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Student's love of science, family leads to cancer research

A beloved grandmother, devoted parents and ice cubes melting in the sun helped to ignite Brandi Gutierrez's love of research. The ice cubes placed on black and white sheets of paper were part of a second-grade science fair project that won sweepstakes and set her on the path to a career in science.

The New Mexico State University student with a double major in chemistry and math joined the Minority Access to Research Careers pro¬gram a year ago and began working with chemistry Professor Jeffrey Arterburn.

Arterburn's research in organic and organometallic synthetic chemistry specifically focuses on the development of small receptor-targeted molecular probes, imaging agents, anticancer and antiviral drugs. His work has contributed to the development of synthetic compounds that target a type of estrogen receptor found in breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers and is a biomarker for diagnosis and treatment of these cancers.

"There's one specific estrogen recep¬tor named GPR30 that our lab particu¬larly focuses on," Gutierrez said. "This estrogen receptor can be found in healthy cells as well as cancer cells. I'm creating a radioactive imaging agent that will bind to the estrogen receptor in the cell."

"GPR30 has a lot of applications as far as its link with breast cancer, ovarian cancer and female-related cancers."

A grandmother who died of cancer and a best friend who survived cancer are what attracted this energetic young woman to Arterburn's research.

"My grandmother was very healthy, but the chemotherapy brought her im¬munity down so low that diabetes killed her," Gutierrez said. "When I got to college my best friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had to go through chemotherapy at 20. It really hit home.

"When Dr. Arterburn told me about his research, I signed on with his lab. I thought that's where I belong. That's what I should be doing."

Gutierrez plans to graduate with de¬grees in chemistry and math in December of 2011. After that, she is looking at graduate schools, possibly the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Johns Hopkins or Stanford.

"I'm planning an internship next sum¬mer, then I plan on going off to grad school. My ultimate goal is to get my Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez's path to the university wasn't easy. Her parents, both blue-collar workers in El Paso, didn't have the resources to send her to college so she had to find another way. The first to go to college in her family, Gutierrez started searching for scholarships when she was still in middle school.

"I did have one talent - that was in running," Gutierrez said. "At the time, running was the key and my dad always pushed me in athletics and academics." Between her father's encouragement and her own abilities, Gutierrez earned a scholarship to NMSU in track and field. "Since NMSU has a very good chem¬istry program, I was quick to jump on the scholarship here."

In the next 10 years, Gutierrez envi¬sions doing independent research in the cancer field. She says her career choice mirrors her personal philosophy.

"The best way I explained it was to my dad," Gutierrez said. "In life, every¬body dies. What we're trying to do as scientists is to help people live longer, more fulfilling lives."

"My goal is to benefit one person's life to where maybe they can live an extra week or year more comfortably. If I can do that for one person, I would say my life's goal has been met."

"EYE ON RESEARCH" is provided by New Mexico State University. This week's feature was written by Minerva Baumann of University Communications.