Dominican graduate student awarded NIH $100,000 grant

Dominican University of California graduate student Esmeralda Ponce has been awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in support of her research focused on examining the role environmental contaminants play in the progression of breast cancer.

 Ponce’s research is conducted in association with Dr. Maggie Louie, an associate professor in Dominican’s Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The NIH currently funds Dr. Louie’s research on how chronic cadmium exposure promotes the progression of breast cancer.

 Ponce, who earned her undergraduate degree in biology with an emphasis in cell and molecular biology from Dominican in 2010, is enrolled in the University’s MS in Biological Sciences program. The NIH funding was awarded as a “Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research” grant in support of Ponce’s work on Louie’s NIH grant.

To date, Louie has received more than $500,000 in NIH funding. In addition, she has received grant support from the Chicago-based Wendy Will Case Cancer Fund. Louie is studying how the heavy metal cadmium — an environmental contaminant that enters the body through consumption of contaminated food, water or inhalation of cigarette smoke — contributes to the development of breast cancer. 

Breast cancer results from the abnormal growth of cells in the mammary gland.  The development of the mammary gland is regulated by estrogen, a hormone that binds to the estrogen receptor (ER).  Several studies conducted by researchers elsewhere back up the theory that cadmium may enhance the ER function and promote the development of breast cancer. Louie’s preliminary findings show, however, that cadmium may promote the advancement of the disease.

Louie’s challenge now is to characterize the role of cadmium in breast cancer cell growth and create a molecular ‘map’ that shows cadmium’s role in regulating the expression of the classical ER and the non-classical ER target genes.

“Results from this study will provide a better understanding of how chronic exposure to environmental contaminants such as cadmium can promote the progression of breast cancer, and also offer new insights to the molecular events that control this process,” Dr. Louie says.

Louie has served as Ponce’s research mentor since her sophomore year at Dominican. Ponce originally enrolled at Dominican with the goal of pursuing a career as a physician. However, it was the University’s research-focused curriculum that helped her realize early in her undergraduate studies that she was interested in research focused on human health related issues. All undergraduate science students at Dominican are required to take four semesters of hands-on scientific research. Small groups of students are assigned to a research mentor depending on the academic interest of the student.

 “My research experience began as soon as I stepped into Dr. Louie’s breast cancer research lab,” Ponce says.
“Having the opportunity to be part of undergraduate research contributed to my desire to pursue a science-related career. Research has helped me develop critical thinking skills and gain independence in the ability to develop scientific theories. I can honestly say that research - along with my great research mentor – has helped me grow not only as a person but also as a young scientist.”

 Ponce was the first in her immediate family to finish high school and pursue higher education. While an undergraduate, she was the recipient of the Dean’s Scholarship (2006-2010) and was a member of Tri Beta, the National Biological Honor Society. She presented her original research at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research in 2009.

 Following her master’s degree, Ponce plans to pursue a Ph.D. in cancer biology and become a research scientist in academia.

 “I hope to make significant contributions to the scientific world through research and contribute to understanding the molecular intricacies that are locked within our cells,” she says. “I also hope to inspire future generations about the importance of scientific research, especially minority students who may not know the opportunities that an education can bring.”