Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Ivette Sama

Staff photo
Ivette Valencia Sama

By: Jacob Sintzel

Ivette Valencia Sama

  • PhD Candidate, Cell Biology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Mexico in a city called Monterrey. I did my undergrad at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM). My background is in biotechnology engineering with a specialization in molecular biology.   

2. What are you researching right now?
Our lab, under the supervision of Dr. Meredith Irwin, works in a type of paediatric cancer called neuroblastoma. It’s a type of cancer that commonly arises in the adrenal glands, and in about half of the cases spreads to other tissues and organs, like bone, bone marrow and the liver. We, right now, are researching for better therapies to treat this kind of metastatic disease that develops in children who are as young as 2-3 months old. Ninety per cent of the cases are diagnosed in children who are five-years-old or younger, and it’s highly deadly. Right now, my specific research project in the lab is to identify new signaling pathways or genes that we can target with drugs in order to kill cancer cells and prevent recurrence and relapse later on in life.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
There are two scientists who I really admire. One is Marie Curie who was one of the pioneers of radioactivity research. I think she contributed greatly to science and medicine, and paved the way for women in science as well. She had a very tough career because she was one of the first women doing research, and therefore had to fight against a lot of discrimination and sexism. However, despite all of that, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman ever to win two Nobel Prizes in difference sciences, and the first female professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University. I think she broke a lot of barriers for women and science in general. My other favorite scientist would be Rosalind Franklin, a chemist whose research contributions essentially led to our current understanding of the DNA structure. 

Both scientists have a very similar story, I feel. While they promoted representation for women in science, they also took a lot of risks and because of that, they died very young due to the exposure of the radiation and hazardous chemicals they were working with. Their contributions to science are very important, but I think are sometimes highly unappreciated and underrated in history

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Speaking as a molecular biologist, I think the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is one of the most important discoveries of our time. It is a technique that was recently developed and by recently, I mean 1983. In basic terms, it is a method that amplifies DNA, so it allows us to make thousands of copies of specific fragments of DNA. It’s the basis of the Human Genome Project that was completed several years ago [Ed. Note: Launched in 1990, the project was declared complete in 2003]. Thanks to this method, scientists can apply PCR to a number of things, such as disease genotyping, which allows them to find mutations in specific genes and associate these with disease predisposition, prognosis and treatment response. It also has applications in fingerprinting for criminal and forensic cases. It is a very important discovery for basic research too. PCR allows us to study gene expression, perform DNA cloning and sequence DNA, among other things.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I really like music. Back at home I used to play guitar and sing in my University’s choir. I have a ukulele now, and I am starting to learn how to play it. It’s a bit different than guitar, so I have to put more time and effort to practice it. What I enjoy the most is singing and I always have music playing in the background while I’m working, cooking, walking, etc. I even have a water-proof speaker for when I’m showering, so I can just blast music in the shower. I also enjoy playing tennis. I used to play a lot back at home, but in Toronto I haven’t been able to play much because I find there are not a lot of facilities around here. When I have the time, I also enjoy going to museums and watching films.

6. Why science?
I have always liked the unknown. I like figuring out stuff and learning things by myself and not just because people tell me that is how things should be or work. When I was a kid I used to do these ‘science experiments’ at my grandparents’ house, and I would mix everything I could get my hands on. I would mix things like shampoo, toothpaste and salt into a glass and then pour it into my grandma’s plants just to see what would happen. Of course the plants would die the next day, which left my grandma very upset with me. From then until now, I think I am still driven to trying out new experiences and discovering new things by myself; although I would like to think that my experiments now have a much better rationale behind them than before.

7. Why SickKids?
I was drawn into SickKids mainly because of my supervisor Dr, Meredith Irwin. I came across some of her publications while I was doing my master’s degree because I was working and she had worked with the same gene family, so I read a couple of her publications and I followed her work closely. When I applied for the University of Toronto and I was looking for a supervisor, I came across another supervisor, Dr. Michael Ohh, and I became really interested in his work. Ironically, they’re a couple, and when I interviewed with both of them and really liked them, they decided to take me in as a co-supervised student. I always joke that I I’m kind of like their science child now. 

So, initially I was drawn into the SickKids because of them and other investigators here. But when I came to SickKids for the first time, I just fell in love with the PGCRL building and facilities as well. It’s really inspiring, and it makes you want to come to work every day. The research and people here are amazing too; you can find a lot of collaborations, ideas and feedback, so it’s a great group of people and a great team to do your research in.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I think one of the most important questions is how to improve therapies for patients who also have developed metastatic spread throughout their body. Some researcher think immunotherapy is the way to go, while others are trying to develop drugs or combination of drugs that directly target a specific gene or pathway. I think the paths by which people want to eradicate this disease are very different. It’s not really controversial, but just different ways of solving the same problem.

9. What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m just starting to read a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and I just finished reading Amy Schumer’s The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo. I’m a big fan of Amy Schumer and I find her comedy hilarious. I think she’s also a great role model, especially for young women, because she really embraces who she is, regardless of what society and Hollywood expects her to be. She doesn’t really conform to society’s body standards and expectations of what women and girls should look like or how they should act. She just says whatever she feels like, is unapologetic and comfortable in her own skin. This book is basically her autobiography, which is a genre I really enjoy reading lately. She’s very funny, so it is a good escape from work and research.  

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think if you want to get into research, you really have to have a lot of passion for what you do. You have to be very patient and persistent because a lot of science experiments don’t go your way. You have to try multiple approaches just to figure out one little thing. In my experience the majority of experiments normally fail in the first couple of attempts, so you have to be very committed and really like what you are doing. Understanding and discovering new things is hard work, so, you just have to be creative and try different experiments instead of giving up.  However, when you get something to work, it is really gratifying and makes everything worth your while.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
For starters, the building is beautiful so that is motivating enough. It helps that it’s easy to work here and you have everything you need for your research. There’s a lot of collaboration between labs so for instance you are able to use equipment belonging to other labs, and usually people are very willing to lend them to you and even teach you how to properly use them. You can basically get whatever you need within the same building and collaborate with other researchers that bring their own expertise to the table. Generally, people are really open to helping you out and give you feedback. I think SickKids is a great place to do research, just because it provides you with all the tools that you need to succeed in your research.

May 2017