NMSU biology professor helps students discover their potential


New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
New Mexico State University biology professor Elba Serrano. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

After 22 years at New Mexico State University, Regents Professor Elba Serrano’s philosophy about student success remains rooted in the beliefs that have nurtured her own career.

“People emphasize a lot the need to encourage, but I think the lack of discouragement may be as important as encouragement,” said Serrano. “Then, the child can follow his or her own interests without being told ‘don’t go there.’”

The daughter of a U.S. Army sergeant, Serrano grew up on military bases all over the world, where her interest in science was allowed to blossom.

“I think when I look back on it, I was the beneficiary of Department of Defense schools,” she said. “These were positive environments for young students. I received a great education and was not discouraged from pursuing my interest in math and science.” 

Serrano, whose biomedical research focuses on neural regeneration, sensory disorders of hearing and balance and nanobiotechnology, was on sabbatical in spring 2014 as a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego Center for Research in Biological Systems.

During two decades, Serrano’s values and work ethic have impacted the lives of thousands of NMSU students. She identifies with many who, like Serrano, were the first in their family to graduate from college. The NMSU biology professor has taught more than 2,500 students and mentored student research for more than 100 individuals in her lab. Moreover, she has reached out to hundreds more at the university as the principal investigator of programs such as the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and BP-ENDURE Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience (BRAiN).

“We know there are great inequities in participation,” Serrano said. “So at NMSU, I’ve been very involved since I arrived with programs that broaden participation for students – women, minorities, for everyone. I think to really transform a culture, everyone needs to be part of it. I am excited to use this latest version of the RISE grant to institutionalize and bring many opportunities to all NMSU students.”

Marti Morales, a former student who is now an assistant professor of biology at Adrian College, met Serrano at a conference.

“I had heard about her from other colleagues. She was able to look into me and see there was potential and I had an opportunity to come in and work with her,” Morales said. “Not only did I get to participate in RISE, but also in her neurobiology lab. Without RISE and Dr. Serrano, I would not be where I am now.”

At a recent 20-year reunion of her lab that coincided with the retirement of Casilda Trujillo-Provencio, who managed Serrano’s lab for those years, about 30 former students came together. Serrano was gratified to hear about their accomplishments.

“My students are now faculty, physicians, veterinarians, they’re engineers, they have started businesses,” Serrano said. “I can’t take credit for it. I feel my job as a professor is to inform, to provide some structure, to show some potential paths, but they have to do the walking themselves and they’ve clearly done it very well.”

Serrano has modeled the kind of career many of her students hope to achieve. She has brought in more than $15 million in external research funding to the university, serves on national advisory boards and has received numerous honors and awards. A recipient of the NMSU Roush Award for Teaching Excellence, she was recently elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

“My advice is not ‘do this’ or ‘do that’; I don’t give that kind of advice. I ask the question you’re not thinking of, and when you answer that question you’ll know for yourself what to do,” she said. “Even decades later they still contact me for advice about a career decision or situation they are in. We’re forging lifelong relationships.”

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/SjIY_UKDjgg.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU cancer researcher pursues potential of unique estrogen receptor for diagnosis, treatment

NMSU researcher Jeffrey Arterburn in his lab with a former NMSU student working on GPR-30, a unique kind of estrogen receptor, which has potential for diagnosing and treating breast cancer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
NMSU researcher Jeffrey Arterburn in his lab with a former NMSU student working on GPR-30, a unique kind of estrogen receptor, which has potential for diagnosing and treating breast cancer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Date: 2013-10-14
Writer: Minerva Baumann, (575) 646-7566, [email protected]

The Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which is having its annual fundraiser this week, and Cowboys for Cancer Research are among the first organizations that helped a New Mexico State University cancer researcher and his team to pursue efforts to unlock the potential of a unique kind of estrogen receptor to diagnose and treat breast cancer.

“One of the fundamental discoveries that we have made over the past few years is the identification of a new type of estrogen receptor that functions differently than the classical nuclear receptor,” said Jeffrey Arterburn, Regent’s Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

His research in organic and organometallic synthetic chemistry specifically focuses on the development of receptor-targeted molecular probes, imaging agents, anticancer and antiviral drugs.

Arterburn’s work has contributed to the development of synthetic compounds that target GPR-30, a type of estrogen receptor found in breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Estrogen receptor status is important for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancers. This alternative receptor is activated in response to the drug Tamoxifen, which is used to block the nuclear estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells.

Over the last decade, Arterburn’s research at NMSU has been funded mainly through grants from the National Institutes of Health. He currently has two major research proposals pending with Eric Prossnitz, a cell biologist at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, Arterburn’s a long-time partner in this area of cancer research.

“Our research program has focused on studying these different types of estrogen receptors and looking at molecules that are able to control the activity,” Arterburn said. “We’ve recently identified a molecule that is the first known case of a compound that is selective for nuclear estrogen receptors and does not interact with the G-protein coupled estrogen receptor, so this is a key starting point.

“Through computational modeling of the estrogen receptor site, we’ve identified a strategy for designing new drugs with improved selectivity that should be able to bind and deactivate this receptor,” Arterburn said.

In addition to drug therapies, Arterburn and his team are developing diagnostics that would be able to tell patients more about the type of tumor they have and to monitor the status of a tumor in response to therapy.

“We’re very interested in the process of detecting and monitoring the status of the cancer through treatment,” Arterburn said. “The targeting part of it, the interaction of these novel molecular scaffolds that fit like special hands in the gloves of the receptors can serve both as the mechanism for controlling the action and for delivering a detectible entity.”

Support for researchers like Arterburn is a large part of the purpose behind NMSU’s Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about breast cancer and raise funds for cancer research.

“Tough Enough to Wear Pink and Cowboys for Cancer Research have both helped support our initial efforts to explore these leads to develop new and improved drugs and diagnostics that could be used to enhance the treatment of breast cancer,” Arterburn said. “We started about 10 years ago and it’s been the most exciting science I have experienced and could imagine, and we hope this research will ultimately lead to new breakthroughs in cancer treatment.”

Learn more about the Tough Enough to Wear Pink activities at NMSU at http://www.pinkaggie.com/.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/V0AAp7Azo40.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.