Trainee Update: Monserrat Rojo de la Vega

Montserrat Rojo de la Vega is a University of Arizona Superfund Research Program (UA SRP) trainee mentored by principal investigator Dr. Donna Zhang.  Montserrat studies focus on how chronic exposure to arsenic through drinking water causes lung cancer. She has worked to identify and detect biomarkers in cells that are altered after the exposure to arsenic in order to understand and define a unique set of alterations that distinguish exposed people from the rest of the population.

The idea for one of Rojo de la Vega’s favorite published papers came from a moment she was joking around with her colleagues in Zhang’s lab about the compound bixin, which is extracted from a plant that’s used as a spice in Latin America, a food colorant and a cosmetic colorant.

“We saw that this compound was so great at protecting the skin that we started joking around, like, ‘what else can we do with this compound that’s so marvelous,’ and we started talking about hair,” Rojo de la Vega said. “We were saying ‘oh, maybe we can prevent hair loss or hair greying.’ And as a very stressed grad student, I’m worried about premature hair greying, so we took the joke and we made it into a project.”

The result? An article published in Frontiers in Pharmacology showing pre-treatment with the compound could prevent stress-induced hair greying. Rojo de la Vega said that creativity is what she loves most about science, along with the excitement of new discoveries and the intellectual challenges, which she always rises to.

“I think it’s important for us as scientists to communicate with people, because after all, most of the research that we do is mostly funded by taxes, so I think we owe it to our society to be very transparent about what we’re doing and how we are advancing science,” Rojo de la Vega said.

Rojo de la Vega’s success is reflected in the award of the College of Pharmacy “Abraham and MacDonald Graduate Student International Research Award” that allowed her to travel to China for a short research internship. She also passed to the final rounds of the “Carl C. Smith Graduate Student Award” and has recently published two research papers, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and in Molecular Carcinogenesis, as well as review papers in Nutrients and Cancer Cell.

Montserrat just completed her PhD in Cancer Biology major with a Pharmacology and Toxicology minor. Rojo de la Vega is now looking for jobs in the science writing and communication fields. She wants to be a scientific editor for a journal or help researchers write papers and grants.

Congratulations to Montserrat Rojo de la Vega for all her accomplishments, and we wish her luck in her future endeavors!