Daniela Robles-Espinoza

Bioinformatician & Group Leader

What is your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?

I was always an inquisitive girl and my parents, Maria Elena and Gabriel, and grandfather, Pedro, always encouraged my curiosity by giving me books on popular science topics and doing activities together, such as setting up a telescope, learning the Morse code or assembling little robots. I am very grateful that they appreciated and cultivated my interests, which eventually drove me towards a career in science. Apart from that, I would say my story is quite ordinary: I stayed in my hometown, San Luis Potosi, in Mexico, until I was 18 and moved to Cuernavaca city to pursue an undergraduate degree in Genome Sciences. I always strived to be a good student, but also enjoyed other activities like playing volleyball, dancing, painting and hanging out with my friends (usually to play board games). It was during this time that I became interested in cancer genetics.

During my third year, I was chosen by my classmates as a student representative to travel to the UK and personally invite UK-based researchers to visit our program. While I was visiting the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, I came across the lab of Dr. David Adams, who was studying cancer genetics in mice. I read a couple of papers from his research group and found their research very exciting, so I decided to approach Dr. Adams and paid him a somewhat unexpected visit. He was very surprised that a girl from Mexico would just randomly show up at his door – it definitely caused an impression!

Upon my return to Mexico to finish my undergraduate studies, I applied to and managed to get a 3-month short-term mobility scholarship for scientific study abroad. I asked Dr. Adams whether I could use it to gain some research experience in his lab. He agreed and, with his support and the support from friends, family and colleagues, managed to successfully apply to do my PhD studies in Cambridge. However, as the PhD application process took approximately one year, I asked for and managed to get an internship at Harvard for 6 months in between. That was a difficult period for me – I enjoyed the work a lot in Harvard, but the environment was not great. I also applied to their PhD program and was rejected after the interview, so as you can imagine, my self-esteem wasn’t great during those months. However, I later managed to secure funding for my PhD in Cambridge and was supported by both the Mexican government and the Sanger Institute. My message for younger generations is: keep looking for funding, don’t give up. Back then, I asked for funding from politicians, organizations, etc. and it eventually worked out for me! Now there’s crowdfunding too. Of course, some said yes and many said no, but I kept asking.

What is your field now and what do you love most about it?

My field of specialization is cancer genetics and genomics, with a focus on the aggressive skin cancer melanoma. I analyse data, mostly in the form of genome sequences from patients with this cancer, in an effort to identify the mutations and genetic variants that contribute to its development and progression. My day-to-day work consists of reading, thinking and coming up with ways to study and visualise these complex data, and create methods to prioritise potentially causal genetic variants for follow-up lab validation. As such, my work is entirely computational, and I love that I am only limited by my own imagination and creativity in the quest to find the next gene, or the next mutation, that contributes to this cancer’s progression. This represents valuable knowledge for a group of patients or individuals at risk. I also love that the research community is highly collaborative and multidisciplinary, with medical doctors, biologists, statisticians and bioinformaticians working together towards a common goal.

After my PhD, I got a postdoctoral position within the same research group and moved from germline to somatic cancer genetics. I recently returned to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to lead a research group on cancer genetics and bioinformatics. I started a collaboration network with medical doctors and other researchers to investigate the most common subtype of melanoma in the country, called “acral lentiginous melanoma”, and its causes and genetic drivers, which remain relatively unknown. We have now recruited more than 150 Mexican patients to this study, which we hope will be one of the largest explorations of the genomics of this type of melanoma. We are also hoping that by directly studying our own population, the findings from this study will be directly relevant to people of Mexican and hopefully Latin American descent.

It is difficult to get a lectureship and lead your own research group at such a young age. The number of academic positions is limited. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue an academic career?

Well, to be honest, my advice here would be ‘don’t be afraid to make contacts and keep them’. I had a good CV coming out of my PhD, I think. I had a good first-author publication that led to changes in gene panels for melanoma susceptibility and had collaborated on another 5 papers (3 research papers and 2 reviews). However, I don’t think my CV was spectacular. I think my main asset is that I am very outgoing, and I am not afraid to talk to people. So, I think I can make contacts and follow up on opportunities.

I kept in contact with the director from my undergraduate program, for example, I sent him an email when I published the paper from my PhD work. Later, he founded a new Institute within the university and invited me to work there and, because I wanted to go back home, I accepted. However, I did secure grants on my first year as a lecturer at the University, the main one coming from Wellcome Trust in the UK (a Seed Award in Science). Since then I’ve got others from both Mexico and abroad, including the Medical Research Council (UK), the Academy of Medical Sciences (UK), the National Council for Science and Technology (Mexican government), and UC Mexus (Mexican government and University of California). The rejection rate in academia can be very high… The key, in my experience, is not to give up and keep trying. It’s a game of numbers: the more you try, the higher the probability that you will obtain funding – not to say the more experienced you will be at writing further grant proposals.

What drives and motivates you?

To think that my work can generate useful knowledge for patients, and hopefully contribute to a better management of the disease and treatment in the long term. It gives me immense satisfaction to talk to families at higher risk of developing melanoma due to faulty genes, and explain the genetic mechanism behind it. People usually like to understand and be informed about their health. I’ve received emails and letters from patients that read our research papers, thanking us for our publications and explaining that, now that they know the genetic origin of their cancer, they can take better care of themselves and their relatives. To think that what I do can have that kind of impact on people’s lives motivates me to go to work every day and give it my best.

What are your ambitions for the future?

My hope for the future is that we will be able to describe the genetic variants that increase risk to melanoma, the mutations that drive it and the influence that genetic ancestry has on its origin and progression (an important topic in a country with population of predominantly mixed ancestry like Mexico). This way, we will hopefully generate useful knowledge for the research community and provide clues for improving treatment for patients. I also want to study other types of cancer that constitute important public health problems in our country, and I am in the process of forming collaborations and obtaining funding to do so.

I also aspire to remain in Mexico for many years and do my best to contribute to its scientific development. Great scientists and visionaries, such as Dr. Rafael Palacios, started a movement many years ago to open opportunities for young scientists to return to Mexico, and the results of these efforts are starting to bear fruit: there are many brilliant, young scientists setting up their own research groups in the country, and I can’t wait to see the projects we can work on together!

There is an increasing effort to achieve gender equality in STEM. Do you believe that women in science still face gender-specific challenges? What is your experience?

Yes, I believe so. Even though I have not had particularly bad incidents, with my worse experiences being comments regarding my physical appearance, I have met researchers who have experienced harassment and read about their stories. It is evident as well when we look at the low proportion of women that make up the leadership in many universities and research institutes around the world. I am optimistic that new efforts by these institutions to keep women by providing flexible working hours, childcare opportunities, and training staff to be aware of sexism and implicit biases will succeed – but we must do more. In this regard, I am happy to work at UNAM’s International Laboratory for Human Genome Research, which is providing a lot of opportunities for women at the junior faculty staff level.

What is your advice for young ambitious women?

If you want something: go for it. For real. Insist and don’t be discouraged by rejection – it happens to all of us. Rely on your support network and do whatever you need to get it – write emails, show up at someone’s door, just do it. Also – use all tools you can to broaden your network: I have made some great friends and collaborators through Twitter, and, if all else fails, I have seen how crowdfunding can be used to find funds for internships previous to PhD program applications. Do not ever believe you’re not good enough: you’re much better than you think. Don’t believe me and want scientific evidence? Look up ‘Impostor syndrome’.

Daniela was interviewed by Íris Luz Batalha.

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