The Samurai Scientist - our CT Collins scholarship recipient

A scientist by day, samurai student by night, recent CT Collins Scholarship recipient Cintya del Rio talks to us about her PhD thesis on cancer research and her hopes for the future.

Originally from Mexico, Cintya came to New Zealand nearly four years ago to further her research and studies in genetics and molecular biology. Her early years spent working at a pharmaceutical company ignited her interest in human health, and since then her interest has become a passion, taking her across the world to gain a Masters and now soon a PhD in Cell and Molecular Bioscience.

“When I came here [Wellington] to Victoria University, I discovered their chemical genetics lab which I thought was just fascinating. I love anything to do with DNA and genetics, so the fact I could combine genetics with human health was perfect for me!”

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Currently, I am working on a unique project studying statins. The primary function of statins is to control cholesterol levels, and lately, they have been shown to have an anti-cancer activity. That is what my research is about – understanding the mechanisms behind this anti-cancer activity... I want to know why it happens. I hope to get enough information to develop what is called ‘combination therapies’. That means I want to find another drug or compound that could be used in combination with statins that would enhance their activity against cancer.

There are approaches out there now called network pharmacology. It is tough to develop a drug because there are a lot of steps to go through, so many researchers are now using this approach to discover different ways to improve the activity of a drug that has been approved by the industry and has already made it onto the market.

I love everything about what I study. I have always had a big passion for DNA because when you understand the mechanisms behind its functioning, it’s just amazing. I couldn’t explain how things work in such a perfect way, how for one thing to happen another thing needs to happen, and then how to fix what went wrong in the case of diseases like cancer. It’s like music. I want to know more and more, and it drives my passion for human health.

There are many challenges in my field of work. You have to develop a lot of lab skills to be able to run your experiments in a way that you can trust your results. That takes time and a lot of repetition. And you have to be confident in the outcome because, in the end, that is what tests your hypotheses. 

The first part of my research (and this was certainly challenging), was to work with yeast. The beauty of yeast is that many of the metabolic pathways are mimicked in humans, many human biological processes that are tightly linked to cancer are mimicked in yeast. Working with yeast is very different to working with humans and the tools are a lot more affordable too, so I study all I can from yeast, and then I can use that information in experiments in human cells.

I have two more years left of my PhD. I have been studying genetics for ten years, and I have two more to go. I hope I can accomplish my goal of finding a combination therapy and I want to keep learning and developing my research.

I love Wellington and I love New Zealand. Studying at Victoria University has been a dream come true. When I am not in the lab, I spend my time practising a Japanese martial art called Iaido where you learn to use a Samurai sword. It’s like doing yoga with a sword – it’s all about technique and movement, and I love it.

Studying is very expensive. With this scholarship, it means that I can finish my study and see the end goal, and the outcome is that I am doing my research with even more passion and dedication. I am deeply honoured to have this scholarship, and I thank the Cancer Society Wellington from the bottom of my heart. I hope I make you proud.”

The CT Collins Scholarship is awarded to a student to do cancer research in a New Zealand University. The payment is similar to a University Grants Committee Scholarship, which is currently $25,000 p.a. (or pro rata equivalent). The Scholarship carries with it a grant of $6,000 to be used for university fees, travel to scientific meetings, and the cost of thesis publication. This scholarship is made possible by donations of our generous supporters.

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