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Dr. Natalia Vergara is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus. Natalia received her B.S. in biochemistry from the National University of the Litoral in Argentina. She worked as an instructor and research intern at the National University of Entre Ríos for about three years before beginning graduate school. Natalia was awarded her PhD in retinal regenerative biology from Miami University in Ohio. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She served as a Research Associate Faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for about two years before joining the faculty at the University of Colorado. Natalia has received awards for research and for mentoring, including the Ruben Adler Research Award from the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2012, and she was selected as an Emerging Vision Scientist to participate in the Third Annual EVS day on Capitol Hill by the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research in 2017. In our interview, Natalia tells us more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:39)
In her free time, Natalia loves hanging out, cooking, and enjoying food with friends and family, including her husband and two young kids. Natalia is also an avid traveler, and she delights in the thrill of discovery that comes along with exploring new places.
The Scientific Side (5:05)
Natalia uses stem cells to understand how the retina forms during development and how it degenerates during disease with the goal of developing therapies to help patients who suffer from vision loss. For her research, Natalia uses a type of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells which can be reprogrammed so they can form any type of cell in the body. With these cells, they can make human retina tissue using any individual’s cells in a petri dish in the lab to better understand diseases, test treatments, and potentially prepare retinas for transplant.
A Dose of Motivation (7:48)
“Each person lives in the universe that they are capable of imagining.”
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:17)
The thrill of discovery, the ability to ask interesting questions, and the opportunity to go to new places and see new things all drew Natalia to science. In tenth grade, Natalia took a cell biology class in high school, and this was the first time she was introduced to the idea that all cells in your body come from one undifferentiated cell. She was fascinated by how this could happen. Natalia grew up in a small city in Argentina, and she was able to attend a free public university for college. However, at that time, the economy was in a recession, she didn’t know any scientists, and she didn’t know that being a scientist was a career option. Natalia knew she wanted to do something challenging that could benefit society. She chose to major in biochemistry, and the biochemistry program had a strong focus on both science and clinical applications. After college, Natalia taught biology classes for nursing students and volunteered as a researcher in a biology lab. This was her first exposure to research. Through a Rotary Club scholarship, she had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to do a research internship at the University of Miami in Ohio. It was there that she fell in love with research. Natalia returned to the same lab for graduate school, and she has continued to work in the field of retinal biology ever since.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:29)
The last year of her PhD graduate program was one of the most difficult times for Natalia. She had a fantastic experience in graduate school until her final year where she began feeling the pressure to finish her degree. At that point, she had started several projects, but many of them weren’t going anywhere. She had been in the program for five years, and she had no idea how she was going to finish putting together a story that she could defend as her thesis. It took a lot of determination and hard work to pull everything together. Natalia started many different experiments and spent a lot of time in the lab. In the end, she was able to assemble a story and publish two papers during her final year before successfully defending her thesis. After making it through this experience, Natalia felt like she could do anything.
A Shining Success! (25:05)
Natalia is very happy to have been awarded her first grant to pursue research in Down syndrome. Retinal biology has not been well-studied, but evidence has shown that people with Down syndrome have lower visual acuity and that their retinas may be larger than people without Down syndrome. They are also at high risk for developing early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many people may know that Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain, but it also affects the retina, causing issues with visual acuity, contrast sensitivity, and color perception. These visual problems can make activities in everyday life more challenging and ultimately impact quality of life. Combining the visual problems in people with Down syndrome with the problems that develop in Alzheimer’s disease makes this population particularly vulnerable. As a result, Natalia’s work in this area could have a big impact in helping people and making a difference in their lives. She had never done research in Down syndrome previously, so it was really meaningful to have her work modeling Down syndrome using stem cell-derived retinas selected for this opportunity. In addition to receiving research funding, Natalia is excited to become a member of the funding agency’s community of investigators studying a variety of aspects of Down syndrome. The group meets each month to talk about their research, and this is a great chance to troubleshoot, collaborate, and get new ideas.
Book Recommendations (28:08)
The Last Sword Maker by Brian Nelson, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom by Sean B. Carroll.
Most Treasured Travel (30:52)
A few years ago, Natalia went to an eye development conference in Tuscany in Italy. This was her first time visiting Italy, and she was entranced by the beautiful mountains, the old cities, and the sense of history. She traveled to Rome after the conference, and it was amazing to see modern architecture mixed with Renaissance art and ruins from the Roman Empire. The food was also phenomenal. Going to Japan for a conference as a graduate student was another memorable travel experience. It was really striking how out of place she felt there because she couldn’t speak the language, many people at the conference didn’t speak English or Spanish, and she couldn’t even read the characters on a map or street sign to sound out words or orient herself. Exploring Japan was a wonderful experience, but it was also very humbling.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (35:04)
In a previous lab, Natalia and her colleagues celebrated successes with champagne. These included having grants awarded, papers published, and students graduating. The group would pop the cork towards the ceiling so it made an indentation in one of the ceiling panels. Then they would circle the dent and write a note about the success. It was cool to have a record overhead of all the good things that happened in the lab. In her current lab, Natalia loves celebrating everyone’s birthdays. They take turns bringing in cake to share with their department, and it is a fun way to make everyone in the group feel valued.
Advice For Us All (40:25)
You have to be proactive and make your own opportunities. You can do good work and be an excellent scientist, but if no one knows about your work, and you wait for opportunities to come to you, you might miss out on a lot. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want or need. Often, there are many people out there who are willing and able to help.
Natalia’s research team uses stem cells to understand the mechanisms of retina development and degeneration and to develop treatments for retinal diseases. Born in Argentina, Natalia obtained her PhD in biology at Miami University in Ohio, where she studied the mechanisms of lens and retina regeneration in amphibians. Later, during her postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she was introduced to stem cell research, and she was part of a team who developed the first 3D human retina derived from stem cells that was able to respond to light. She joined the Faculty at the University of Colorado in 2017 as part of CellSight, the ocular stem cell and regeneration program in the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, where she applies this technology to the development of treatments for retinal degenerative diseases. Natalia is also involved in education and outreach, as well as in activities to promote diversity and inclusivity in science, to further advance her goal of serving society through science. Outside of work, Natalia spends time with her husband, Brian, and their two young kids. She enjoys traveling and learning new things, as well as hiking, reading, baking, and eating good food (especially chocolate!).
Photo Credit: Brooks Canaday