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Small grant is making a big difference for Mexican scientist

May 29, 2019

Sometimes two or three gifts can emerge from the same small package. This is what Mexican doctoral student Karla Karina Gomez Lizarraga is experiencing with a small IDRC research grant.

The first gift was the funding provided by the Canada-Latin America and the Caribbean Research Exchange Grant (LACREG), a small institutional grant that helped her pursue groundbreaking research into tissue regeneration.

The grant’s second gift will materialize when the medical technology that Lizarraga has been researching is widely used to help children in her home country recover from serious burns.

The third gift is one that the 35-year-old university researcher is already enjoying: IDRC’s commitment to reducing gender inequality has made a difference in her life as a female scientist from a developing country.

The research that Lizarraga continues to work on today was supported in part by a small grant from IDRC, which provided access to cutting-edge technology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. It also helped her connect to her co-mentor, Canadian-based researcher Carlos Escobedo — himself a former student of Maria Cristina Piña Barba, Lizarraga’s thesis advisor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM).

Making human tissue, layer by layer

Lizarraga migrated into the field of regenerative medicine for her doctorate after completing an undergraduate degree in materials science and a master’s degree in engineering. Regenerative medicine aims to replace or introduce new tissue or cells into the human body to help people recover from damage to skin or bones.

When Lizarraga arrived in Kingston in September 2014, she was halfway through her doctoral program (completed in 2017) at UNAM’s Institute for Materials Research. Queen’s University is home to a 3D bio-plotter system, a sophisticated machine that proved crucial to her research but is not available in Latin America. She used the 3D technology to print cell scaffolds — the building blocks that mimic the support structure of human tissues.

Helping Mexican children heal from burns

“Some of the groups that most urgently require scaffolding of skin cells are infants,” said Lizarraga.

Burns are the third highest cause of death among Mexican children — surpassed only by car crashes and drownings. Approximately 128,000 children in Mexico die from burns annually, according to a 2017 estimate reported by a Mexican newspaper.   

Burns are so common in children under five because of poverty, Lizarraga says. Overcrowding in homes and the role that young girls assume as cooks and caregivers for infants were identified as two major risk factors by the World Health Organization in 2018.

Lizarraga’s dream of improving healthcare for Mexican children is what grounds her research, which continues at UNAM in Mexico City. Currently, children with third degree burns must travel to Texas for treatment, at a cost of up to $20,000 per person. Lizarraga’s biomaterials research will eventually give Mexico’s healthcare system the medical technology it needs to care for young burn victims at home.

Supporting gender equity in science

The impact of the Canadian exchange grant changed Lizarraga’s life: “If I hadn’t had the opportunity to use the equipment at Queen’s University, I wouldn’t have been able to develop my research topic,” she said. Lizarraga’s thesis advisor at UNAM, Maria Cristina Piña Barba, is another “gift” from IDRC’s small grant. A pioneer in tissue engineering, Piña Barba is a renowned Mexican scientist who has worked in the field of biomaterials for the last 20 years. “[She has] always supported equity for women and gives her support in countless ways,” Lizarraga says.

Lizarraga says the benefits have been both professional and personal. “Dr Piña Barba, aside from being a mentor, is also someone I consider a friend. She was a fundamental part in the motivation for me doing this kind of work.” Piña Barba also encouraged Lizarraga to study internationally to gain opportunities for career networking in a field where women scientists are still a minority. “In the beginning, I wasn’t thinking of going outside of Mexico,” says Lizarraga. “But the grant gave me a chance to see how people work differently.”

With Piña Barba’s mentorship and IDRC’s Canada-Latin America and the Caribbean Research Exchange Grants (managed by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), Lizarraga is stepping up as one of Mexico’s prominent researchers in the 21st century — thanks in part to a small gift from Canada.