Gloria Tavera is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.

Gloria Tavera

Gloria Tavera learned to value independence early in life. Her father, an immigrant from Mexico, served in the U.S. Army during the Persian Gulf War and returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her parents’ marriage could not endure the strain, and that left Tavera’s mother to support two children on a teacher’s salary.

"It's made me very independent," Tavera says. "It affected my learning style. I'm not waiting for somebody. If you don't know how to do something, just go read about it. Don't wait for somebody to tell you about it."

At 23 and preparing for a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Tavera has channeled her independence and curiosity into a love of science—and a determination to do something about the diseases that affect people in developing countries.

Tavera traces her love of biology to a ninth-grade teacher in Orlando, Florida, named Mark Schiffer. "He took a very inspiring approach to biology. He didn't just teach it, it was part of his life," she says, describing how he decorated a Christmas tree with pipe cleaner ornaments shaped like viruses and pushed her toward a summer research program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Although many of her fellow interns worked on space-related projects, Tavera spent the summer of 2004 in the ecology department studying the green sea turtles that nest at Cape Canaveral. Tavera used tracking software to follow the turtles' migration routes, went out on boats to find tagged turtles, and combed the beaches at night with scientists to count eggs laid by nesting females. She realized then, "I like having that hands-on experience."

With a full scholarship to the University of Florida, Tavera shifted her research interest from the sea turtle to the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans when she joined a lab that uses the worm as its model organism to study chemical signaling. "I was very gung ho about getting into a basic science lab," Tavera says. "It was a little hard for me just because I was so new to a lot of basic lab science." As an 18-year-old she was working side-by-side with older undergraduates, grad students, and postdoctoral researchers who used lots of unfamiliar jargon—"Everyone was doing PCRs, What is this 'PCR'?"—but she quickly got up to speed and worked in the lab for two years.

Tavera’s familiarity with C. elegans led to a summer in the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunity Program (EXROP) with Paul Sternberg, an HHMI investigator at the California Institute of Technology. She worked with a postdoc on a project related to sleep-like behavior in the worm. Tavera presented a poster about the work and learned something important about herself. "Science is where I belong. This is what I want to do,” she says.

Along the way, Tavera developed an interest in infectious diseases. With a friend, she started the University of Florida chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student organization that lobbies universities to use their research to improve the lives of people in the developing world. "C. elegans gave me a really good scientific background that got me interested. This organization gave me more of a gut drive—sort of a call to arms," she says.

It also became a call to action. Tavera co-wrote an editorial for the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases about how universities could help with diseases such as leprosy, dengue fever, and Chagas disease—major problems in the developing world that don’t get enough research attention. She went on to win a Fulbright grant from the U.S. State Department to study dengue fever in Mexico, a project that fulfilled two important goals for this serious young woman. Dengue is a serious viral disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes and infects as many as 100 million people a year. And by choosing Mexico, she also had an opportunity to nurture the bonds with her father's family.

Although Tavera had learned Spanish as a child, language proved to be a major challenge in the lab at the National Institute of Public Health in Cuernavaca. "Just talking about basic lab materials [was difficult because] some of the things are the same as they are in English, but a lot of it isn't." Tavera worked with mice infected with dengue virus and examined their brains for signs of the virus, but she also had hands-on experience working with individuals who came to the lab wanting to know whether household insects carried the parasite for Chagas disease. "You basically squeeze out fecal matter from the bug and look at it under a microscope to see if you can detect the parasites," she says.

The experience in Cuernavaca sealed Tavera’s interest in infectious disease. In 2010, she spent a postbaccalaureate year at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, studying genetic changes in the malaria genome that can cause drug resistance. She plans to start a Ph.D. in molecular biology this fall, with a research focus that may encompass malaria or a neglected tropical disease such as dengue, leishmaniasis, or Chagas disease.

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858