Gina Gallego-Lopez has been making connections her entire life.
When asked about the first time she remembers feeling connected to science, she immediately recalls early childhood memories of joining her mother in the lab. “My mother was a clinical laboratory technician, and on Saturdays I would go with her to work. She would give me little jobs, like cutting tape, and the microbiologists there would show me things. I remember seeing bacteria and parasites in fecal samples moving around under the microscope. I was fascinated by that!”
That early fascination with parasites evolved into a research career that links parasitology, microscopy, metabolism, and cancer research.
As a Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow, Gallego-Lopez studies Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. Up to one-third of the world’s population may be seropositive for toxoplasmosis, and Toxoplasma is a significant cause of disease among infants, pregnant people, and individuals with weakened immune systems.
Toxoplasma multiplies by entering healthy host cells and then dividing inside them, but the details of that process aren’t completely understood.
“We are trying to understand how infection with Toxoplasma changes the metabolism of the host cell,” says Gallego-Lopez. “When the parasite invades, it causes many changes to the host’s metabolism, so that the host cell provides building blocks that the parasite needs to multiply. We want to understand that process.”
That’s where the connection Gallego-Lopez draws between her advisors, Morgridge investigator Melissa Skala and medical microbiology & immunology professor Laura Knoll, comes in. Knoll’s research focuses on understanding how protozoan parasites like Toxoplasma, Cryptosporidum, and others interact with their hosts. Skala’s lab develops optical imaging techniques to understand cellular metabolism.
Gallego-Lopez uses methods from the Skala group to answer questions about parasite metabolism arising from Knoll’s research.
According to Knoll: “Gina has been essential for establishing this new collaboration [between our lab and the Skala group]. Her research using optical metabolic imaging to understand how an intracellular parasite is changing the host cell’s metabolism is truly groundbreaking and will help the parasitology field think differently.”
The team plans to publish their Toxoplasma results later this year, which will add to their previous publication on Cryptosporidium infections and to Gallego-Lopez’s parasitology research from her PhD at Washington State University.
“Her work on the interface of parasitology, metabolism, and imaging positions Gina to make exciting discoveries at intersections that haven’t been well explored.”Melissa Skala
Gallego-Lopez plans to continue her work as an investigator leading her own research group, and she’s excited to explore connections between parasite infections and cancer. “I’m very interested in studying Cryptosporidium because some people who get Cryptosporidum develop a chronic infection, and they seem more likely to develop colon cancer later on.” She is hopeful that bringing optical metabolic techniques — which are an exciting tool for understanding cancer metabolism — can help uncover details of this potential relationship.
As part of her journey toward becoming an independent researcher, Gallego-Lopez is also excited about connecting with other researchers on a similar path. This spring, she was named as a Fellow in the Leading Edge Symposium, an initiative sponsored in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that gathers a highly selective cohort of women and non-binary postdocs on track to become life sciences faculty. Each cohort of Fellows is composed of women who are actively applying for research faculty positions in the United States. The program provides participants with a platform to present their work and an opportunity to connect with other Fellows, along with mentorship and career development training from leaders in world leaders in biomedical research.
Gallego-Lopez says that discussion topics among the Leading Edge Fellows include how to hire lab managers, ways to develop strong mentorship skills, examinations of salary negotiations, funding opportunities, and more.
“I really like the Leading Edge Symposium because it is a group of women who are in the same situation, concerned about the same things,” explains Gallego-Lopez. Because the network consists of both prospective faculty and assistant professors, Fellows get a range of perspectives on many issues related to research careers. “We have discussions about how processes vary from university to university, and we get mentoring from previous Fellows who are [now faculty] at their universities. I like the opportunity for connection that Leading Edge provides.”
Skala says that Gallego-Lopez is herself a connector. “Her work on the interface of parasitology, metabolism, and imaging positions Gina to make exciting discoveries at intersections that haven’t been well explored. On a personal level, Gina is a generous scientist who offers insight into other projects in the lab, mentors junior scientists with care, and prioritizes interactions with the local community. She elevates everyone around her.”
Outside of her scientific pursuits, Gallego-Lopez spends time connecting with those following a similar path. A native of Colombia, she and her husband launched a branch of MIRA USA in the Chicago area. MIRA USA is a non-profit organization assisting immigrants with integration into the United States, and Gallego-Lopez is the Chicago area director. Reflecting on her experiences with MIRA USA, she says that both her Christian faith and her own experiences as an immigrant drive her to help others.
“[My husband and I] understand what it’s like to come to the United States for the first time. The financial system is completely different, medical insurance is a totally different process, applying for universities is completely different, and the immigration process is complicated. One of the values of our faith is to help others when we can, and we started by helping others through the Colombian consulate in Chicago. [Later], we launched the MIRA USA branch.”
As she begins transitioning to the next stage of her career, Gallego-Lopez is looking forward to combining her previous experiences into her own unique style. “I’ve had so many experiences in Colombia, at Washington State, at UW–Madison, and at Morgridge. I want to run my lab by combining the best of each of those experiences!”