While in college at St. Mary’s University, Lily Espinoza participated in her first research experience studying the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis, which played an instrumental role in nurturing her growing interest in the field of research. Enticed by this new interest, she began working on her honor thesis project investigating the incidence of metabolic syndrome in schizophrenic patients treated with atypical antipsychotics.
“In high school, after dissecting my first brain and taking a psychology course, I was convinced that I wanted to become a psychiatrist. Once I started attending St. Mary’s, I quickly realized that I was not just interested in the psychology of the brain; I was captivated by the physiology and the anatomy of the brain itself. I didn’t just want to know the steps to take when an individual suffered from a mental health disorder, I wanted to know the why and the how, she said.
“There’s a lot about the brain that is still unknown, and I realized I could make a contribution to uncover a small part of that.”
Although she knew that she loved working with the brain, Lily was unsure if a career in research or medicine was right for her, which led her to apply for a unique, semester-long program where students shadow St. Mary’s University alumni who are medical doctors.
“I shadowed Dr. Adrianne D. Vaughn (got her medical training at UT Health San Antonio) who worked at an allergy & immunology private practice. Through that experience, I got to see a lot of patients who came in with respiratory infections or allergies. It was the doctor’s job to diagnose the patient and find the best possible treatment for their ailment,” she explained.
As a native Spanish speaker, Lily also realized that in the clinic, there is a communication barrier beyond just language.
“San Antonio has a lot of Spanish speakers, and there are situations where even though a translator is present, the doctors use medical terms that I’m not sure the patients understand. Because of that, they may not understand the gravity of the situation or know all the right questions to ask,” she said. This experience cemented her desire to translate her benchwork to the clinic.
At the same time, she wanted to delve into the world of research and she applied to be a lab technician for Dr. Veronica Contreras, an alumna of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UT Health San Antonio.
Dr. Contreras encouraged Espinoza to apply for the Summer Research Opportunity Program in Pathology funded by the American Society for Investigative Pathology. She was accepted and went to the University of Pittsburgh where she worked for two consecutive summers in the laboratory of Dr. Cecilia Yates doing cardiovascular research.
In this lab, she was able to work on translational research for the first time and she learned an important tip.
“Even though I love working with the brain, I think it’s important to be open to working in other research areas. As long as you love the pursuit of knowledge, you can go anywhere. I think I realized that I like research for the sake of research, not necessarily because I’m married to the project, although that always helps,” she said.
Her passion for research led her to apply to graduate school at UT Health San Antonio where she is currently a student in the Neuroscience discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. She is in the lab of Dr. Carie Boychuk.
“When I was deciding what graduate program to attend, it was easy to see that the IBMS program had no shortage of exceptional scientists seeking the advancement of knowledge and better therapeutic targets for (incurable) diseases. During my interview, I also met with students from the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) group, and they were all so helpful and friendly. They were a family! I really felt like I belonged here,” she said.
“I also found the best mentor possible! She knew about my background in neuroscience and cardiovascular research and my project marries both of these fields together. When you find the lab that works for you, it really does feel like the ring that fits you perfectly.”
Espinoza has received the IMSD trainee award two consecutive years for her work. In Dr. Boychuk’s lab, Espinoza is mapping the parasympathetic neuronal circuitry that innervates the sinus node of the heart to investigate their electrophysiological properties and investigate how these neuronal circuits are contributing to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease in the context of metabolic stressors, like obesity.
“There are very few labs in the world that are able to retrogradely label the neurons that innervate the heart and we are one of the few labs that can do that. Being able to know exactly which neurons are connected to the heart makes the physiological relevance of the experimental goals of my thesis project easily interpretable,” she said.
In order to conduct this research, she even had to build her own endoscope to ventilate her mice.
“Normally, you have to perform a tracheotomy to ventilate a rodent, but the mouse’s trachea is so tiny that we had to make our own endoscope so that we could ventilate them without leaving a huge hole in their trachea after the surgery,” she said. “You have to be creative in science. I love that we made an endoscope that you can’t buy online.”
The goal of her project is to identify the electrical properties of these motor neurons. There’s also a secondary component, which explores the changes that happen in these properties when mice are fed a high fat diet.
“First, we are trying to map the neurons and afterwards we will look at the effect that a high fat diet has on their firing properties. No one is doing this research because there is a high degree of technical difficulty associated with performing cardiac retrograde surgery in adult mice, challenging them metabolically once they survive the procedure, and finally patching their neurons,” she said.
So far, she has found out that just two weeks of high fat diet is enough to produce autonomic dysfunctions in the mice.
“It’s interesting that there is an aberrant change taking place in their autonomic nervous system, even before you can say that these mice are metabolically obese or diabetic.”
The final step of her project is to rescue the deficits.
“We are trying to rescue the deficits in neuronal activity to try to prevent the heart rate abnormalities that we see,” she said. “Although our basic science research cannot immediately translate to the clinic, we can identify promising targets to prevent the cardiovascular effects elicited by consuming a diet that is high in saturated fats.”
In addition to research, Espinoza participated in the clinical practicum offered by the Neuroscience discipline.
“The Neuroscience discipline at UT Health San Antonio is one of the few that has a clinical component integrated into its curriculum. That was a major attractant for me. Basically, during our second year we get to go into a clinical setting, and that’s where you really get to see the need for your research and how it could be implemented in the future.”
For her, the practicum allows her to get a behind the scenes look at the clinic and also keep her focused on the research.
“Sometimes you get discouraged by the 80 percent failure rate that comes with conducting research. You can really lose sight of why you’re doing this, but when I go into the clinic and see the patient, that’s all the motivation that I really need,” she said.
She has been shadowing Jose Cavazos, M.D./Ph.D., Assistant Dean, South Texas Medical Scientist Training Program and Professor of Neurology, at UT Medicine where he works with neurology, clinical neurophysiology, and epilepsy patients.
“I see that he doesn’t just diagnose the patient. He sees firsthand where the deficits in treatments are and he has the potential to influence current preclinical research in his field to make animal models more applicable to humans. Medicine and science work together beautifully.”
She believes that her skills with both degrees will better equip her to contribute to the field.
“In the clinic, you can diagnose a patient and treat them according to the most recent guidelines. As a scientist, you are charged with the duty to identify solutions to problems that are not completely understood, and in the process, you help expand our knowledge. As a scientist, you can push those boundaries and impact the medical community by making discoveries that can help move the field forward,” she said. “Scientific research makes sure that medicine does not remain stagnant.”