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Dr. N. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez - How Inspirations Form Aspirations

Children are dreamers, but they’re naturally constrained to similar dreams. When we ask them what they’d like to be when they grow up, they will respond with a career that they know is out there. Some will want to be doctors, others will want to be teachers, but what if we educated them on the world beyond what they know; would they dream for a different life? The life of Dr. Cecilia Martinez-Gomez suggests this could be true. At a young age, due to the influence of her family and mentors, she chose to become a principal investigator in microbiology. Today, she carries out that dream, as she’s become an award-winning, nationally recognized microbiologist, and thanks to her inspiration, her list of recognitions is only growing.

Ceci was first immersed into the field of immunology by her mother; as they cooked dinners for the family, Ceci’s mother simplified complex microbial concepts in a way that younger students could understand. Having a young and curious mind, Ceci took everything in, developing a fascination with the mysteries of immunology and the human body. With every new detail, her interest in the topic grew, leading her to assist in a lab at the National University of Mexico while she was in junior high school. The lab’s principal investigator, Dr. Edelmira Linares, offered Ceci an approachable source of information, allowing her to become an engaged member of the project. Seeing the impact of an inclusive mentor, Linares became a key figure in both the success and direction of Ceci’s career. Ceci kept her focus on microbiology but added on a new goal: to include and motivate young students in a lab environment, so they could flourish just as she had.

Before she could take on the role of a mentor, she first focused on acquiring her education. Ceci earned her bachelor’s degree from the National University of Mexico, and after doing so, she was offered a lab position and the opportunity to stay there for her graduate studies. While tempting in the immediate, Ceci made a big decision to move to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a graduate education in a developed nation would offer her more experiences than she could obtain in Mexico.

After her graduate studies, a paper was published that changed the course of Ceci’s career. In this article, a group of researchers had collected extremophiles from a volcanic mudpot in Italy. Analysis of these microbes and their environment revealed a dependence on lanthanides, or rare-earth metals, which are insoluble in water and often thought to be scarce. Being that these mudpot methylotrophs had similarities to the ones she had been studying, Ceci found her new research interest, defining the machinery required to support life with these metals. With this topic in mind, Ceci launched her efforts to open her own lab, a lab in an area with little to no knowledge, a lab that would become groundbreaking.

A pioneering lab needed a pioneering university to start her lab, and the reputation of Michigan State University’s department pulled Ceci toward Michigan. “The opportunity to be part of a department that includes Jim Tiedje, Richard Lenski, Bob Hausinger, and Gemma Reguera was so exciting to me.” And Ceci’s search for a reputable site proved both beneficial and sensible. In the four years that she’s been at MSU, she’s built a reputation matching the faculty she looked up to. With her excitement for her research and teaching, in addition to her devotion to her work, Ceci’s received the university’s Teacher-Scholar Award, the NSF MCB CAREER award, and a massive grant related to the latter in just under three years, as she and her lab are only breaking the surface on how broad lanthanide metabolism really is. With her NSF grant, Ceci is set to work with four other labs on defining how lanthanide metabolism in bacteria influences plant metabolism. With projects like these, commercial partners are quickly taking notice of CMG’s studies, meaning technology could start coming out of her lab at a rapid pace. In addition, Ceci’s career award has allowed the lab to research and define mechanisms that the bacteria use to sense, solubilize, sequester, and store lanthanides. By defining these processes, the CMG lab hopes to develop an efficient platform for lanthanide recovery from waste sources, as they are commonly found in electronic devices like computers, cell phones, speakers, and cars, all products that are turned over at a fast rate.

Even with her research and reputation building at an incredible rate, she’s returned to and spends time focusing on mentoring younger generations. In the course of a year, Ceci and her lab take on students from local school districts “I am a researcher today because people explained basic science concepts at my level when I was a child and allowed me to be a part of projects. I am just paying it forward…” Ceci was a dreamer when she was young. Taking on the lessons and ideas that her idols had taught her. With those ideas, she molded her career into something she knew, loved, and succeeded in.

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