solid by the combination of two liquid solutions with the formation of a precipitate, and the violent reaction of alkali metals with water were some of the things than impressed me by those days.
Chemistry was then the career I wanted to study at the university, even though I also liked medicine. This was a difficult decision as many people suggested me to study health sciences, as my first option did not sound so rentable. Anyhow, I applied for chemistry in 2005, and I was accepted at the University of Cartagena (Colombia) with the best score in the admission exam. Studying chemistry was a great and challenging experience. In the first semester, I met Prof. Jesus Olivero-Verbel the director of the Environmental and Computational Chemistry Group, which would be my mentor during my undergraduate and Ph.D. studies.
I was an outstanding student and I had a lot of international experiences. In 2010, I did a three month internship in the Drug Discovery Platform of the Scientific Park of Barcelona (Spain), under the direction of Prof. Jordi Quintana. There, I worked in the development of molecules against transthyretin amyloidosis. In 2011, I started my Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology, and three years later I was a PhD. Visitor student for six month at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Cambridge (England), under the direction of Prof. Gonçalo Bernardes. There, I performed the spectroscopic analysis of the in silico predicted protein-ligand pairs of endocrine disruptors and breast cancer proteins using circular dichroism, native mass spectrometry and microscale thermophoresis. I also participated in international collaborations with the GBernardes Lab (England) and Prof. Thomas Sanderson of the INRS (Canada), and I attended to several short-term coursed related to toxicology and medicinal chemistry in United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, France and England.
When I finished my PhD, I was immediately employed as assistant professor and young researcher at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolivar (Cartagena-Colombia) in 2016. There, I created an elective for engineering undergraduate students called “green chemistry and sustainable engineering”, which is a research based course. I also founded and lead a group of around 40 undergraduate students that is getting involved in environmental sciences research, I got a new laboratory of research in bioinformatics and computational chemistry, in which we develop mostly studies in drug design and in silico evaluation of environmental pollutants, and I also proposed a new master program in Bioinformatics. That year, I met Prof. Winston Hide of the Harvard University at an international course and he was surprised with the quality of the researches presented by me and my students so he encouraged me to continue my training. He told me something like “If you do not do all what you can do, you will regret it later”.
I was working with proteins interactions for a while, and these are actually my favorite molecules. But at some point, I realized that I needed to learn about DNA to comprehend the complexes molecular mechanisms involved in some diseases and toxicological effects, as well as to understand cancer, one of my main research interests. Then, I applied for the UNAM postdoctoral program scholarship and I was admitted. So, I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center of Genomics Sciences CCG-UNAM (Mexico), and I am learning genomics and molecular biology.
- What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project was the evaluation of Ruthenium NAC-CORM molecules as agents for the cancer treatment, developed at the University of Cambridge during my PhD. Internship. Cancer is one of the topics that attract my attention the most, and having molecules to release components with both effects killing the malignant cells and having antioxidant effect is a smart approach.
- What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
This is a difficult question because I do not use to feel pride about myself or my work. I am very auto-critique, so I hardly ever feel satisfied with my performance, which results in a never ending improving process. Receiving the acceptation to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting was a super happy moment for me, because I will have the opportunity to learn from people than got great achievements in chemistry. Another important moment in my life was when I received my PhD. diploma and the Laureate thesis award, because it meant for me I was officially a scientist and I was doing it well.
- What is a “day in the life” of Diana like?
I wake up around 6 am, I prepare and have breakfast at home, read a little bit and water my Bougainvillea flowers in the garden. Then I go to the lab around 9 am, I check my calendar of daily goals activities and start working to get it done. Once, I finish my experiments -everyday are different-, I go to the gym to do Zumba, normally around 7:00 pm and after that I go home, then I continue working a little bit more in my computer, and sometimes in the lab. I love learning new techniques, so when I have a little extra time, I ask others to teach me about what they are doing and I help them with their experiments.
- What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I want to do something meaningful that help to improve the quality of life of the next generation.
- What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I love to experience the world through travel and art.
- What advice do you have for other women interested in science / chemistry?
Forget genders and trust in yourself!
- In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / chemistry?
The discovery of new antibiotics to attack multidrug resistant bacteria or an effective treatment against cancer.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
The society need to forget the gender roles and stereotypes. We need to change our imaginary and understand we moved forward to a modern life and the way we do the things now is very different than before. So, we need great minds of both genders and education then should be directed to form humans with critical thinking, and not girls and boys. This is off-course not an easy task, because we still live in an unequal society and changing the culture is hard. Some strategies that could be employed may include the government monitoring of salaries and proportion of inclusion of women in companies and universities, as well as education programs based in equality.