Hispanic Heritage Spotlight: Interview with Dr. María Elena Bottazzi

From the Labs sat down with Dr. María Elena Bottazzi, professor of pediatrics – tropical medicine and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. Bottazzi shared her lifelong scientific inspiration, her dedication to empowering young generations while lifting the burden of tropical diseases from underserved populations and her passion for learning about new cultures.

Dr. María Elena Bottazzi in the lab.
How did the journey that brought you here today start?

I was born in Italy while my father was in the diplomatic service, but grew up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where I studied microbiology and clinical chemistry at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. During my training, I became interested in developing new technologies enabling physicians in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tropical diseases, which represent the majority of the diseases in Honduras.

My family used to have a cattle ranch. As I was growing up, I became involved in many aspects of the industry – cattle raising, milk production and meat packing. I interacted with the rural populations of Honduras and saw that tropical diseases posed a tremendous health and socio-economic burden on them, and that they had little access to healthcare, precise diagnostics and essential medicines. In fact, this inspired my college thesis, which consisted of developing a diagnostic tool for the neglected disease called neurocysticercosis, a parasitic infection caused by the larval cysts (sacs) of the pork tapeworm Taenia solium. Larval cysts in the brain can cause seizures and epilepsy.

To create this diagnostic tool, I went to slaughter houses looking for infected pigs from which I extracted the parasite and processed it into a crude extract to use in the development of a blood diagnostic test.

I also worked with patient samples and eventually with clinical labs to validate this diagnostic tool.

For my doctoral degree, I took the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Florida, which has a long history of collaborations with Honduras in science and technology, especially the merging of human health with agriculture and animal health. I complemented my skills in field-based microbiology with molecular, cellular and genetic studies of the mechanisms that mediate how hosts respond to infections.

Later, I completed a couple of postdoctoral trainings, one at University of Miami and a second one at University of Pennsylvania. While in Pennsylvania, I interacted with the large ecosystem of pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in the Northeast. This experience motivated me to complement my training with a Master of Business Administration focusing on strategic and organizational management of large pharmaceutical projects. From there emerged my idea of combining my passion for global health technology, my training in tropical diseases and my interest in the business side of science.

Serendipitously, during one of my visits to Honduras, I learned that Dr. Peter Hotez had recently visited there and that some of my colleagues had told him about me. Hotez had recently moved to George Washington University. We got ourselves introduced and it was an immediate click, our interests and passions were so aligned that he offered me to join his team. And the rest is history!

What are your main goals at Baylor?
Dr. Bottazzi is a leading member of the team developing a COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines at Baylor and Texas Children’s.

Dr. Hotez and I have been science partners for 20 years, 10 of those at Baylor. Our National School of Tropical Medicine, including our Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, has flourished due to the trust and support by these grand institutions. We have expanded our work not only for neglected diseases but also emerging infections, COVID-19 being the latest. My goal is using the opportunity of conducting vaccine research and development aligned with Baylor’s and Texas Children’s missions of improving health around the globe, and training the next generation of scientists.

My aspiration is to go beyond Houston, beyond Texas and the U.S. I have never disconnected myself from my roots in Latin America, especially Central America. I am a big advocate for mentoring in science and technology, women in particular.

I am dedicated to raise the voices of underserved populations and at the same time ignite interest in young generations to become involved in global health and serving their communities.

What can scientists do to foster scientific communication?

As scientists we need to be more outspoken, to be able to communicate better with our communities. Houston is a diverse city with different demographics, and we need to communicate differently with different groups.

I believe that one role of members of academic institutions is to translate the scientific information into easier language that others can understand, not only other academics and the general public, but beyond, to politicians, economists, law makers and ethicists.

Tell us something few people know about you.

Few people know that I speak four languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and English), that I am a big fan of the “Star Trek” series and that as part of my mindfulness practice, I am an avid erg rower.

  

Bottazzi also is associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, co-section head of pediatric tropical medicine and co-director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

 

Read some of the work by the Bottazzi lab that has appeared in From the Labs:

The challenges of developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine

COVID-19 vaccine development underway at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital

A matter of health: Ebola: new products needed for neglected tropical diseases

 

By Ana María Rodríguez, Ph.D.

 

 

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