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Spotlight on Adelita Mendoza: Northwestern Alum and Postdoctoral Associate at Washington University

Modified: April 24, 2018
Adelita Mendoza

Dr. Adelita Mendoza studies how zinc regulation impacts cell signaling and homeostasis. A recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences Graduate Program (IBiS), Adelita is now a Postdoctoral Associate at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition, Adelita founded Northwestern’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) to create opportunities and connect with resources for underrepresented graduate students in science at Northwestern.

Can you describe your research and interests?

I conducted my thesis research under the guidance of Drs. Tom O’Halloran, Sadie Wignall, and Teresa Woodruff. As a graduate student, I studied how zinc availability regulates the development of the egg in the soil worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Large-scale changes in zinc concentration at specific times during the cell cycle affects the viability of the developing egg. If zinc is depleted in the egg, it becomes inviable. Zinc regulation occurs in a similar way in mammalian models. In fact, large-scale changes in zinc concentration during egg development is a characteristic that has persisted throughout evolution in a number of multicellular organisms. This speaks to the importance of zinc regulation in egg development. As our combined efforts in the zinc field continue, we hope to uncover the mechanisms behind how zinc-mediated cell cycle regulation works by exploiting the unique features of different model systems. Ultimately, this could lead to a better understanding of how misregulation of zinc impacts fertility, which is an issue facing women as they age.

What have been the highlights of your experience working in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences Graduate Program (IBiS), and what it has meant for your research career?

IBiS did a great job of making me feel that I am part of a community, which was critical for me in my early years of graduate school. The program provided me with many opportunities for growth in different areas while assisting me with advancing my career. For example, IBiS connected me with several subcommunities that were specific to my research interests, including the Center for Reproductive Science, the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, and also with the worm community on campus. Within each group, I was able to speak to other trainees and professors about my research, network, share my career goals, get feedback, and bond with other goal-oriented individuals over gatherings for special occasions. I attended talks and workshops meant to prepare me to advance to the next stage of my career and had access to amazing facilities on campus to conduct my research, such as the Biological Imaging Facility and the Quantitative Bioelement Imaging Center. All of my mentors were very supportive of my ideas for my research and were very committed to my success.

How and why did you start Northwestern's chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and how has it shaped your experience at Northwestern?

SACNAS is a very congenial community comprised of Latinx, Native American scholars, and allies from other cultural groups who are committed to academic success in STEM. Students have access to award-winning scientists in academia and industry, as well as recruiters representing different universities from all over the U.S. My SACNAS resources helped me create a successful application for graduate school. I was recruited by Traci Galbaugh, the former IBiS Associate Director at a SACNAS conference, and she encouraged me to apply to Northwestern. When I started at Northwestern, I noticed that there wasn’t a SACNAS chapter. Both Traci and I knew that there were a number of students at Northwestern that would benefit from the SACNAS community. We also knew that the needs of underrepresented minorities often are not part of the “traditional” graduate school curriculum, so we felt it was prudent to start a chapter. I previously co-founded a chapter at CU Boulder as an undergraduate, so I had already established the skills required to do it again at Northwestern. 

Through establishing the chapter, and taking on the role of president, I learned the benefits and challenges of being a leader of an organization that has a national reputation. I immediately became aware that I represented not only SACNAS, but the underrepresented minority community, and Northwestern. Being president required that I become proactive and seek out opportunities for collaboration among other student groups within Northwestern, other Chicago area SACNAS chapters, and the greater Chicago community. Advocating for others in this manner helped me advocate for myself in the lab environment, which resulted in securing my own research funding, special trips for off-campus experiments, and some degree of extra research freedom. 

Over time, our SACNAS chapter gained a positive reputation, and instead of us only creating our own opportunities, people representing other programs and institutions came to us for collaboration! Since I graduated in December, the executive board has continued to establish new projects and collaborations, and I am hopeful that the chapter at Northwestern will be around for a long time.

What research are you conducting as a postdoctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, and how does your time at Northwestern connect to this work?

My research at Northwestern introduced me to the unique ways zinc is regulated in maturing eggs in a simple model system. In general, zinc is categorized as total and labile, based on its ability to freely exchange with proteins. Therefore, studying zinc involved cross-disciplinary approaches in the areas of cell biology, analytical chemistry, and x-ray physics. Even though we studied zinc in developing eggs, the same principle applies in other cell types. The cell strictly regulates zinc (and other metals) in order to maintain proper cellular function and prevent cellular toxicity, which can lead to disease. One way the cell manages zinc homeostasis in the cell is via two families of zinc transporters with opposing function. Now, as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Kornfeld lab at Washington University, I am able to take this very unique skill-set and expand on it with genetics approaches to study zinc homeostasis inside of gut granules in C. elegans by focusing on how zinc transporters respond to changes in intracellular zinc levels.

How do you spend your time outside of the lab?

When I am away from lab I love to spend time with my friends and family. They are my heart and soul! I also enjoy playing with my two cats and getting cuddles from them. My physical fitness is very important to me so I wake up very early in the morning before lab every day to exercise by some means of strength training or cardiovascular conditioning. For fun, I love to read, watch stand up comedy, and try new restaurants. A large focus of my time outside of lab is finding new ways to better myself and optimize my time. I do this through listening to Podcasts, meditation, clean eating and yoga, to name a few. My end goal is just to be happy and satisfied with my life, and that will always be a work in progress!