A young UCF scientist researching how pregnancy affects the immune system is the recipient of a highly competitive award designed to increasing the number of African-Americans and Hispanics with doctoral degrees.
Valeria Flores-Malavet, who is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, received the McKnight Dissertation Fellowship for the 2021-2022 academic year. The fellowship was created to address the underrepresentation of minority groups among college and university faculty and provides full tuition or up to $5,000 per year plus an annual stipend of $12,000 for students pursuing Ph.D. degrees at several Florida universities.
Flores-Malavet was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to Orlando to pursue her Ph.D. Under the mentorship of Assistant Professor Tara Strutt, she is researching how pregnancy impacts immune responses to viruses, particularly Influenza A – one of the viruses responsible for seasonal flu epidemics each year.
Influenza A infections have more severe outcomes in pregnant women. The likelihood of a miscarriage, pre-term births or even low fetal birth weights are high and it is not entirely clear why that is. Previous research suggested that the immune system is compromised during pregnancy, but Flores-Malavet believes this is not entirely true.
“Our experiments have shown that pregnant women are capable of generating immune protection,” she says. “It’s just that there is something else going on in their bodies, that’s not allowing that protection to be as robust as it would be outside of the context of pregnancy.”
Her research is focused on how the pregnancy environment impacts memory CD4 T cells – white blood cells that fight infection – and how the immune system’s responses change as the pregnancy progresses.
“We’re trying to figure out what components of the immunity involved in responses against influenza are being altered and how exactly that fits into having a successful pregnancy.”
Understanding what aspects of immunity are affected is important, Flores-Malavet added, as this will heavily impact what kind of medicines an expectant mother can take to treat the infection, or what methods can be used to prevent these infections from happening in the first place.
“I am very fortunate to have Valeria in my laboratory,” Strutt, an immunologist at the Burnett School, says of her mentee. “She is a mature, dedicated, and thoughtful student deserving of this fellowship.”
Set to graduate in Spring 2023, Flores-Malavet hopes to continue her research in a post-doctoral fellowship position. But more importantly, she wants to be a mentor and role model for Latinas and other women of color who want to pursue careers in science.
Latinos and African Americans remain underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report.
“I want to be that person that can encourage another woman like me who comes from, from Puerto Rico or from any other Spanish speaking country to not quit,” she said. “I think it’s really easy to want to quit when you’re in pursuing higher education especially in science, a field that doesn’t have many persons who look like you, to feel that you don’t belong there. So I want to be that person that motivates others while serving as an example that they can do it too.”